Inside Korean Mogul Miky Lee’s Billion-Dollar Hollywood Play | Analysis

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  • Lee Byung-chul
    Founder of the Samsung Group

Emboldened by a history-making win at the Oscars with “Parasite” two years ago, the South Korean CJ ENM led by its principal Miky Lee has now made a significant power move with the acquisition of the prestigious Endeavor Content, a sign of rising Korean investment in Hollywood.

By acquiring an 80% stake in Endeavor’s scripted content business for $775 million last week, CJ ENM caps a series of Hollywood deals in recent years with the biggest investment in its 26-year history.

Lee, the granddaughter of Samsung chairman Lee Byung-chul, already co-owns a media empire in South Korea with her brother Lee Jay-hyun. This latest deal is setting up Lee to be a truly “modern content creator” in the North American space as well, as one individual close to Lee told The Wrap of her ambition.

But it is also part of a wave of new Korean investment in Hollywood. That deal comes on the heels of a similar one between CAA and Korean studio JTBC, in which JTBC acquired a majority stake in Wiip, the company behind HBO’s Emmy-winning “Mare of Easttown.” In January, social storytelling platform Wattpad was acquired by Webtoon’s Korean parent company Naver for $600 million. And a subsidiary of South Korean entertainment company HYBE acquired Scooter Braun’s Ithaca Holdings for $1.05 billion in April.

The Endeavor Content deal gives CJ access to major Hollywood talent and an ability to package titles more effectively.

“CJ has been active in investing in the U.S. before. They have made other significant investments in entertainment properties. I just think it’s completely unrelated,” said Sky Moore, a partner at the law firm Greenberg Glusker. “They’ve got money and they want to invest in mainstream entertainment content; they can obviously use it in Korea.”

While the deal does not include distribution, CJ retains more flexibility to release its projects through traditional studios or streamers — at a moment when many are finding great success with foreign-produced content like the French streaming hit “Lupin,” the Spanish-language “Money Heist” and the non-CJ ENM South Korean phenomenon “Squid Game.”

What’s more, CJ Entertainment and Merchandising is now gaining a foothold in Hollywood just as streamers like Netflix and Apple TV+, among others, are looking to make bigger plays in South Korea. Lee in particular could be the bridge for those companies to get those introductions and reach that international talent. “It’s startling how many things she’s in the middle of,” the insider said. “When it comes to Asia in particular, she knows everyone…she’s a player.”

Miky Lee, front left, accepts the Best Picture award for “Parasite” in 2020. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
Miky Lee, front left, accepts the Best Picture award for “Parasite” in 2020. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

But just who is Miky Lee? The 63-year-old heiress to the Samsung fortune — whose name is pronounced Mickey and derived from her Korean name, Mie Kyung — has been a driving force in expanding her family’s sugar and flour manufacturing division, CJ Group, into the entertainment space, first in 1996 with an 11% investment in DreamWorks SKG for $300 million.

“Since DreamWorks, she has established really longstanding Hollywood relationships with people,” a CJ insider told TheWrap of Lee.

Shortly after director Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite” became the first foreign-language film to win the Oscar for Best Picture, CJ ENM was part of a $275 million investment in David Ellison’s Skydance.

In addition to “Parasite,” CJ Entertainment financed some of Bong’s other films, such as “Snowpiercer,” “Mother” and “Memories of Murder.” The company recently released through Samuel Goldwyn Films the indie romance “Endings, Beginnings.” And it’s developing English-language remakes of Korean and Vietnamese films, such as “Save the Green Planet” with producer Ari Aster, “The Housemaid” from director Deon Taylor and a pair of projects in development at Universal with Kevin Hart, “Extreme Job” and “Bye, Bye, Bye.”

With the takeover of Endeavor Content, CJ gets access to a rich library of film and TV content. The studio has owned, financed and/or sold more than 125 series and films, including owning part of a show like “Killing Eve” and movies “Just Mercy” and “In the Heights,” to put toward launching its streaming service TVING globally. The Korean OTT platform launched in 2010, and after a major investment from a South Korean tech conglomerate Naver in June, an analysis firm Nielsen Koreanclick reported that TVING had 3.4 million subscribers, which the company has not confirmed, but said they hoped to reach eight million by 2023.

According to the CJ insider, CJ has been seeking to acquire a content studio for some time — and Endeavor was motivated to sell 80% of its agency WME’s production company after reaching a settlement earlier this year with the Writers Guild of America to avoid conflicts of interest in its representation of writers and other talent. (The agency also agreed to phase out lucrative packaging deals for film and TV projects.)

And while CJ has prioritized its English-language remakes with other partners, the insider said the Endeavor Content deal will enable the company to expand beyond Korean remakes into broader IP appealing to the international market. Graham Taylor and Chris Rice, who will continue to serve as co-CEOs of Endeavor Content as part of the deal, are aligned with CJ in their global ambitions, the insider added.

“From our side of the world, we represent a unique voice, and we’d love to marry that with a U.S. content studio that has a global mindset,” the insider said of the content studio founded in 2017 and that has about 200 full-time employees. “The impressive part of Endeavor is that for its short tenure and relatively small size, it doesn’t just do big star-driven U.S. productions. It has significant global partnerships as well. We’re very aligned at looking at entertainment as a global marketplace, and needing to create with the best creators in Hollywood and Asia. We really think that creates a formidable opportunity.”

BTS at KCON Los Angeles music festival in 2014 (Getty Images)
BTS at KCON Los Angeles music festival in 2014 (Getty Images)

That’s just in North America, though. Since 1995, CJ has produced dozens of films and is the only Korean film investment and distribution company to directly distribute its fare abroad. The company owns 16 cable TV networks in South Korea: tvN is behind hits like “Melancholia,” “Chimera” and the reality cooking series “Three Meals a Day.” In 2020, CJ Media subsidiary Studio Dragon partnered with Netflix on a three-year content production and distribution deal.

And if you want to be a massive K-Pop artist, Lee is the person to know. CJ’s KCON music festival for K-Pop artists produced superstars BTS’ second-ever U.S. show in 2014. (Last month, CJ ENM said it was in talks to acquire SM Entertainment, the pioneering music label that helped launch the K-Pop phenomenon, the Korea Herald reported.)

In fact, CJ ENM’s entertainment sector is actually driving more of the conglomerate’s overall revenue than its consumer products division. According to the company’s earnings report for the third quarter, revenue from CJ’s entertainment sector was up 19% (year over year) with 541.7 billion Korean won. That’s helped it grow its overall revenue 7% (857.5 billion won, or $722 million), while its other segment was actually down 8%. Entertainment revenue has grown from 56% of the company’s overall earnings a year ago to 64%.

CJ Group was founded in the early 1950s by Lee’s grandfather, and for years, the company expanded its footprint in ways that had nothing to do with media or entertainment, starting merely as a sugar manufacturer. But many in Hollywood have acknowledged that since then, the heights that DreamWorks or Bong as a filmmaker have reached may not have been possible without Lee’s initial contribution.

When “Parasite” won Best Picture, the evening nearly closed without Lee getting a chance to speak. The microphone had already descended into the stage, but you could see Tom Hanks leading a chant of people demanding to let Lee speak (when she praised director Bong and the entire Korean filmgoing audience). Their words are a good indicator of where Lee and CJ ENM may be headed: “Up, Up, Up!”