K-Content News

Paving New Paths through Joint Production:“Kim Jin-hyuk Gongzakso,” a Leading Documentary Production Company in Korea
  • November 21, 2019

Paving New Paths through Joint Production:
“Kim Jin-hyuk Gongzakso,” a Leading Documentary Production Company in Korea

The documentary market is shrinking due to low advertisement income and high production costs. However, there’s a small production company that uses its abundance of experience to create high-quality documentaries despite difficulties in the market.
Kim Jin-hyuk Gongzakso is a leading documentary production company of Korea that has produced works such as Humboldt Road and Tastes of the Amazon.

By reporter Kim Tae-hwan, Money Today Network, kimthin@mtn.co.kr

Documentaries are nonfiction films that concentrate on analyzing a real event or other targeted subject matter. They play an important role in recording facts in an academic manner and shaping public opinion. Documentaries also have educational value and are able to shed new light on a subject, presenting facts that were previously unknown.

Documentaries are a charming, yet neglected, genre. While documentaries typically have high production costs and take a great deal of effort to produce, it is extremely difficult to make a profit with a documentary film. Recently, as broadcasting companies have been suffering financially, the popularity of documentary films has been weakening. Due to recent changes in content platforms, broadcasting companies have shifted focus to advertising income, which represents the majority of a broadcasting company’s revenue, and online media. This shift to online media has reduced the income of broadcasting companies, meaning that the documentary genre is also shrinking.

Small/Medium Production Company Producers: Playing Three Roles At Once

Since documentaries mostly feature real-life images, shooting a documentary poses unique challenges. For example, in the summer, it is difficult to film a snowy environment. So, a filming crew that wants to film a snowscape must wait months until it snows. Also, because documentaries are filmed over a long period of time, they require a vast amount of tape. Compared to variety shows, documentary films use 20 times more tape. Compared to the large amount of time and costs associated with producing a documentary, advertisement profits are very small. For a producer, it’s not a profitable business.

A broadcasting company official noted, “Variety shows and dramas are watched more frequently, so it’s much easier to find advertisement sponsors. Documentaries have lower viewing rates, so it’s harder to find sponsors.” He added, “This is why broadcasting companies are hesitant to produce documentaries.”

Recently, broadcasting companies have been outsourcing the production of documentaries to outside video production companies to reduce costs. Public broadcasting companies are required to air a certain number of documentaries for public interest. Since large broadcasting companies struggle with production, it comes as no surprise that small- and medium-sized production companies have an even harder time. For these smaller companies, making documentaries is even more labor intensive. To start with, these companies produce a great number of documentaries each year. A large broadcasting company produces maybe one documentary a year, while small- and medium-sized production companies make as many as 10 documentaries a year.

As budgets decrease, the amount of work that each person within the company must do increases. For example, in a broadcasting company, the producer, who normally focuses on directing, will write the scenario, do the filming, and direct, all at the same time. Competition is fierce between production companies to secure a spot on the television schedule.

At Kim Jin-hyuk Gongzakso, Each Employee is Worth 100 Warriors

The small- and medium-sized production companies that survive in this difficult market environment, however, are unmatched in their abilities. These companies film high-quality videos using their production-related experience and expertise. Take Kim Jin-hyuk Gongzakso, for example.

Kim Jin-hyuk Gongzakso produced the documentary Humboldt Road, presented in four episodes on KBS. The documentary was a large project that detailed the life and work of natural scientist Alexander Tom Humboldt, who explored South America 200 years ago, and analyzed the meaning of his accomplishments. The film shed light on the past and present of Venezuela, Columbia, Ecuador, Peru, Mexico, and Germany.

Normally, this type of large-scale documentary is self-produced by the broadcasting company. Super Fish and Tastes of the Amazon are other well-known examples of Kim Jin-hyuk Gongzakso’s work . Kim Jin-hyuk Gongzakso was the first company to joint produce a documentary with another outside production company. Normally, large projects cost hundreds of millions of Korean won per episode; however, Humboldt Road reduced production costs to only 75 million Korean won per episode. Despite the cost reduction, the video was praised as being equal in quality to documentaries self-produced by large broadcasting companies.

The Child Who Cannot Study, broadcasted on the EBS Docu Prime channel, was another one of Kim Jin-hyuk Gongzakso’s works that received a lot of attention. This documentary explored how the pressure to “study” that comes from adults and society, can negatively impact a child. The documentary recorded a viewing rate of 4.49% and had a lasting social impact, with many people requesting that the documentary be re-broadcast.

Other works produced by Kim Jin-hyuk Gongzakso include: The History of Sweetness, which explores the dangers of sugar; Old Males, with information on older Korean men; and, Three Innovations that Change Your Life, which explains how different scientific technologies have been applied to real life.

Humboldt Road (top, ⓒKBS)

The Child Who Cannot Study (bottom, ⓒEBS)

Viewing Rate of 8.2%

Last year, Kim Jin-hyuk Gongzakso produced a documentary called Tastes of the Amazon through the International Broadcasting Culture Exchange Support Project (hereinafter the “international joint production project”) operated by the Korea Creative Content Agency. The documentary was jointed filmed with Brazilian producer LYgia under the theme of “Tastes for Humans.” LYgia planned the documentary originally titled Tastes of the Temples exploring temple food of Korea, and Kim Jin-hyuk Gongzakso researched the diet of the natives of the Amazon region.

CEO Kim Jin-hyuk explained, “As dietary life has been modernized, people tend to eat too much. Our research revealed that people in the Paleolithic era who were not as affluent had a healthier diet.” Kim added, “Our intention was to find out what the natives of the Amazon region eat and whether they are actually healthy.

The Enamuen tribe in the Amazon, whom they approached for filming, was not entirely isolated; the tribe had been exposed to outside civilization for about ten years. During the filming of the documentary, they confirmed that they were healthy but developing lifestyle diseases such as obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes as they were increasingly exposed to modernized food. Tastes of the Amazon reminds viewers that affluence does not guarantee happiness.

CEO Kim continued saying, “Tastes of the Amazon received a viewer rating of 8.2%, and ranked sixth in the overall ratings that day, which included dramas and variety shows.” He added, “Normally a viewer rating of 5% is considered the mark of success for public television. For a documentary, a rating of 8% indicates a very successful project.”

Tastes of the Amazon ⓒKBS

A Time for a Change in Documentaries

CEO Kim Jin-hyuk explained that the Korea Creative Content Agency’s support project has greatly helped with production and has been creating a virtuous cycle for documentary production companies.

The international joint production support project—which supports joint production projects by Korean and international production companies—is designed as a cultural exchange program to spread Korean culture abroad and to introduce overseas culture to Korea. Under normal circumstances, there are few opportunities for Korean and overseas production companies to work together, so the joint production project is opening up new paths for film production. CEO Kim explained, “In the end, exchange support is important for producing films with foreign broadcasting companies. The broadcasting support project of the Korea Creative Content Agency is very important for helping Korean documentaries enter overseas markets.”

Tastes of the Amazon was broadcasted on Brazilian public television, receiving great reviews. Recently, over-the-top service provider Netflix has been negotiating with KBS to broadcast the documentary on its own channel.

CEO Kim explained that monetary funds are the most helpful type of support the company can receive when producing a broadcasted program. He said, “The documentary market is continuing to shrink in Korea and other eastern countries because broadcasting companies are decreasing their production of documentaries. That is why fund support by the Korea Creative Content Agency is meaningful in and of itself.”

The strengths of the documentary genre are that the content is beneficial and entry into the world market is easy if the content is exclusive. Since documentaries explore the humanities and natural sciences from an academic perspective, the cultural barrier is low and it is easy to translate contents into English.

Many expect that in the future, the documentary genre will be converged with other genres such as variety shows or dramas. Broadcasting companies such as BBC and Discovery that specialize in making documentaries are leading this change. CEO Kim noted that, “Documentaries need to break out of their traditional molds and transform.” He added, “Documentaries should converge with other genres, such as dramas and variety shows, or be made based on advertisements. Changes also need to be made in terms of distribution, and contents should be distributed through an exclusive channel or over-the-top services.”

SINCE 1998

CEO Kim Jin-hyuk of Kim Jin-hyuk Gongzakso

How was the Kim Jin-hyuk Gongzakso created?

I worked as a producer at SBS. I produced Morning Wide, a representative morning program and switched over to producing documentary programs. I’ve been focusing on documentary production ever. While working at SBS, I was transferred to the entertainment bureau and then fired during the IMF crisis. After I was let go, I started my own company together with fellow producer Ham Jung-min. Kim Jin-hyuk Gongzakso was founded in 1998. We mainly produce documentaries for public television. We have made somewhere between 100 and 130 documentaries, which is the largest number ever made by a small- or medium-sized production company.

What is your work load like?

We have 13 employees, including writers. The only time we get together is to hold meetings or edit films. We do a lot of overseas filming. We work abroad for three to four months of the year. Our staff members don’t complain because they are so used to it.

What do you feel the most proud of when making documentary films?

Kim Jin-hyuk Gongzakso does not make films about anti-society issues. We deal with the humanities and the sciences, and we love when we explore themes that let us study or learn new facts. It makes us proud to provide information that is educational.

What advice would you give to those who dream of becoming a documentary producer?

Documentaries made by conventional broadcasting companies tend to be boring. Documentaries made by the younger generations, on the other hand, are fun. I would say, do not be confined by the conventions or formats of the past, and just say what you want to say. Spend more time thinking about how to deliver the information in a way that makes the film more fun and effective. The days of broadcasting company-produced documentaries are over, and the era of individual documentary-making days is approaching. There’s a lot of potential in the industry.

How would you rate Korea’s documentary production level?

Korea is on par with the BBC, National Geographic, and other prestigious broadcasting companies. The only difference is that overseas broadcasting companies have a great deal of capital strength and generously fund their projects. Increasing production funds is critical to upgrading the competitive edge of Korean documentaries.

How helpful are the various broadcasting support policies of the Korea Creative Content Agency?

These support policies are very important to small- and medium-sized production companies. Many small- and medium-sized production companies have survived thanks to the support of the Korea Creative Content Agency. Not many countries in the world support their broadcasting companies in this way. I hope the Korea Creative Content Agency further expands its support of the documentary market.

What sort of documentaries are you currently planning?

We are in the process of producing a documentary called Space, Earth, and Me. The documentary details the events that have happened in space and on Earth since the launch of the Voyager spaceship in 1997. We are also collaborating with a Brazilian production company to film the Ocean, which is a project about fishermen around the world, and How to Die Well, which talks about the quality of death. Other projects that we are currently working on include Georemal Grand Dictionary, which talks about overcoming the language differences in North and South Korea, and The Love of Science, which talks about love from a scientific perspective.