I’m not sure if you guys remember this, but there was this little drama which started airing around October last year… it had lots of Pretty Things, with names like Lee Min-ho and Kim Woo-bin. Need another clue? Here’s a little something to the right to help jog that stubborn old memory.
Bad jokes aside, Osen and YTN recently reported that the highly influential and successful drama writer Kim Eun-sook (Heirs, Secret Garden, A Gentleman’s Dignity) is going to return to the scene with a new melodrama for SBS, currently titled Descended From The Sun. Heirs was, reception-wise, somewhat polarising in the international fandom, but South Korea loved it — the mid-twenties ratings the series garnered are nothing to sniff at, and certainly cannot be dismissed as an aberration.
Whether you loved or hated the show, however, Kim Eun-sook’s track record of immense popular appeal is undeniable. Regardless of the debate over her choices in narrative movement (or – some would argue – the lack thereof), writer Kim is very much in tune with what affixes itself firmly in the popular consciousness — the trending catchphrases, the witty dialogue. As a result of this cultural perceptiveness, she remains one of the most influential writers in the industry; any new drama she has a hand in writing is almost guaranteed media and popular attention by virtue of the cultural capital her name holds.
Descended From The Sun, in an interesting deviation from the writer’s past works, will be entirely pre-produced — something Kim Eun-sook had declared on national TV that she’d never do. Granted, very few South Korean viewers are going to get their knickers in a twist over a writer as popular as Kim choosing a different creative path from what she’d previously said she preferred, so this aspect of the drama hasn’t been given as much attention.
However, it warrants pointing out that pre-production is a risk few drama writers, production companies and television channels would choose to take. Given the current status quo in which financial sustainability is contingent upon viewer ratings, most opt for the live-shoot system for the creative flexibility it offers. Within the live-shoot system, script adjustments can be made according to viewer preferences in hopes of increasing ratings. Dramas with poor ratings may be cut short if necessary, and a successful series (such as the currently airing You From The Stars) can be extended to keep a popular programme airing for as long as possible.
Previous articles on Seoulbeats have discussed the ethical and practical complications of the live-shoot system, which many longtime readers may also be familiar with: overexhaustion and other health issues on the part of cast and crew, deteriorating visual and narrative quality owing to increasingly short periods left for editing, car accidents from the mad rushes to and from filming.
It’s a vicious cycle, and the bad for everyone all around has been discussed ad infinitum. Yet, the appeal of the live-shoot system remains. Pre-production, while offering a healthier work environment for everyone involved in drama production in general, seems a risky creative decision due to the lack of leeway in accommodating viewer feedback. However, as noted in the linked articles, it would take an immensely powerful driving force in the industry to introduce lasting change owing to the measure of influence required from said proponent of progress.
Take the case of Han Ye-seul as an example: she attempted a call to other actors and actresses to stand with her against the existing system, but failed as her contemporaries were disinclined to challenge the structure that gave them their rice bowl. Doing so would risk having these actors and actresses branded publicly as unprofessional and lazy, as Han herself was. Dependent as these acting professionals are on the favour of writers and production companies, it is unlikely that any actor or actress still wishing to continue acting in the industry would step up and lead the charge against the live-shoot system.
If Descended From The Sun proves popular, however, the cause for pre-production would receive a significant boost. In addition to having the immensely influential writer Kim Eun-sook on board, the series will also be co-produced by drama production house Hwa & Dam Pictures (Heirs, Secret Garden) and film production company Barunson (The Good, The Bad, The Weird, Mother). Kim Eun-sook won’t be writing alone either; she’ll be joined by Kim Won-seok, who wrote the critically well-received Queen’s Classroom in 2013.
Both production companies have produced an impressive slate of noteworthy works, and the writers’ credits are certainly not inconspicuous either. It stands to reason that this particular pre-produced drama, with its substantial industry support, may have a better shot than other pre-produced dramas such as 2011’s What’s Up in gaining popularity among audiences.
That Descended From The Sun already has a broadcast channel raring to air it seems encouraging, especially in light of the struggles What’s Up faced in getting aired at all. The latter drama was bogged down with a relentless string of misfortune. First, SBS cancelled the show’s intended timeslot; then, the drama was unable to find a channel willing to show the series, owing to uncertainty regarding the marketability of the story itself and actor Daesung‘s car accident scandal. What’s Up was thus entirely pre-produced before finally finding a spot on cable channel MBN. The show itself aired to little fanfare and unspectacular ratings.
While the back-stories and timeline of events for both dramas are hardly analogous, the series of unfortunate events that dogged the earlier pre-produced drama seems to offer a cautionary tale to future series makers. It also seems to indicate that complete pre-production should be an end only pursued in the face of a barrage of closed doors, rather than an option to be chosen out of a free will.
However, with Descended From The Sun receiving such robust industry support despite the plans for complete pre-production, it seems hopeful that it may actually turn out to be a ratings success. If the series can achieve this, it will send a positive message to the rest of the industry that pre-production is actually feasible, and is a viable alternative to overworked production crews, actresses in hospital, and ridiculously high levels of anxiety on set.
Of course, the show could flop in the ratings game and land pre-produced dramas two feet in the grave. It could fail to turn the tide despite achieving popularity, with other industry players dismissing the series as an isolated success, or one only achievable with the confluence of clout that serves as the scaffold for Descended From The Sun. But I’d like to believe that if you throw enough weight behind a progressive cause, and don’t stop throwing stones at the monolith of the undesirable status quo, the tide will one day turn.
I’m all for the writers and producers of Descended From The Sun daring to break away from the norm by choosing pre-production over the live-shoot system. Fingers crossed it’ll do well, and set a positive precedent for future productions to follow.