Agents ride crest of Korean waveJust how big is the Korean Wave? As Asian fans swoon over Korean stars, the brand image of Korea has risen so much that exports have gotten a 27.5 trillion won ($26.4 billion) boost, according to government estimates. Meanwhile a recent survey by the Korea International Trade Association found that 76 percent of its members thought hanryu (Korean wave) celebrities had enhanced their companies’ sales or image last year.
These in-demand celebrities ―and their agents ―are also reaping the benefits.
But as the big money rolls in, big arguments and lawsuits have been erupting among major players in the entertainment world. The only thing anybody agrees on is that the talent agencies run the show.
Agencies tend to demand an unreasonably large shares of earnings ―both from unknown new actors, and then from the producers who hire established stars. The incredible power of agencies as gatekeepers to stardom and virtual owners of the stars has led some to question how far they should be allowed to “support” their stars.
The answer is hard to find, as there are no legal grounds for restricting a private agency in Korea. This is in contrast to Hollywood, where agents are licensed.
“The sports and entertainment business is a legal blind spot,” said Kim Hyeong-nam, an attorney. “We really can’t say what the agency can or can not do.”
It is increasingly common for celebrities to get sued by their agencies. The actress Jang Seo-hee was sued by CineNet for breaking her contract, and settled the case by paying 130 million won ($126,000). The trans-sexual star Ha Ri-su endured a legal dispute when her former agency, TTM, wanted to use her name for a new face they were promoting. The singer Park Ji-yoon fought over how much contract money she would have to return to JYP Entertainment when she switched agencies. Superstars Lee Byung-heon, Ha Ji-won, Jung Da-bin and Kim Jae-won have also gotten into fights with their agencies.
“Forcing agencies to draw up detailed contracts with their actors would be good start to preventing disputes,” said Ha Yoon-geum, a researcher at the Korean Broadcasting Institute. Contracts for celebrities are very roughly drawn in Korea, explained Ms. Ha. Unlike in Hollywood, where celebrities are customers to their agents, in Korea, the agencies behave as if they own the celebrities.
A reporter from the Korean weekly Entertainment & Movies said that he was awed to see how a Hollywood contract was as thick as a dictionary, even detailing how long actors would work or take breaks. In contrast, Korean contracts are thin and general. Many promises are made verbally. This is partly because Koreans feel that writing everything down is overly fastidious in a relationship between people who are supposed to work together and trust each other.
In addition to problems with actors, recently film producers have begun complaining about the power of talent agencies.
“I felt disturbed to hear agencies ask for a large cut of a movie’s income, even after producers already agreed to pay over 500 million won for casting their star,” said Kang Il-soo, the director for “Haesin,” a KBS-TV history drama. However, Mr. Kang acknowledged that star casting ― not the storyline or the acting ― usually was the decisive factor in the success of a drama.
Heavyweight agencies sometimes force producers to incorporate unknown actors into a script in order to get access to the star they want. Mr. Kang said he felt helpless having to change a script, and sometimes even the entire crew, just to satisfy an agency.
In June, the Film Producers Association released a statement complaining that agencies have been stepping beyond their job description of getting work for actors, and are instead meddling with film production. The producers deplored their lack of freedom in creating television dramas, and spoke up for those who make sacrifices for the sake of the stars.
“Because they spend so much money paying to cast a star actor, producers scarcely have any budget left to feed other employees,” said one producer at a press conference. A top star typically costs 20 million won ($20,000) per appearance in a television drama.
“Agencies are willing to pay up to a billion won to sign a superstar,” said Kim Seong-sun, the head of Ario Entertainment, a new talent agency. That doesn’t leave much for everyone else, said Mr. Kim. “You can imagine how they treat unknown extras.”
Newcomers are rumored to be pressured into working in illegal bars or engaging in inappropriate sexual relationships with their agents.
Government officials don’t have much of an idea about what should be done to regulate the entertainment industry. Park Yang-woo, a department head at the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, said there was no appropriate department that could handle these issues.
“Entertainment used to be a tiny portion of national income. But the business has grown to the point of needing regulation or support,” Mr. Park acknowledged.
The government should start certifying talent agencies, just as licenses are given to other professions, said Byun Hee-jae, a senior columnist for the hanryu Web site RunAsia.
“The entertainment business works behind closed doors and it is very hard to regulate,” he said. “We need a system that at least sets basic rules.”
by Lee Min-a