First, there was Parasite, shaking up the global film sector and snatching Oscar glory. Then, there was Squid Game.
It’s been quite the three years for content from Korea, a nation that has long had an outstanding reputation for producing top quality entertainment that had nonetheless struggled to travel beyond Asia, with some exceptions. That changed in earnest last September when Hwang Dong-hyuk’s Squid Game launched, breaking records that none could have thought breakable and stealing the zeitgeist in a way that no show has done in recent memory. If you didn’t know someone dressing up as a Squid Game character for Halloween, you probably weren’t invited to a Halloween party.
Hwang is in a reflective mood after a whirlwind half year during which time his show has shaken up the global TV landscape, sending him from relative unknown outside his home nation to being told by Steven Spielberg: “I want to steal your brain.”
“I feel like I’ve been swept by the Niagara Falls over the course of the last six months and fallen off a cliff,” he says. “To have such compliments from Steven Spielberg was completely beyond my imagination. I still can’t work out whether this is real or I’m daydreaming.”
The success of Squid Game may have happened at lightning speed, but getting from idea to greenlight took a little longer. As an avid comic book reader in the late 2000s “without a penny” in his pocket, Hwang took to reading stories about people risking their lives for money. “If I was asked to participate in one of those games back then, I probably would have,” he says. “As a creator that led me to thinking how I would design such a game. So, I started building the story and made a survivor game. I’m not that smart or physically strong so decided to make simple games; games for kids.”
Hwang was fascinated by the contrast of people risking their lives on simple games they hadn’t thought about since they were children, and he spent a year working on a feature film version of what was to eventually become Squid Game. But back then, there was no appetite for such a violent feature and, after pitching to several places, Hwang put his script away in a drawer and worked on other projects.
Fast-forward seven years and Netflix’s Korean launch provided the environment for Squid Game that Hwang had been craving. The streamer was commissioning local content on a global scale in multiple different languages and happy to go to very dark places with the tone of its shows. Squid Game the feature film became Squid Game the 10-part TV series and Hwang had his greenlight.
He is completely measured about having to wait so long for his passion project to reach the screen and cites a second reason why it needed time. “This story feels much more realistic in 2021 than in 2011,” he says. “People’s survival feels more threatened now. We have seen the gap between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ grow due to Covid, so given these global circumstances, I can see why people are more immersed in this story and it is resonating.”
Hwang is full of praise for the autonomy with which Netflix let him go about his business (“I was able to do things in the freest way,” he insisted), but the deal that secured the show has been publicly decried for failing to secure the creator a bonus for the millions of subs it attracted to the service.
Reports have valued the show’s impact value at almost $1 billion for the service and yet it only cost $20 million to produce, a steal for the streamer. If he had his time again, Hwang says he would “absolutely no matter what” have struck a deal that would have allowed him to keep some of the show’s IP.
“I’ll get compensation as I have achieved success and can do something bigger as my next step, but if I could go back to the table then I would have made sure it was an IP-sharing deal,” he says.
Netflix is no stranger to this form of criticism. British multi-hyphenate Michaela Coel famously walked away from a multimillion-dollar Netflix deal for global breakout I May Destroy You that would have left her with no IP. That show ended up with the BBC and HBO, and the rest, as they say, is history. But unsure of its potential success, Hwang signed the deal and Squid Game has become what it has become, at one point sitting atop Netflix’s most-watched list in 94 countries.
Just how did Hwang crack the global market in a way no creator has done before? He ponders the question for a long while before positing three important factors: “Overcoming the barriers of language and culture with a simple and visual message”; “focusing on the emotional aspect of the characters”; and playing with familiar colors and shapes that are “intuitively understandable”.
On the first point, he elaborates: “The games are very simple, they are kids’ games, so regardless of how old you are you can understand the rules in 20 seconds. Whether it be Red Light, Green Light or Tug of War, everyone has experience of one of these games, so I wanted to build on the memories of so many people around the world.”
A focus on characters’ emotions eschewed the need to make the games more complicated, he adds, pointing to viewers’ strong connection with many of these characters, whether in the form of adoration towards lead character Seong Gi-hun (played by Lee Jung-jae) or hatred targeted at arch-villain Jang Deok-su (Heo Sung-tae).
“I also wanted familiar colors and shapes, with a focus on pinks, circles, triangles,” he says of the third factor. “They are used intuitively to set the hierarchy of the show’s characters.”
The show’s success has helped contribute to a blossoming Korean culture around the world, not just in TV and film but also K-pop, Hwang says. He expects this sensation to continue for a long time as the world works its way back through the archives of TV shows, films and music that have been popular at home for many years.
The world is obsessed with what Hwang will do next and, although the deal is still not signed, he is putting much of his mental energy into Squid Game Season 2. “Season 1’s success has given me an immense amount of pressure and I am having nightmares about the reception for Season 2 not being so good,” he admitted candidly.
Hwang says he is formulating ideas and thinking of new games and characters to introduce to the show, and the first run was left with plenty of unanswered questions. He is targeting a Halloween 2024 launch and confirmed to Deadline recently that fan favorite Gi-hun will return along with the shadowy Front Man, played by Lee Byung-hun.
Away from the franchise, Hwang is developing a feature inspired by a novel by revered Italian essayist Umberto Eco, with the working title Killing Old Man’s Club. He has teased this project as “even more violent” than Squid Game but won’t detail further.
On the lighter side, Hwang revealed exclusively that he is working on a comedy provisionally titled The Best Show on the Planet, a satire based on his personal experience of forging an overnight global hit.
As for the legacy of Squid Game, along with non-U.S./U.K. Netflix breakouts including Spain’s La Casa de Papel and France’s Lupin, Hwang believes the show could be one of the founding programs to tip the global content balance from English language to non-English language.
“There are untapped parts of the world that don’t speak English and you only have to think of their market size,” he says. “These are huge, growing populations. Non-English titles can’t reach the level of English titles yet due to a lack of investment, but if the trend continues then I personally think there will come a point when non-English language content goes beyond English language content.”
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