South Korea’s powerhouse entertainment industry is beginning to experience some of the same labor unrest that has rocked Hollywood.
In an echo of the screenwriters and actors guild strikes that have brought the U.S. film and TV sector to a halt, the Directors Guild of Korea is lobbying its country’s legislature to revise a Copyrights Act that prevents directors from receiving residual pay from hit movies, as well as even holding strikes for collective bargaining.
In April, the Directors Guild of Korea members took to the streets of central Seoul where the country’s Culture Ministry was holding a press conference on local copyright law. It was the group’s first street protest since 1998, when the U.S. government, as part of its Free Trade Agreement between Washington and Seoul, demanded that South Korea abolish its screen quota system, which required local theaters to show Korean films for at least 146 days a year to promote the domestic film industry.
Twenty-five years later, the directors are preparing to gather again to protest what they call the “collapse of the creative foundation” of the Korean film industry.
They are calling for revisions to the existing Copyrights Act, which dictates that all intellectual property and profits from video content belong solely to service providers — including legacy studios and streaming platforms — and do not have to be shared with individual professionals who participated in the creation. The law also denies freelance directors and screenwriters from the right to strike and engage in collective bargaining.
“Without revising the Copyrights Act, we don’t have any bargaining power to negotiate remuneration issues with the production companies,” Yun-jeong Lee, a spokeswoman for the Directors Guild of Korea tells THR. “We are not at the stage yet to discuss details of payment distribution models. By revising the legislation, we want to start the discussion and ask for minimum rights to share in profits with the companies in some way, so that backend remuneration is not zero like now.”
On Monday, the Directors Guild of Korea is set to host a press conference at Seoul’s National Assembly building, urging the lawmakers to promptly process the bills that are currently waiting for a final review in Korea’s legislature, by the Standing Committee of the National Assembly.
Currently, there are several bills related to revising the Copyrights Act awaiting action. Among them, a bill proposed by Lee Yong-ho, a lawmaker of the ruling People Power Party, which aligns with the position of the Directors Guild of Korea, is aimed at allowing directors and screenwriters to claim additional remuneration “if there is a significant imbalance between the creators’ compensation and profits incurred from the use of the copyrighted work.”
Under current Korean law, staff screenwriters for broadcasting stations receive residuals from streaming services and broadcasters. The independent directors and screenwriters who make most films and series, however, have been a rare exception. Industry professionals explain that this has partly do with their contract status as freelancers, which according to local law denies them the rights to IP participation, profit-sharing and even the right to strike.
As a result, Bong Joon-ho, as a member of Directors Guild of America, receives residuals for the viewings of his Netflix original Okja in the U.S., but Hwang Dong-hyuk, the Korean creator and director of Squid Game, does not receive any despite the show’s global success.
“Our demands are very basic at the moment,” Lee says. “We’re not asking for a large amount of money. We just want to start the discussion about the remuneration system and create acceptable guidelines within the industry.”
The Media Platform Alliance for Copyrights Issues, a collective made up of service providers such as local broadcasting stations, cable channels and streaming services, has voiced its concerns about the proposed legislation.
In June, they put out a statement claiming that the revised bills could weaken investment and do not consider the current market structure in which producers and service providers bear almost all of the financial burdens and the risks of the show’s outcome while providing stable pay to directors and screenwriters.
“The bills focus on a few successful cases where profits are generated and represent the interests of one side only,” the statement said.
Hwang, the director of Squid Game, has also admitted in past interviews that he had the creative freedom to focus on his work because Netflix took the risk of investing in a production that other networks had passed on.
But Lee from the Directors Guild of Korea explains that the situation for most working Korean directors is very grim. According to the Guild, its members spend an average of 4.5 years on a single production and receive an average annual salary of 18 million won ($13,644), which is lower than the country’s minimum wage when applied to a full-time work schedule.
“We hope that the government can serve as a mediator for our negotiation with the companies,” Lee says. “As a buffer, the government may even consider providing funding for the service providers who agree to the remuneration system.”