South Korea’s Woori Bank profits by attaching itself to Oscar-winning film Parasite


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Woori Bank’s investment in Parasite has paid off handsomely, as punters around the world flock to see the first foreign language winner of best picture.

Parasite director Bong Joon-ho with his Oscars

A pair of far-sighted investments in the Academy Award-winning film Parasite are set to pay hefty dividends to two of South Korea’s leading lenders.

Woori Bank pumped KRW300 million ($255,000) into the film two years ago, a spokesman in the bank’s investor relations department told Euromoney.

He said the investment was “purely a commercial decision”, and added: “We are all very proud [of its] success.” State-run Industrial Bank of Korea (IBK) injected KRW120 million into the film at the same time, also indirectly and via an investment vehicle.

Both banks stand to make a mint from a film that, as of Monday, had grossed $176 million worldwide, according to IMDbPro, including $35 million in the US and $72 million in its home market.

On its release in October, director Bong Joon-ho said Parasite’s budget was one-fifth of his previous film, a Netflix release called Okja, which cost $50 million to make.

The nation’s lenders, hobbled by low margins at home, and struggling to embed themselves in more lucrative markets across Asia, are turning to mainstream pop culture to sell their wares to a new generation of customers 

Based on that data and breaking down Parasite’s neatly round-numbered budget of $10 million means that Woori could have already pocketed a clean profit of $4.25 million, which would be a return of 16 times on its initial investment.

IBK’s profit on the film possibly stands at $1.66 million – but both numbers will rise sharply, as punters rush to see the dark comedy-horror about Korea’s strangling class system.

More banks are likely to follow their lead, taking particular note of IBK, which has struck gold before. In 2018, it handed the director Lee Byeong-heon $710,000 to make Extreme Job, an action-comedy that earned $120 million at the international box office, perhaps gifting the lender a profit of $14 million.

IBK’s creative content financing department is an extreme outlier in the industry, in that its staffers spend time reading screenplays and talking to external advisers, to gauge a film’s likely commercial and critical success. Not a bad job for a banker.

Pop culture

Banking, it seems, will grow more intertwined with the more visible manifestations of modern culture, as traditional lenders, under mounting pressure from successful digital providers such as kakaobank, seek new ways to remain relevant to digitally enabled audiences.

This is particularly so in a rich country such as South Korea, with its fast-growing services sector, based on innovative and creative human capital.

The nation’s lenders, hobbled by low margins at home, and struggling to embed themselves in more lucrative markets across Asia, are turning to mainstream pop culture to sell their wares to a new generation of customers.

Last year, Woori unveiled a commercial deal with K-pop girl band BlackPink, whose shiny adverts implore customers to ‘crave, desire, want, need and wish’ for what they want in life.

Ambitions are best achieved, reckon the funky foursome – who have 18 million YouTube followers – when you boast, show-off, sweet-talk, flatter and flaunt. Hard to argue with that, though the stoics of the world might try.

Other banks are also in on the act. Shinhan Bank’s deal with the 11 members of Wanna One has expired, but Nonghyup Bank’s commercial contract with girl band GWSN is very much alive, as is KB Kookmin Bank’s association with supergroup BTS, the biggest name in K-pop.

When Kookmin launched a new savings plan in June 2018, 180,000 people applied in the first six months, the main draw being special-edition bank books bearing images of the band, not the sliver of additional return on deposits made on the band’s or the customer’s birthday.

If this is what it takes to keep traditional lenders alive, in one of the most heavily banked markets in Asia, so be it. Let the band play on.