Netflix Does Not Pay Korean Actors Residuals For Their Shows—Insiders Expose Unjust Conditions

Korea’s actors’ union and rights association have attempted to meet with the streaming service.

Streaming service Netflix is known for its great selection of Korean entertainment.

Oscar-winning director Bong Joon Ho even released his film Okja via Netflix.

“Okja” poster

Korean thriller series Squid Game became a phenomenon, charting at No. 1 worldwide. It achieved such success that it won awards, and we’re soon getting a Season 2. Squid Game is still to this day Netflix’s most-watched series.

“Squid Game” poster

Despite Netflix regularly streaming original Korean films and TV shows as well as classic K-Dramas, the streaming service doesn’t necessarily treat Korean actors fairly.

President of the Korea Broadcasting Actors Union and 51-year-old actor Song Chang Gon has been trying to contact Netflix with no luck. He initially struggled to find Netflix’s Korean office’s number, and even after obtaining it, he left both calls and messages with no response.

The phone number for its South Korea office was unlisted on the usual websites, but several months earlier, Song had asked around until he finally managed to obtain the personal number of a Netflix Korea executive. Unhappy with the fact that the company didn’t pay its South Korean actors residuals — a form of royalty paid to credited talent when a show is reused after the first airing — he had left several calls and text messages.

— Los Angeles Times

Song Chang Gon | The Korea Times

Netflix outsources its production to local studios. Yet, Song Chang Gon feels they “wield its influence from behind a curtain.”

One of their first priorities when entering the local market should be to establish some channel of communication with groups like us, but there’s no answer at all.

— Song Chang Gon

Netflix is continually profiting from an unfair system that underpays production workers, writers, and actors. The company’s spokesman declined a statement regarding whether or not a representative would meet with the Korea Broadcasting Actors Union. Instead, Netflix said, “It follows all local laws and regulations and that as a streaming service — and not a broadcaster — it is not required to pay residuals.”

Netflix makes use of the country’s broadcasting and content infrastructure just as much as anyone else. That’s why we’re saying they have an obligation to meet with us.

— Yoo Min Suk, policy director at the actors union

Korea Broadcasting Performers’ Rights Assn. | Kobpra Webzine Vol.81

Netflix arrived in South Korea in 2016. At the time, the Korea Broadcasting Performers’ Rights Assn., the union’s partner organization responsible for collecting and distributing residuals, decided not to approach the streaming service.

A precondition for that conversation about residuals was Netflix’s business successfully taking off here.

—  Kim Jun Ho, secretary-general of Korea Broadcasting Performers’ Rights Assn.

Netflix has surely become successful as it’s a $160-billion company, and it owes much of its success in recent years to Korean originals, such as Squid Game. Netflix even announced recently that it would be investing “$2.5 billion to acquire additional Korean content over the next several years.”

Netflix has made a lot of money from South Korean content. It’s now time to meet.

—  Kim Jun Ho, secretary-general of Korea Broadcasting Performers’ Rights Assn.

| Netflix

Unfortunately for Korean actors, since Netflix is not legally classified as an employer based in South Korea, it doesn’t necessarily have to bargain with the Korea Broadcasting Actors Union. Korean-based streaming services that operate similarly, outsourcing production, have at least spoken with the union, although they’re not profitable like Netflix.

Even local streamers like Tving or Wavve, despite being deep in the red and trailed by constant bankruptcy rumors, have met with the rights association to address the issue.

— Los Angeles Times

An MBC executive (also known as Munhwa Broadcasting Corp.) shared that one of their producers was given permission to create Netflix’s hit reality survival show Physical 100. Yet, the executive added, “Compared to how well it did, we sold it for peanuts.”

The history of the South Korean industry can be divided into before Netflix, and after Netflix. They’ve brought in huge budgets and snapped up all the big-name actors and writers and directors.

— MBC executive

“Physical 100” poster

MBC met about potentially handing over all intellectual property to Netflix, but it would be just a one-time payout of “a few million dollars.” The executive explained, “Management decided that if it’s distributed through Netflix, we’re not walking away with nothing. We basically gave up profit for exposure.”

Song Kang in “Sweet Home” | Netflix

Song Chang Gon does believe that South Korea has benefited from Netflix too. The production budgets are high for K-Dramas but low by U.S. standards. With the increase in budget, Korea has been able to create original creative shows of other genres, such as science-fiction and thrillers, that were previously too risky. So, despite the unfair pay, many actors, directors, and writers still are interested in working with Netflix.

The problem is that Netflix’s big production budgets aren’t evenly distributed — most of this money goes to the star actors or big-name screenwriters. For the majority of supporting actors, wages have stagnated or effectively decreased.

— Song Chang Gon

“Bridgerton” poster

The issues with lack of pay would be resolved if the budget were distributed evenly. Instead, A-list celebrities can earn around $400,000 USD an episode, but supporting actors who don’t even earn residuals can earn around $300 USD per episode.

These rates are based on network television pay scales negotiated by the actors union before the takeover by streaming. But because Netflix shows have far shorter seasons than the typical Korean network drama — the 16-episode miniseries was once the television standard — total payouts are much smaller, according to the union.

— Los Angeles Times

Song Chang Gon added that filming Netflix shows takes longer. An episode for the streaming service takes more than a couple of days which is usual for Korean networks.

Shoots for Netflix originals, especially genres like zombies or creature features, are far more labor-intensive. Actors are still expected to show up for however many shoots it takes to film one episode without enough additional compensation.

— Song Chang Gon

“Kingdom” poster

Companies usually raise the pay if shooting an episode exceeds three days. A Netflix producer said,  “So in the case of an actor who is usually paid $300, that would be upped to around $450.” But a supporting actor who had auditioned for a Netflix original series revealed that “the production company asked for up to 15 shoots for a single episode — while offering only an increase so small it essentially amounted to several days of unpaid work.” Not to mention that actors often have out-of-pocket expenses while filming, too, such as lodging, transportation, and food.

In its statement, Netflix said that expenses such as meal or overnight allowances are written into their production budgets, but that these are ultimately overseen by the production company.

— Los Angeles Times

Artificial intelligence actors are another concern, specifically “digital twins,” a digital counterpart of a real-world object that many are worried will entirely replace humans. Netflix’s Korean sci-fi series Black Knight utilized VR company Replica to scan ten actors to create digital twins to retroactively insert a key actor in a scene or dangerous action scenes. This technology is still too expensive for close-up shots, so it cannot yet completely replace actors affordably.

But it will be a very, very long time until that day comes in South Korea. The cost of hiring human actors here is much too cheap for that.

— Shane Jeon, chief strategy officer

“Black Knight” poster

South Korea also has no agreement to protect voice actors from artificial intelligence. Korean voice actors who have worked on Netflix projects reported that “that contract signings are hurriedly carried out on-site in a way that seems intended to sidestep matters of consent.”

All the Netflix contracts were really long and they were all in English. There was never enough time to read through it carefully. And even if I did object to something, it would just mean that I wouldn’t be taking the job. There’s a huge fear that if a big company like Netflix sets a precedent by deciding to go through with AI voice actors, our jobs could just vanish overnight.

— Voice actor

I still haven’t been able to see a Netflix contract with my own eyes.

— Choi Jae Ho, secretary-general of the voice actors chapter

Kim and Song are still hopeful that a meeting with Netflix will happen. They plan to propose “a new wage scale that will impose minimums based on a production’s total budget.”

But for now, our only request to Netflix is that South Korean performers be given the same residuals terms that U.S. actors are getting under SAG-AFTRA agreements.

— Kim Jun Ho, secretary-general of Korea Broadcasting Performers’ Rights Assn.

American labor union SAG-AFTRA (also known as The Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) has been on strike due to an ongoing labor dispute with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers since July 14. Naturally, this has inspired Song Chang Gon and Kim Jun Ho.

There is undoubtedly common ground that can be found between us and SAG-AFTRA. It would be helpful for similar organizations representing actors around the world to engage with one another, to build up a sense of solidarity. I think that’s important.”

— Song Chang Gon

They have even considered delivering a message of support, perhaps in person. While in Hollywood, they could go to Netflix directly.

Source: LA Times