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Monday, April 15, 2024

Now a multibillion-dollar empire, Korean webtoons draw global fans

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 Images of "Moving" webtoon and drama [JOONGANG PHOTO]
Images of “Moving” webtoon and drama [JOONGANG PHOTO]

Elevated to a global phenomenon, Korean webtoons have captivated diverse audiences, propelling the industry into a multibillion-dollar powerhouse.

In the world of Disney+’s streaming series “Moving,” superpower abilities such as flying, superhuman strength and enhanced senses are passed on from the parents to the offspring, as mysterious forces attempt to kidnap them for their own interests.

“Moving” is considered to be one of the few success stories for Korean-language projects produced by Disney+. Before the series came into the picture, Disney+’s domestic market share among streaming platforms was shrinking, ranking No. 5 in monthly active users (MAUs) against competitors like Netflix, Tving, Coupang Play, Wavve and Watcha.

After its success with “Moving,” the streaming platform was able to reverse its fortunes. Its MAUs rose over 1 million to 3.94 million in September. “Moving” was released as weekly episodes between Aug. 9 and Sept. 20.

This storyline was not born out of a scriptwriter’s brain though. The original intellectual property (IP) of the story stems from a webtoon with the same title, drawn and written by webtoonist Kang Full, who also penned the script for the series.

The term “webtoon” was unfamiliar to many people outside of Korea just a few years back and often entailed further elaborations such as web-based comic or cartoon.

The term, a portmanteau of “web” and “cartoon,” is now well-popularized across the world, growing into a major export engine for the country. In 2022, webtoon platforms’ annual revenue jumped 23 percent on year to 2.6 trillion won and export volume increased 31.3 percent to $107.6 million, according to the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism.

Latest data from the Korea Creative Content Agency shows that the export volume of the cartoon business including webtoons saw the highest surge of 71.3 percent on year to $90 million for the first half of 2023 out of all content-related exports.

Webtoon platforms’ domestic revenue initially relied on transaction volume, or payments that impatient users made to view upcoming episodes. A unique trait about webtoons was that ongoing projects were uploaded only a few times a week — but if users wanted to get a peek into additional episodes, they could do it by paying through digital currencies.

However, the landscape for the localized market was dramatically scaled upward with the concept of IPs and streaming services. Production studios and writers soon discovered that webtoon content was a treasure trove of IPs that was full of interesting plots, characters and colorful artwork that they could utilize for their TV series or films. Not only do webtoons come with the full package, but they also come with a surprisingly committed fandom who are curious to see how their favorite stories are brought to the screen.

When a certain streaming series does well globally, viewers flock to its original works to dig deeper into the storyline.

A promotional image of “Marry My Husband” webtoon [JOONGANG PHOTO]
A promotional image of “Marry My Husband” webtoon [JOONGANG PHOTO]

That is the case for Naver Webtoon’s “Marry My Husband,” which revolves around a woman who was murdered after witnessing her husband’s affair with her best friend but is given a second chance to relive her life as she travels back 10 years.

The original webtoon was already popular, having gained 810 million views when it was published in 2021. When the TV series began airing, total transaction volume for the webtoon jumped 17.1 times for the period between Jan. 1 to 10 compared to 10 days before the series began airing. The number of views also increased 8.1 times during the same period, according to a Naver Webtoon spokesperson.

The TV drama series “Marry My Husband” was adapted from a webtoon that was published on Naver Webtoon from 2021 to 2023. [JOONGANG PHOTO]
The TV drama series “Marry My Husband” was adapted from a webtoon that was published on Naver Webtoon from 2021 to 2023. [JOONGANG PHOTO]

 

The webtoon has been adapted to a drama series that aired on Korean broadcaster tvN and local streaming platform Tving between January and February. Globally, it is available on Amazon Prime Video.

“More than 50 percent of Naver Webtoon works are translated to other languages for audiences worldwide,” a Naver Webtoon spokesperson said.

Globally, Naver Webtoon possesses 40 such “blockbuster” webtoons which have accumulated over 1 billion views and 108 works which garnered more than 500 million views as of 2022.

The company is serious about not only exporting its content but also about fostering new talent from overseas — because Naver Webtoon plans to list in the United States sometime this year.

As it did in Korea, the company periodically holds webtoon contests for aspiring webtoonists and gives them a chance to “debut” on its platform — and that was the case for Ingrid Ochoa, who publishes her webtoon work “The Kiss Bet” every Saturday. Her protagonist in the story is an 18-year-old Sara Lin whose romantic life changes when her friend Patrick challenges her to a bet to kiss a random stranger.

“I’ve been posting my comics online since about 2005, but I didn’t know about webtoons until my sister introduced me to the app,” Ochoa told the Korea JoongAng Daily. “I’ve never seen this type of digital comic format that you view by scrolling down vertically, so I was intrigued by this new method.”

She has been publishing “The Kiss Bet” since 2019 ever since her work got picked up by the company and her webtoon has accumulated over 150.9 million views.

Despite her webtoon’s popularity, Ochoa sees a lot of question marks raised around her when she introduces herself as a webtoon creator.
“I’ve been living in Utah for more than a decade now, and the majority of the times when I introduce myself as a webtoon creator, the majority of people have not heard of what that is,” she admitted. “Usually, people here have heard of adapted TV series first, like ‘All of Us Are Dead’ and ‘Sweet Home’ and when I tell them that those are originally webtoons, they’re all surprised.”

Both Naver and Kakao’s largest consumer base outside of Korea is Japan. According to Naver, Japan took up more than 50 percent of the gross merchandise volume for webtoons with 219 billion won out of the total 406.5 billion won for the second quarter of 2022. The United States followed with 21 billion won.

Kakao has established a webtoon subsidiary in Japan, Kakao Piccoma, which hit a record-high annual transaction volume of 100 billion yen ($673 million) in 2023. The platform has undergone significant growth, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic, with the transaction volume for 2023 increasing more than sevenfold compared to 2019.

Still, Naver Webtoon has consistently increased its global market share, capturing a commanding 70.6 percent of the North American webtoon market in 2022, according to the market tracker Value Finder. Other Korea-based platforms Manta, Kakao Entertainment’s Tapas and Tappytoon follow with respective 9.8, 8.1 and 3.9 percent market shares.

Kakao Webtoon believes more growth can be reaped from the young users across the globe who are becoming more familiar with the method of scrolling down the comics rather than on paper.

“Webtoons have already captured a completely different demographic from paper comic books,” a Kakao Webtoon spokesperson said. “Webtoon’s main audience is digital natives, some who haven’t even touched a paper comic book before.

As the pool of local creators grows and as they produce more culturally nuanced stories, the adoption of stories by these digital natives will be faster than we can imagine. Hence, the growth trajectory with this audience will be completely different.”

The government has been eyeing the potential of webtoon business, with the Culture Ministry aiming to establish a global webtoon platform that is equivalent to the influence of streaming giant Netflix.

To enhance export figures, the ministry will launch a new program in 2025, offering information and consulting services to domestic cartoon companies aiming to expand into foreign markets.

The ministry budget for translation also increased to 1 billion won this year, compared to 600 million won in 2023.

Through its efforts, the ministry is trying to scale up the size of the webtoon business to 4 trillion won by 2027 and increase the export volume to $250 million, a 132.3 percent jump compared to the 2022 figure.

Prof. Jang Min-ji, a media communications specialist at Kyungnam University, believes that webtoons have the drive to become part of the Hallyu, or Korean Wave, especially in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Even the North American comics market which was dominated by print, has seen an uptick in digital comics as well ever since the Covid-19 pandemic,” said Jang. “Webtoon originated from Korea and I don’t believe it’s too preposterous to say that we can build a platform that can be as symbolic as Netflix.”

According to data from market tracker Statista, digital comics revenue rose 88.89 percent to $170 million in 2021 compared to 2019’s $90 million.

“Webtoons are gaining global traction because of their easy accessibility and this novel concept of new episodes uploaded weekly — this is something new to foreign readers,” Ochoa said. “It was what got me excited about webtoons to begin with, because I was drawn to the platform each week for a new episode to read and sometime during the progress, was drawn to other stories as well because the variety is so immense.”

BY LEE JAE-LIM [lee.jaelim@joongang.co.kr]