Forging partnerships from Hollywood to Hong Kong and teaming up with Stephen Spielberg to found DreamWorks, CJ helped revolutionize the Korean culture industry
Today, even those with only a passing knowledge of South Korea will have encountered at least some Korean content. Following cultural milestones of critical and commercial success like 2019’s “Parasite,” Hollywood has been paying increasing attention to the Korean movie industry and its output.
However, Korea’s evolution from “a consumer of Western culture into an entertainment juggernaut and major cultural exporter,” as the New York Times puts it, has taken three decades. All the while, at the center of this transformational journey, CJ Group has played a vital role.
Today, CJ Newsroom takes a retrospective look at the globalization of K-culture and CJ’s efforts to introduce Korea to the world.
Teaming Up with Spielberg – A Bold Industry Move
In the early 1990s, CJ CheilJedang made a daring leap into the movie business, and continued to invest despite the relatively small size of the Korean domestic film industry and the economic hardships that hit the nation soon after, including the IMF Crisis of 1997. The goal was ambitious: to grow Korea’s filmmaking infrastructure from what was arguably a cottage industry into a global enterprise.
On April 29, 1995, CheilJedang took the film world by surprise by establishing a joint venture with Hollywood legend Steven Spielberg. Through this venture, “DreamWorks” – now a household name – was born. The unlikely partnership between a leading Korean food manufacturer and the world’s top-grossing film director made headlines not just in Korea but in the U.S. and beyond.
Three days later, on May 1, CheilJedang held a press conference to officially announce its entry into the film industry.
Pizza, Jeans and Hollywood Contracts: An Important Partnership Is Forged
For CheilJedang, which was weighing up its chances in the film industry after announcing its independence from Samsung in 1993, the announcement of “DreamWorks SKG” was a once-in-a-generation opportunity. Established by notable industry veterans Spielberg, David Geffen and Walt Disney Studios CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg, investors were invited to fill a 30% stake out of a total investment of 1 billion USD.
CheilJedang’s top executives – then-executive director Lee Jay-hyun (now chairman of CJ Group) and then-director Miky Lee (now vice chairman) – immediately took off to the U.S. In a refreshingly informal meeting punctuated by denim jeans and boxes of pizza, the two Lees led a successful negotiation and signed the relevant contracts.
For the food conglomerate, venturing into the film industry represented a leap into the unknown and, potentially, a significant risk. Today, CJ Group’s position as a leading global lifestyle brand has validated that risk.
The Birth of CJ Entertainment, a Global Cultural Leader
Following the co-establishment of DreamWorks, CheilJedang wasted no time in expanding further. By collaborating with major Hong Kong film producer and distributor Golden Harvest and entering the Asian visual software industry, CheilJedang made a smooth transition from a food manufacturing company known primarily for its sugar products to a leader in Korea’s culture and lifestyle scene, all within the span of five months.
On August 1, 1995, CheilJedang established its new “Multimedia Business Division,” which later became CJ ENM. Rapidly absorbing expertise gleaned from the ongoing DreamWorks project, the division began overseeing a broad spectrum of media businesses spanning film production and distribution, theater operations, music production, cable TV and gaming.
“No Culture, No Country”
The entry of CheilJedang into the culture business was largely influenced by the company’s founder, Lee Byung-chull. Lee had a strong fondness for art and an appreciation of the importance of culture. “Without culture, there is no nation,” Lee once said. “Culture should be created and embraced by all.”
Today, Chairman Lee Jay-hyun places culture on equally important footing. “The prerequisite for becoming an economic powerhouse is to first become a cultural powerhouse,” Lee explained. “For Korea’s companies to succeed in the global market, they ultimately need to seek value in cultural products.”
CJ has been at the heart of numerous milestones in the Korean culture industry: the inauguration of the country’s first multiplex theater, setting the record for the highest grossing movie viewership numbers and launching Korea’s first and only comprehensive content company. CJ also hosts the world’s largest K-culture festival – KCON – and was the first production studio in Korean cinematic history to receive the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.
The dream that CJ Group has been nurturing since 1995 is going strong to this day, and, with the goal of people worldwide watching 2-3 Korean movies every year, enjoying Korean food 1-2 times per month, viewing 1-2 Korean dramas per week and listening to 1-2 Korean songs each day – CJ’s cultural ambitions remain undimmed.