It’s fitting that Studio N is based in Seoul’s Hannam-dong. The neighborhood is one of the most affluent in South Korea, and is home to some of the Korean celebrities who make their living starring in webtoon adaptations produced by the company. If you watch a high-profile K-drama in the U.S. this fall, there are good odds it will come out of Studio N. The company is a subsidiary of Naver storytelling platform Webtoon, and has become a go-to production partner for some of the biggest streamers in the world as they enter the K-drama market. Netflix, Disney+, and Paramount+ either just released or will be releasing Studio N-produced K-dramas in the next month — all adaptations of stories that originated and proved themselves in a different, increasingly popular format first: the webtoon.
Webtoons are mobile-friendly, digital comics that make use of the infinite vertical scroll of a screen in order to tell an episodic story. They originated in Korea in the late 1990s in the midst of the Asian financial crisis, and have become one of the fastest-growing entertainment sectors in the world. Last month, market analysis company Market Research Future predicted that the global webtoon market value would balloon from $3.9 billion in 2022 to an estimated $67.6 billion by 2032. Currently, the aforementioned Webtoon — a subsidiary of Korean internet giant Naver (sometimes referred to as “Korea’s Google” for its domination of domestic web search traffic) — is the largest and most popular webtoon platform, boasting roughly 89 million monthly active users around the world.
Webtoons also serve as a dominant story source for Korean dramas. In Hollywood franchises rule, but in Korea, the IP market is driven by webtoons — so much so that, in 2018, Webtoon launched Studio N to serve as an “IP bridge” between existing film and TV production companies and Webtoon.
“Creators may already have their own production companies,” Studio N CEO Kwon Mi-kyung tells Rolling Stone. “Therefore, we have achieved the best results by collaborating with exceptional creators for each project. This approach has enabled us to collaborate more flexibly with diverse creators, resulting in superior outcomes.”
Currently, Studio N has 15 producers working on multiple projects as showrunners. In the past five years, the studio has released a total of 22 works across the film, TV, and animation industries, mostly based off of Webtoon’s existing library of webcomics and web novels. (Interestingly, Korean drama Our Beloved Summer was an original production for which Studio N then created a prequel webtoon.)
Studio N has made its mark on Hallyu in a relatively short time. In 2020, the first season of Studio N-produced webtoon adaptation Sweet Home became the first K-drama to rank in the Netflix Top Ten in the U.S. The streamer then greenlit a second season (coming out before the end of the year) and a third season of the horror apocalypse drama. Kwon says that, initially, Studio N’s developments were centered on the Korean market but that, following the success of Squid Game — which notably came after Sweet Home — the company’s focus has broadened to global audiences as well. This year, Studio N has already co-produced boxing crime drama Bloodhounds, reincarnation romance See You in My 19th Life, and college rom-dram Doona! for Netflix distribution internationally. Vigilante, a series about a model police academy student who takes justice into his own hands on the weekends, premiered on Disney+ November 8. Elsewhere this year, serial killer drama Bloody Lucky Day is set to debut on Paramount+ and Death’s Game is marked for distribution on Amazon’s Prime Video.
Director Lee Jung-hyo (also the man behind the global hit Crash Landing on You) was initially drawn to Doona! because he enjoyed the webtoon, called The Girl Downstairs, which tells the story of an “ordinary” college boy who falls in love with a former K-pop idol when they live in the same unassuming share-house. The 49-year-old director, who has previously worked on Korean drama remakes of Western TV shows Life on Mars and The Good Wife, says that he always has respect for the source material a project is being adapting from, but that the script is the ultimate arbiter.
We pay close attention to readers’ preferences, the story’s subject matter, and the platform’s characteristics to determine whether to proceed with its development.
“I try to find the maximum synergy within the script, not because the original work did it,” says Lee.
For example, he told Doona! star Bae Suzy that she could wear whatever she wanted but “to slightly consider the style of the webtoon.” Past that, Lee says: “I recommended Won-jun [played by actor Yang Se-jong] to wear the varsity jacket and asked Jin-ju [played by Shin Ha-young] to have a short hairstyle. Also, I asked I-ra [played by Park Se-wan] to dye her hair. I actually changed everything else.”
One of the biggest visual changes from The Girl Downstairs to Doona! came in the main setting: the share-house where Doona and Lee Won-ju meet and fall in love.
“In the webtoon, the house is a two-story house that can commonly be seen in Korea, but art director Kim So-yeon and I created Doona’s castle,” says Lee, outlining how the new interpretation of the primary setting allows for the drama’s telling of the relationship to play out. “Doona lives on the first floor while Won-jun lives on the second floor. We created the setting so that the first floor is an area where light and darkness coexist while the second floor is a normal and bright area.”
Throughout the nine episodes, Won-ju meets Doona in various spaces of increasing intimacy.
“From the arch-shaped bridge to the entire house, the whole area signifies Doona. In that sense, Won-jun reaches Doona as if he is passing each layer within the house,” Lee explains.
From Lee’s perspective, a K-drama that begins life as a webtoon does not necessarily have a greater chance at finding success than an original drama.
“I believe there is a considerable difference in empathizing with the series and the imagination that emerges while reading the webtoon, and there is also a difference between the actual cast members and the illustrated figures,” says Lee. “In addition, the long build-up that comes from serial publication is difficult to achieve in the series.”
Though the producers at Studio N are incentivized to find webtoon stories that will find an audience in an adapted format, CEO Kwon says that “our platform teams don’t start with adaptation potential, they just start with great stories.”
From there, it’s up to the team to determine which format is the best for adaptation.
“We pay close attention to readers’ preferences, the story’s subject matter, and the platform’s characteristics to determine whether to proceed with its development,” says Kwon about how stories are selected for adaptation. “Typically, if a story can be told in two hours or less, it will be developed into a film. For longer stories, we opt for a series format. Additionally, seasonal TV series are also taken into consideration. Works with visually appealing original art or those challenging to execute in live-action are treated in potential animated films.”
Studio N is only one of the production players operating in the webtoon adaptation space, but given the company’s direct access to Webtoon’s library of more than 750,000 stories and Naver’s substantial resources, it has a considerable edge. Next year, Studio N has comedy mystery Chicken Nugget, medical drama The Trauma Code: Heroes on Call, Squid Game-esque series Money Game, and crime drama Plaza Wars slated to be distributed on Netflix. Jeong Nyeon, a theater-centric 1950s period drama starring Revenant’s Kim Tae-ri, is also in development. On the feature film side, animated flicks Your Letter and Yumi’s Cells, the latter of which is a spinoff of the popular two-season drama, are set for release in theaters, and live-action movie My Daughter Is a Zombie is also in the works.
Korean dramas have found an edge in the global pop-culture scene in part because they offer diversity not often seen in Hollywood — not only in terms of who is on screen, but in who gets to tell the stories and who they are for. Unlike the pre-existing franchises that serve as the source material for a majority of Hollywood’s biggest blockbusters and TV series, webtoons have a lower barrier of entry for creators, which allows for greater diversity in not only storyteller background but storytelling format. They offer a blank screen where anything is possible.
“In the past, many [K-drama] stories were closer to reality, but I believe we are now seeing an expansion of imagination,” Lee tells Rolling Stone, when asked why webtoons make for such rich adaptation source material. “This is not irrelevant to a streaming service. It is almost as if there is a thirst for new stories that are not only about Korea, and this is causing eyes to turn to webtoons that already have no limits in drawing ‘this world.’”