'Winter Sonata’ producer reveals how Korean dramas are made, income of top-tier stars

Kim Hee-yeol, vice president and head of drama production of top Korean drama company Pan Entertainment, revealed that “special grade” or top-tier Korean stars can earn a guaranteed income of 100 million to 200 million won ($89,000 to $178,000) per episode of a project.

The exec, who was the producer of the 2002 global hit drama “Winter Sonata” starring Hallyu stars Bae Yong-joon and Choi Ji-woo, discussed the “Drama Production Environment of Korea” during the webinar “The Role of K-Dramas in Sharing and Shaping Culture Beyond Borders” on Nov. 6 on YouTube that was hosted by the Korean Cultural Center (KCC) and the Korean Embassy in the Philippines in partnership with BGC Arts Center and Mind S-Cool.

Besides “Winter Sonata,” Pan Entertainment has produced other well-known dramas like the recent “Record of Youth,” “When the Camellia Blooms,” “Hospital Ship,” “Kill Me Heal Me” and “Moon Embracing the Sun.”

“We have created an environment where one single drama has been enjoyed by many different people living in different countries,” Kim said. “I think one of the biggest competitiveness of Korean dramas is excellent writers. Thanks to them, Korea has produced many dramas in different genres through various platforms that blur boundaries between traditional and new media channels.”

Korean dramas, he said, have been around for about 60 years and starting 30 years ago, these have achieved division of labor and works through outsourcing or independent production companies resulting in strengthening competitiveness.

Right now, Korean production houses supply dramas to four terrestrial channels in Korea including KBS, MBC and SBS; cable channels like tvN; and OTT (over the top) platforms like Netflix, Amazon and Disney.

On average, Kim said, 120 dramas are produced every year, and one reason why Korean dramas are popular in the Philippines and other Asian countries is the similarity in culture and values.

“I think our creativity appeals to the global citizens. Specifically, the cultural similarities between Korea and the Philippines works best to attract world attention from your country. Asian cultures and values respecting elderlies, promoting good and punishing evil, I think that is a basic fundamental to attract attention from many other Asians,” he said.

Kim said the Korean government supports Korean dramas through the national policy on cultural prosperity and one of these is supporting location shooting.

Types of Korean TV dramas

Kim classified Korean TV dramas as daily drama, weekly drama, one-act drama, situation drama, epic drama and situation drama.

He said daily dramas are aired daily from Monday to Friday with a running time of 30 to 40 minutes per episode and have more than 100 episodes. These are light dramas mostly melodrama and focus on good triumphing over evil. It costs about 40 million to 60 million won ($36,000 to $53,000) to produce each episode.

Weekly dramas air on Saturday and Sunday and these are family-oriented productions with more than 50 episodes with a running time of 70 minutes per episode. He said 200 million to 300 million ($178,000 to $267,000) is spent on average per episode, and filming is done in a studio and outdoors.

(Clockwise from top left) Pan Entertainment vice president Kim Hee-yeol, “When the Camellia Blooms,” “Moon Embracing the Sun” and “Winter Sonata,” all produced by the drama production company. (Pan Entertainment, KBS, MBC)

One-act dramas are aired once a month from about 100 to 120 minutes and it costs about 700 million ($624,000) to produce.

Situation dramas are long-term productions that run from six months to 10 years while special dramas are irregularly aired and are made for holidays and anniversaries and have “clear thematic sense and strong dramatic elements.” Epic dramas, aired at least one year, “describe in-depth a person, incident or theme that marks a big flow of history” like a king or hero.

Drama production process

In the pre-production stage, Kim said, “is basically a stage of developing a program itself. The subject and subject matter, lead characters and writers are selected and they work together to develop more detailed structure of the drama itself.”

He said one to two years before a drama is aired, the company recruits writers and makes a contract with them. The writers and production company discuss to finish the synopsis and then decide the directors and producers and work together with the broadcasting company or TV station.

Kim said there are about 2,500 TV and radio writers in Korea and for dramas, there are about 50 “special grade” writers and 50 “Grade A” writers.

For a 10-minute dialogue, script fees amount to 500,000 won ($445) for a mini-series and 350,000 won ($312) for a soap opera. Special grade writers get a guarantee fee of 70 million to 100 million won ($62,000 to $89,000) per episode while Grade A writers get 40 million to 60 million won ($36,000 to $53,000) per episode.

In the production stage, the shooting of the drama starts. This also includes organizing staff, preparing sets and props, casting and signing up actors and actresses. For a 16-episode mini-series, he said, the script is already written for eight episodes or 50 percent before the shooting starts, and 50 percent of the entire shooting is done before it is aired.

Kim said there are about 3,000 actors and actresses in Korea and of them, 40 belong to “special grade” and 60 are in the “Grade A” level.

A special grade star gets a guaranteed fee of 100 million to 200 million ($89,000 to $178,000) per episode. This translates to an income of $1.42 million to $2.84 million for a 16-episode drama. Kim said for a recent drama for an OTT platform, they even paid 300 million won ($267,000) per episode.

Grade A stars get 20 million to 50 million won ($18,000 to $44,000) guaranteed fee per episode, or about $285,000 to $713,000 for 16 episodes.

Kim said they need to pay the high fees to Korean stars as “it is the best way to kind of guarantee the stable and high viewing rate and also guarantee the advertisement revenues.”

The post-production stage is finishing the drama through video editing including pre-editing effects, dubbing, color correction and computer graphics. In this stage, he said, they also insert subtitles and credits; produce tapes for broadcast and exports; and prepare airing.

“This is the era where people around the world are enjoying the same content at the same time via the online platforms and I’m very familiar with that. Filipinos love Korean dramas and Korean content for more than 20 years. For that, as one of the Korean producers, I really appreciate your support and love for Korean dramas.

He added, “What I wish for the future is that I want to see more active exchanges between the two countries in the drama industry. To do so, I want to see the exchanges between producers and personnel in the industry to meet more often. I want to find more opportunities for joint productions.”