Korean Dramas Play A Role In The Booming Popularity Of Webtoons – Forbes

The Netflix drama ‘See You In My 19th Life’ is based on a Webtoon comic.
In a 2023 talk in Seoul Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos noted that 60 percent of the platform’s viewers had already seen a Korean drama. The odds are high that quite a few of those dramas were inspired by webtoons—digital comics that are read by scrolling vertically on a computer or smartphone. During the last decade viewership of k-dramas has grown exponentially and so has the number of Korean dramas inspired by webtoons. It’s only natural that interest in k-dramas has led to more interest in the source material that sometimes continues the storyline. The global webtoon industry made $4.7 billion in 2021 but it’s projected to make $60.1 billion by 2030.
“We’re in the middle of the perfect storm, as global audiences have fallen in love with both Korean content and webcomics,” said Kwon Mi-kyung, CEO of Korea’s Studio N., which produces content based on Webtoon Entertainment’s library of webcomics and web novels.“There’s simply a massive global market for this content.”
Before the 1997 IMF financial crisis devastated sales, 200,000 Korean comics, known as manhwa, were published annually with 80% sold. So many people lost their jobs during the crisis that buying comics became a luxury. Some artists who lost their jobs began to log their daily activities online in the form of web cartoons, hosted on their own websites. The idea of reading manhwa online did not immediately catch on but the stories gradually became more complex and gained a wider audience. In 2004 Korean web portal Daum launched Daum Comics and artist Kang Full (who also wrote Moving), published the first long-form webtoon Love Story. It garnered over 60 million views. Over the next decade webtoons inspired the production of films such as Secretly Greatly, based on the toon Covertness, and dramas, such as Misaeng, which in webtoon form attracted a billion readers.
Since then stories such as Webtoon’s Cheese In The Trap, Yumi’s Cells, All of Us Are Dead, Sweet Home and Our Beloved Summer, Tappytoon’s What’s Wrong With Secretary Kim, and Tapas’ Itaewon Class and Business Proposal, have inspired plenty of successful dramas. In 2023 alone, viewers have seen webtoon-inspired k-dramas such as Disney’s Moving, Amazon AMZN Prime’s The Killing Vote and Island, the Netflix k-dramas Bloodhounds, See You In My 19th Life and a second season of Uncanny Counter. Upcoming 2023 webtoon-based dramas include Doona, based on The Girl Downstairs, as well as Study Group, A Good Day To Be A Dog, Daily Dose of Sunshine, Secret Playlist and Cashero.
The TV series starring Hwang In-yeop, Moon Ka-young and Cha Eun-woo is based on a webtoon.
“We’ve seen an increase in demand for webcomic content,” said Kwon “Bloodhounds and See You in My 19th Life are just the latest hits we produced. Sweet Home was one of the first big Webtoon adaptations—and a major Netflix hit in 2020—and really it’s been a stream of successes since then.”
Webtoon is the world’s largest digital comics platform with an average of 85.6+ million monthly active users. Webtoon was launched in 2005 by the Internet conglomerate Naver, which in 2018 also launched Studio N. Working as an IP bridge company Studio N collaborates with existing film and drama production companies. In total, around 300 projects from Webtoon and Wattpad Webtoon Studios are in development for entertainment adaptations. Wattpad Webtoon Studios develops Webtoon IP for US and international markets, while Studio N develops TV & film in Korea.
“We looked at webcomics and the passionate fandoms that develop around them, and understood early on that this content can travel,” said Kwon. “Western comics are already some of the most popular films in theaters globally, and manga has long served as a source for anime. Today, we’re bringing webcomics into the mix and the result is a string of hits all over the world.”
‘Island’ is based on a YLAB webtoon.
Peter Beck is CEO of YLAB Plex, a subsidiary in charge of video production and related business for YLAB, a Seoul-based webtoon production company. According to Beck, the industry’s development has resulted in a vast selection of stories, which includes diverse genres, characters and settings suitable for adaptation.
“Before the development of the webtoon industry, we previously looked to many international works as the source material for dramas and movies, especially Japanese manga,” said Beck. “Now, however, we have a truly vast array of works to choose from, even when searching for works within the Korean market. In addition to the expansion of the webtoon industry, webtoons have gained popularity and have a loyal reader base consisting of the relatively younger generation—from people in their teens to their thirties. As a result, a significant number of drama series targeting the younger generation seem to have decided to select webtoon works as their source material.”
It’s not news that the visual medium of comics lends itself to TV or film adaptations or there wouldn’t be so many Marvel movies or Superman, Wonder Woman and Spiderman films and series. The same qualities make webtoons a wise choice for global OTT platforms seeking to hedge their bets. The source material already has a loyal fan base and the visual format makes them easy to adapt.
Founded in 2010, YLAB is now responsible for the entire production process, from training webtoon creators to creating video content. The company’s description states that “even the most absurd ideas can be transformed into masterpieces if developed with skilled producers.”
“In the case of video content creation production, we have internalized our own studio system, and mainly produce the content in-house,” said Beck. “We sometimes collaborate with external companies in the form of co-production, as needed. For co-productions, we collaborate with creator and actor companies or platforms that can create synergies with our IP.”
YLAB launched video content production in 2020 and their drama Island, starring Cha Eun-woo and Kim Nam-gil, premiered globally on Amazon Prime in 2022. During its run the drama ranked in the top 10 in 26 countries worldwide according to Flix Patrol. There are about a dozen YLAB IPs currently in planning, development and filming. As the market size of webtoon content has grown and the production sector has become industrialized, the production process has also become divided, systematized, and organized.
“YLAB is both a webtoon IP holder—copyright or business right holder—and a broadcasting video—dramas and TV shows—production company,” said YLAB’s Sejeong Oh. “This is a unique competitive advantage of YLAB in the webtoon or video content industry. Our strategy is to provide audiences with a transmedia storytelling experience by systematizing and linking webtoon and video content storytelling capabilities or organizations under a single production entity.”
The Netflix series ‘Bloodhound’ is based on a webtoon.
Webtoon, which has so far generated 1.6 million titles from 900,000 creators, also embrace a holistic approach.
“Everything we bring to market already has an established fanbase that we are close to,” said Kwon. “So for us, we become the best source to answer the question: what are the best formats to bring this IP to new audiences, while still serving the existing fans and creator’s original vision? We start with something everyone in the entertainment industry is after: great stories and built-in fandoms. Webcomics regularly reach hundreds of millions and billions of views on Webtoon, so we know there is a massive demand for these stories.”While good stories are the starting point, considerations for adaptation also include audience size, duration of the story and market demand.
“As a studio, we get to work across numerous genres, which keeps our work fresh and interesting,” said Kwon. “We’ve seen great success with horror in Sweet Home (Netflix), action with Bloodhounds (Netflix), or romance with True Beauty (tvN). Genres are universal, but we are bringing some truly unique entries into every genre we work with. We’re bringing new kinds of horror or romance or action and that’s something we look for when developing a project. Fresh and new voices tell authentic stories that can really grab the attention of platform readers first and give us an indication that those themes will translate to a viewing audience.”
Oh notes that due to the high growth rate of the webtoon market, global companies are increasingly entering the webtoon market.
“In April 2023, Amazon launched a webtoon service called Amazon Fliptoon in the Japanese market, and Apple AAPL also launched a webtoon page through its e-book platform, Apple Books,” she said.
Diverse and original storytelling is part of the appeal. It’s a factor in why readers like reading webtoons and also in their desirability as source material.
“In my recent studies on webtoon readers, consistent appeals of webtoon were ease of access, consistency, and diversity,” said Hyerim Cho, an assistant professor at the School of Information Science and Learning Technologies, University of Missouri. “Webtoon readers appreciate that they can read webtoons anywhere, anytime, easily on their smartphones, for free—mostly. Also, they are updated regularly on a weekly basis—many webtoon readers appreciate that consistency in their reading. Content-wise, one of the major appeals of webtoons discussed by many webtoon readers was its diversity; either the backgrounds of authors, characters, themes, or, of course, cultures.”
Interest in webtoons is not likely to ebb soon, especially considering the growing global investment in Korean productions. Netflix recently committed another $2.5 billion to creating original Korean content, a significant percentage of which will be webtoon inspired.
“Many webcomic, and specifically Webtoon adaptations have been successful because these are unexpected stories from unique points of view,” said Kwon “And that’s something that our platforms have in abundance—stories from global creators that are often quite different from what you’d expect from traditional studios.”


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