CJ ENM’s Jerry Ko On Co-Producing ‘Past Lives’ With A24, Expanding U.S. Slate And Vietnamese Hit ‘House Of No Man’

EXCLUSIVE: Korea’s CJ ENM is off to a strong start in the international arena in 2023, with its U.S. co-production Past Lives emerging as one of the biggest hits of Sundance and Berlin, and Vietnamese family comedy House Of No Man becoming the highest-grossing film of all time in its home territory.

In addition to overseeing global distribution of Korean hits such as Parasite, Decision To Leave and Broker, CJ ENM’s Head Of Film Business Jerry Kyoungboum Ko is spearheading an ambitious international strategy that involves English-language production in the U.S., as well as local-language content across several territories.

More from Deadline

Celine Song’s Past Lives, which CJ co-produced and co-financed with A24, garnered rave reviews when it premiered at this year’s Sundance film festival and went on to win more acclaim in Berlin. Produced by U.S. labels Killer Films and 2AM, the film stars Greta Lee, Teo Yoo and John Magaro in the story of two Koreans, once childhood friends and budding sweethearts, who are reunited decades later in New York.

CJ ENM is distributing in South Korea, Turkey, Indonesia and Vietnam, while A24 has sold the film to a raft of other international territories. Ko and CJ’s Miky Lee are executive producers, while Khan Kwon, head of CJ’s U.S. outpost, is co-producer.

“We’d been discussing collaboration with A24 for several years, in fact we started talking about working together in Filmart,” Ko tells Deadline, referring to the Hong Kong content market that kicks off its latest edition today.

“After Parasite, we were looking for another project with Korean elements that could be appealing to global audiences. When A24 brought Past Lives to us, we thought it was perfect. It deals with universal concepts like love and fate, and Asian audiences will love its fresh perspectives. We felt we could contribute to certain elements of the project, as well as manage the portion filmed in Korea.”

Ko hints that Past Lives could be the first of further collaborations between CJ and A24, the banner behind films such as Minari and multiple Oscar nominee Everything Everywhere All At Once: “They’re an ideal partner for us as they’ve built a strong brand in the US, while we have a strong presence in Asian territories,” says Ko. “They’re also inventing a new paradigm for film and most of their hits have had multicultural elements.”

<strong><em>Jerry Ko</em></strong>
Jerry Ko

Past Lives is part of a rapidly expanding slate of English-language productions for CJ ENM, which also includes remakes of its Korean hits Extreme Job and Sunny, set up with Kevin Hart and Universal Pictures; a remake of 2003 sci-fi comedy Save The Green Planet!, produced with Ari Aster and Lars Knudsen’s Square Peg; JK Youn’s K-Pop: Lost In America, produced with Lynda Obst (Interstellar); and a TV series based on Parasite set up at HBO.

While CJ has been involved in English-language production as far back as 2013 – with post-apocalyptic action film Snowpiercer, helmed by Parasite director Bong Joon Ho – the Korean powerhouse didn’t establish its Los Angeles beachhead until 2016, when it realized it needed to get more closely involved in the productions it was setting up, rather than simply selling remake rights. First films out of the gate have included Hide & Seek, directed by Joel David Moore and starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers, and Greg Bjorkman’s music-driven romantic drama Press Play.

At the same time, CJ has become more involved in the U.S. biz at a corporate level, acquiring Endeavor Content (now Fifth Season) and making a strategic investment in David Ellison’s Skydance Media. Along with its Korean streaming platform TVing, CJ has also partnered with Paramount Global in a global content and licensing deal, which involves launching Paramount Plus in Korea as an exclusive bundle on TVing.

“Our current plan is to produce two to three titles a year in the U.S. market,” explains Ko.  “We usually look for local partners to co-produce with, as that enables us to maximize each partner’s strengths. That’s the route we’ve taken in each of the international territories we’ve entered also.”

In addition to its English-language slate, CJ has a growing roster of local-language productions in the territories where its sister company CJ CGV operates cinemas – namely Indonesia, Vietnam and Turkey.

From the outset, CJ’s international strategy has been to produce English-language films in the U.S. for the global market, and local-language films aimed at local markets. But Ko says it’s not always that simple as some local films now have the potential to travel beyond their home territories. For example, CJ is currently giving a big push to Tran Thanh’s House Of No Man, released over Vietnam’s New Year holidays in January, which grossed $18.5M to become Vietnam’s biggest ever local film.

“The situation is changing rapidly,” says Ko. “Films like Parasite show that more local contents can travel.”

Although House Of No Man is a comedy, a genre that usually doesn’t travel, CJ has already sold it to Singapore and the Philippines, while distributors targeting the Vietnamese diaspora are releasing it in the U.S., Australia and New Zealand (CJ is not bringing its film sales team to Filmart, but is holding online meetings). House Of No Man opened in the U.S. last weekend and has so far made a healthy $757,442 across 61 theatres.

<strong><em>House Of No Man</em></strong>
House Of No Man

“It’s a well-written film and touches on some universal themes like family, romance and youth,” says Ko. “Comedy is a good starting point to grow a new market. We started with comedies in the Korean market in the 1990s, then as the market started to expand, we moved up to bigger-budget productions, then eventually big action films like Shiri.

House Of No Man is also interesting in that it’s been successful, but is not a remake of a hot Korean IP, which is the route that CJ has taken in most international markets. CJ’s 2014 comedy Miss Granny, directed by Squid Game creator Hwang Dong-hyuk, has been remade in multiple Asian territories, as well as Mexico. In addition to being remade in the U.S., 2019 action comedy Extreme Job has also been remade in China, Turkey and Vietnam.

But Ko says that, “while remakes with universal concepts are the easiest way of entering new markets, these days we’re finding more original stories. That points to the growing maturity of these markets.”

He explains that Indonesia has also been fertile territory for original stories, especially horror such as Joko Anwar’s Satan’s Slaves and Kimo Stamboel’s Jailangkung: Sandekala. Turkey is also a promising market because “their content can travel all over the Middle East and South America, and also has an audience among the Turkish community in Europe.”

CJ is also finding that the remake traffic flows from Southeast Asia to the U.S., where it’s currently working on Grave Hill, an English-language adaptation of Vietnamese horror The Housemaid to be directed by Deon Taylor, which Ko describes as similar to Get Out in terms of its social commentary. Other U.S. remakes of films from Southeast Asia are in the pipeline.

CJ also operates cinemas in China, but has been quiet on the production front there recently, due to political tensions between China and South Korea stretching back to 2016. But Ko says he’s kept conversations going with local players in hopes that they can one day work together again: “Covid has also slowed things down, but we maintain good relationships with Chinese players and we’re hopeful for the future.”

Best of Deadline

Sign up for Deadline's Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Click here to read the full article.