North Korean Law Curbs Access to K-Pop and Foreign Films

South Korean pop culture has never been more in demand—even making its way to the citizens of North Korea. But Kim Jong-un and his state media are cracking down on this “vicious cancer” he feels is perverting everything from “attire, hairstyles, speeches, behaviors” and, if not regulated, will corrupt North Korean youth. 

Kim and his state media have said that if the tide of K-pop, foreign films, and other aspects of foreign culture are not reigned in, the results will be chaotic and North Korea as they know it will “crumble like a damp wall.” According to The New York Times, Kim particularly dislikes the influence of “anti-socialist and nonsocialist” K-dramas, K-pop videos, and South Korean movies, going so far as to command “his government to stamp out the cultural invasion.” Consequently, the North Korean government passed the “anti-reactionary thought law” in December 2020. This law makes it illegal to own or distribute foreign media, and anyone found with or distributing said media will be put in a prison camp or executed. 

North Korea’s system of mutual monitoring is reflected in the law, with citizens being asked “to inform on others who watch K-dramas” and provides significant penalties for those found guilty or those responsible for violations. If a worker is caught, then the head of the factory can be punished; parents can be punished for the actions of a child. As The Daily NK’s Editor-in-Chief Lee Sang Yong told the BBC, “In other words, the regime concluded that a sense of resistance could form if cultures from other countries were introduced.”  

But it isn’t just South Korean media being put under the microscope. According to News.com.au, an online Australian publication, “impure cultural materials … are commonly passed around on USB sticks” and anyone found with one (that is proven to have media from South Korea, the US, or Japan) faces the death penalty. Anyone found watching any type of foreign media will be put in a prison camp for 15 years. 

According to The Daily NK, a man with the surname of Lee, from Gangwon Province, was found to be illegally selling CDs and USBs containing South Korean movies, dramas, and music videos. Under North Korea’s “anti-reactionary thought law,” authorities branded him an “anti-socialist element.” Forty days after his arrest, his immediate family stood with 500 other people while authorities forced them to watch Lee’s public execution. 

“The harder the times, the harsher the regulations, laws, punishments become,” Choi said. “If someone watches two hours of illegal material, then that would be three years in a labor camp. This is a big problem.” 

Even children are not safe from watching public executions. According to the BBC, Yoon Mi-so told interviewers she was only 11 years old when authorities ordered her entire neighborhood to watch a man executed after he was found with South Korean content. “If you didn’t, it would be classed as treason,” she said from her home in Seoul. 

North Korean youth are also being imprisoned. Just this month (June), two high school boys and four girls were each sentenced to re-education camps for five years just for watching South Korean dramas and sharing them among their classmates.  

“To Kim Jong-un, the cultural invasion from South Korea has gone beyond a tolerable level,” said Jiro Ishimaru, chief editor of Japan’s Asia Press International“If this is left unchecked, he fears that his people might start considering the South an alternative Korea to replace the North.” 

This isn’t stopping people from trying, however, as the underground market for foreign content has led to development of methods to limit or destroy content quickly or deliberately in attempts to circumvent the law. For example, USB drives can be programmed to delete the content after three failed password attempts, or after one attempt if the content is particularly sensitive. The drives can also be programmed to show a program only once and then delete the content, preventing it from being shared with anyone else. 

Media is not the only thing on blast in North Korea. The new law banning foreign media also extends to nose- and lip piercings, hairstyles, texts (or other types of communication) in the South Korean style and even “hemming their trousers above their ankles.” It is believed these restraints are in response to the loss of Western support after the 2020 US presidential election, combined with North Korean borders closing due to COVID-19—resulting in increased economic hardship and looming famine.

Content’s Cultural Conundrum

Citing the growth of global content distribution opportunities, the Hollywood Reporter recently wrote about the increase in local-language film adaptation. The piece raises several important points we at Spherex have known for some time, e.g., how important culture is to content, how culture doesn’t always translate well (if at all), yet when done properly can generate significant profits for the content owners. Rather than relying on traditional “subs and dubs” to export foreign content to consumers worldwide, production companies are starting to create local and culturalized versions of movies and tv shows to better align with consumer preferences.

Culture matters because people are different. Language, geography, customs, religion, politics, economics, social and/or class structure all have significant impact on how people perceive and relate to stories, images, sound and even the words used in a title. The success of exporting content from one country to another depends more so on cultural proximity than on geographic vicinity or language similarity. Cultural proximity ensures that audiences can understand the characters’ dialogue, motivations of behavior, and body language in addition to following the storyline.

Exporting or importing good stories or shows is nothing new. Since the 1970s, television shows have been adapted for local audiences worldwide, especially soap operas, game shows and other unscripted programming. Go back decades and find examples of foreign films or TV shows that were given the “Hollywood” treatment and became hits in the U.S. and worldwide. One example is the 1985 French film, “Trois Hommes Et Un Couffin” (Three Men and a Cradle) that became 1987’s top-grossing film “Three Men and a Baby.” It cost $11M to make and grossed over $168M worldwide. The Australian talent show “Popstars” became the U.K. talent show “Pop Idol,” which became the American talent show “American Idol” and eventually was exported to over 15 countries. The British game show “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire” was localized and released in 114 countries reaching every continent except Antarctica and is still being produced 24 years later.

Kelly Wright, an adaptation specialist with Israel’s Keshet International, says the difference now is that “with the rise of global streamers, any fan can check out the “twists and suspense” of the original without having to wait for a remake.” A shot-for-shot remake isn’t going to attract an audience anymore, especially one with access to the original. The industry’s challenge is to make the adaptation or original story timely and attractive to an audience by understanding and writing for their culture. A story that lives in their culture is what makes it special.

The good news is that technology and resources are available to studios and production companies to help them understand the cultural issues that can affect the success of their titles in the global marketplace. Spherex has extensive knowledge of cultures and regulatory requirements covering nearly every territory on the planet and has created technology to identify cultural sensitivities before they become cultural missteps.

Scotland’s Small Screen Machine Steps Up to Bat with Big Streamers

With movie theaters closed during the pandemic, moviemakers and -goers alike have had to shift their cinematic expectations. This is no different in the isolated Scottish Highlands and Islands. Before lockdown, locals looked forward to an afternoon rental in the Screen Machine, a mobile auditorium that brings “films to people who have no access to a physical cinema.” With the success of Netflix, Disney+, Hulu and other large streaming platforms, and its auditorium parked until further notice, the Leith-based Screen Machine has launched its own streaming platform – Small Screen Machine.

Scotland, SVOD and Lockdown
The pandemic has kept people inside for over a year now, but movies and episodic content have seen an enormous uptick in viewers. According to the BBC, the Ofcom Media Nations reported that, “people in Scotland spent an average of five hours and 46 minutes per day-or 40 hours a week-watching something on a TV screen in April,” a big jump from numbers collected in 2019—an increase of 85 minutes!

“At the beginning of 2020, about 59% of homes in Scotland had a TV connected to the internet through a smart TV or other device such as streaming sticks…. More than half of households in Scotland (56%) had a subscription video-on-demand (SVoD) service from suppliers such as Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and NOW TV.”

With those numbers, it makes sense that Screen Machine started its own streaming platform with a twist-only pay for what you watch!

So, What Is Small Screen Machine?
But what makes Small Screen Machine so unique? According to UK publication iNews, “films can be rented at a cost of between £3.49 and £10 for a 48-hour window.” That’s between $4.95 and $14.19. Creating an account is free, users only pay for the films they watch, and there is an extensive catalogue including movies that originally aired on Disney+, like the Oscar-winner “Nomadland.”

“Lockdown has caused a revolution in people who view films. But with Netflix and Amazon people are overwhelmed by the huge choice.” Robert Livingston, director of Screen Machine’s operator Regional Screen Scotland, said in an interview. “The Small Screen Machine is picked by a team that knows our users interests from the mobile programme…. It’s kept us in touch with isolated communities and it’s also a nice feeling that part of the rental fee is going to support local cinemas during the pandemic.”

With lockdown measures lifting across the globe, Small Screen Machine is looking to expand its reach beyond the islands and “work alongside the mobile auditorium” of its parent company, as well as other Scottish cinemas. In the meantime, cinemas local and abroad are only just opening their doors to a reduced audience capacity.

“We hope to get back up to 80 [audience capacity] soon as the evidence shows there is no argument for two metre social distancing in cinemas,” Livingston said of the main Screen Machine. “It’s a bit lonely with just an audience of 20.”

But what about the other 60 people who can’t get a ticket? That’s where Small Screen Machine comes in! According to the company website, the new streaming service sprang into existence in March 2020, as “an addition to the service that allows us to offer our customers great films in between visits, or the chance to watch a film you might have missed or wasn’t screened in your area.” But even so, the streaming platform is only available to UK residents—or anyone with a VPN.

All of the money collected through the Small Screen Machine streaming service goes back into the company and its supporters: 10% to Shift72 (the streamer’s platform), “a percentage to the film’s distributor (the percentage will vary from film to film,” and the rest to Regional Screen Scotland, which oversees Screen Machine and Small Screen Machine.

Countries Say “No” to ‘Family Guy’

Remember when your parents required you to do your homework before you could watch TV? I clearly recall working to quickly solve my math equations or finish my English essay so I could kick my parents out of the living room, change the channel away from those droning Bob Vila informercials and watch something truly entertaining—like “Family Guy.”

At 9-years-old, watching Peter Griffin fight a maniacal chicken or seeing baby genius Stewie Griffin further his plot for world domination may be stupid, but I thought it was hilarious. Sometimes I would stay up all night playing my Gameboy, killing time while excitedly awaiting the newest “Family Guy” episode Sunday night. My parents trusted my television viewing habits provided I did my chores and kept my grades up. On the surface, the series has mediocre plots dumbed down with nonstop cultural references and upbeat but idiotic montages. This Frankenstein-like debauchery is perfect for young people with short attention spans. I tried showing my parents “Family Guy,” but they didn’t get it.

Will Smith said it best: “Parents just don’t understand.” The raunchy animated series hits hard, covering many controversial subjects satirically. Often parents are more lenient with animated shows as they don’t necessarily understand adult cartoons. Television in the early 2000s was much different from the streaming we know today. Channel locks were the only option for parents to thwart access to inappropriate content. I remember having to show my parents how to use the TV guide and the DVR settings because they had no clue how to work the cable box. Blocking sensitive content was the least of their concerns. Growing up, much of my peer group was exposed to unsuitable material on “Adult Swim” which was an afterhours segment on Cartoon Network specifically aimed at mature audiences. At school, my friends and I would discuss the character’s absurd antics and make jokes about them. To a casual viewer the show makes no sense. My naive parents were under the impression I was watching age-appropriate content.

Today’s parents are more aware of the sophisticated content in adult cartoons. The Sunday night FOX lineup cleverly dubbed “Animation Domination” consists of “The Simpsons,” “Bob’s Burgers,” and “Family Guy” which all have mature themes and vulgar humor. Interestingly enough, “Family Guy” is the highest age-rated show in the lineup with a TV-14. Veronica Glissen discusses the show’s reliance on “shock humor” which stirred up criticism and controversy in several different countries. In the U.S., Glissen notes that concerned citizens have petitioned the network demanding that the show be removed from airplay and it has been canceled it twice. Fox even banned the episode “Partial Terms of Endearment.” According to creator Seth MacFarlane the word abortion was used several times in that episode and even an al-Qaida reference was slipped in. Macfarlane shares that certain words and phrases are “comedy red zones that you just shouldn’t enter.” While “Family Guy” is synonymous with pushing comedy boundaries, for some, the show is a dismal foray into contentious issues.

Several countries have completely banned the series. Screen Rant’s Chris Hodges reports that Egypt banned “Family Guy” “due to moral censorship and religious reasons.” Russia removed the show from airplay because it was “too immoral” and Iran is not down with gay characters in the show. Comic Book Resources (CBR) claims that countries without “hefty free speech protections” like South Korea, India, Malaysia, Indonesia, South Africa, Taiwan, Vietnam, and the Philippines have banned “Family Guy” due its “offensiveness and indecency.”

“Family Guy” unabashedly mocks many sensitive subjects, which might explain why it receives negative attention from critics worldwide. Screen Rant notes one particularly crass episode, “Turban Cowboy” in which Peter Griffin befriends a Muslim man named Mahmoud who later turns out to be a radical terrorist plotting an attack. In that same episode, it is revealed that Peter jokingly killed several people at a Boston Marathon race, weeks before the actual bombing that occurred. It’s astounding that FOX signed off on this installment. Another unseemly example is “Shot in the Dark,” which pokes fun at the tragic shooting of Trayvon Martin. In this episode, Peter starts a neighborhood watch and ends up shooting Cleveland Jr. who he thinks is breaking into his own home. With all this distasteful humor one may ask how is this show even still on air?

“Family Guy” is not written for and was never intended to be a show for 9-year-olds, but kids can find it and that’s the dilemma. Parents are the first line of defense in helping their children navigate appropriate programming, but governments will step in when there is a need. One thing that triggers government censors and regulators are creators who handle sensitive topics inappropriately for their culture. The challenge for content creators is understanding these issues and ensuring those topics are handled properly for the countries in which they want to exhibit their content.

Granted, not all shows are an appropriate fit for all countries and cultures, but knowing the guidelines increases the likelihood that content intended for international distribution won’t be rejected and titles will gain access to age-appropriate audiences.

Mass Appeal of K-Dramas and the “Hallyu Wave” Lockdown Effect

During 2020’s lockdown, we all found ways of coping. For a growing number of people, Korean TV shows and films offer an enchanting escape from pandemic reality. Netflix has reportedly seen a “370% increase in viewership of Korean content in 2020” over the previous year, and this order of growth is expected to continue as lockdown restrictions ease. In 2017 there were only two Korean series, “White Nights” and “Man to Man”; now there are hundreds of K-Dramas available to viewers on Netflix, proving that the “Hallyu wave,” or rise in the popularity of Korean content, will continue to grow.

Countries throughout Asia especially have seen a massive increase in Korean content consumption during the pandemic. Pooja Dhingra, founder and CEO of Le15 Patisserie, describes her deep dive into K-Dramas during 2020 as though “my brain paused, and I was in the present moment. I’ve watched over 25 dramas in the past year and still get deeply involved with the plot and characters.”

Many fans living in countries like India and Egypt attribute the widespread popularity of K-Dramas to the underlying conservatism in South Korean culture. Except for Korean films and TV labeled as “Thriller” or “Horror,” viewers will rarely see scenes of sex, gore, or drug use. Instead, there is a huge emphasis placed on Korean values. It is extremely common to see characters bowing to their elders, using honorifics, and turning their faces away when they take a sip of alcohol as a sign of respect. Heroic characters tend not to date more than one person, have strong family ties, and possess a good work ethic. For many people living in more conservative countries, South Korean movies and TV shows feel familiar because these shared values are so prominently featured.

K-Dramas are also gaining popularity in less conservative places. With so many female writers, the standard characteristics for lead women include strength, confidence, being career-oriented, and having the courage to be vulnerable. The sensational series, “Strong Girl Bong-Soon,” features a tiny woman with incredible (and often hilarious) super strength. She is constantly encountering men who ask her, “You are so small and weak, why are you so brave?”  They tease her, shove her and try to intimidate her…until they regret it! Throughout the show, Do Bong-Soon confronts sexism, bullies, and even a murdering psychopath. Her endless courage and good heart are an inspiration to all women who have ever been underestimated, discriminated against, and/or harassed because of their gender.

K-Dramas are striking a chord with people around the world, and with social media making it easy to discover and connect over favorite K-pop artists and actors, it is a good bet that Korean content’s popularity will continue to rise. Netflix has taken that bet, investing “nearly 500 million USD in Korean content” in the year 2021. With this much financial support, it will be incredibly exciting to see how the “Hallyu wave” expands!

Accelerate Your Global Title Releases with Spherexratings™

In two previous posts, “Worldwide Content Classification – What Happens When You Get It Wrong,” and “Worldwide Content Classification – How Hard Can It Be?” we’ve laid out the challenge facing content creators and distributors who want to market their content globally. In this post, we will discuss how to avoid making mistakes that can be costly either economically, legally or reputationally, and get your content released in international markets faster than ever before.

To recap, according to IMDBPro, each year an average of 356,000 titles are released. Currently, there are about 31,000 movies, TV movies, TV series and TV miniseries in some stage of production around the world. Every one of those titles destined for general release anywhere on the planet must be viewed and rated by some regulatory body, agency or platform and be assigned a country-specific age-rating. This gives consumers some indication of appropriateness of the type of content they are about to watch. Whether anyone likes it or not (usually not), this is not an optional thing; it is required.

Over the past few weeks, industry trades have published dozens of articles, like here, here, here, here and here, highlighting the problems content creators, producers, distributors and even writers are experiencing trying to get a script or film approved for production or release in major global markets. These are not unique stories. Those who have the responsibility for obtaining ratings know how exacting that process is. What these stories highlight is the complexity and importance of correctly navigating differing country regulatory, legal, and cultural requirements.

But who has time for this? Who wants to hire staff to chase down ratings in 20 countries, whether it is a series of titles or a one-off? Wouldn’t it be great if there was a way to manage this entire process in one place, where titles can be reviewed once, and that one time could generate ratings in top markets around the world? Wouldn’t it be great if the people you worked with had demonstrable knowledge of the cultural realities and regulatory requirements of 200+ countries and territories worldwide? And wouldn’t it be great if the entire process, from application to review to submission, could all be managed online?

Now for the good news: introducing Spherexratings™.

Spherexratings is a professional service that assists studios, producers, distributors, and platforms in obtaining valid, in-country maturity ratings for film, TV, and streaming content. Built upon nearly a decade’s experience in studying and assessing cultural requirements in nearly every country on Earth, Spherexratings provides a combination of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) and human assessment to rate video content quickly and efficiently.

Using proprietary processes and technologies developed through creating, managing, and cultivating metadata tools for the Media and Entertainment (M&E) industry, Spherex’s ratings team works with content creators to collect all title information required to rate it. Not only are these data helpful in obtaining multiple country ratings, but they can also be used to create the metadata necessary to optimally market and position content on any distribution platform or search engine worldwide.

Spherexratings’ client-oriented interface provides complete access to the evaluation process and allows full tracking of the title from the time it is first made available for rating through the ratings and approval process for individual countries. Customers can see and respond to both human and AI-based feedback and recommendations at all review stages.

The Spherexratings process is straightforward: provide secure access to the title, answer a series of questions about the title to build a metadata base, including common data such as title, synopsis, release details, cast and production team details, and more and Spherex takes it from there. Upon process completion, legal, country-specific documents are provided to demonstrate the content has been properly rated and distribution of the content can proceed. Once rated, clients can manage all future ratings from the same interface.

Available today, Spherexratings will fundamentally speed up the ratings process for content creators and reduce the amount of time they spend managing it. Spherexratings is the industry’s first global “rate once, manage forever” rating system for video content.

For more information or to schedule a demonstration, click here, complete the online form and someone from our Spherexratings team will contact you. We look forward to making your global content release (and your professional life) a whole lot easier.