Meet Miky Lee, the South Korean Mogul Conquering Hollywood
Miky Lee was 11 when she fell in love with film. “I vividly remember watching The Sound of Music for the first time,” says the 63-year-old tycoon, speaking by video call from her home in California, a bright smile on her face, her Japanese Akita, Sasha, standing protectively by her chair. “There is a scene when Maria turns her curtains into children’s clothes—I had always looked at the curtains in my house and my grandmother’s house and imagined that they would make beautiful clothes. When this happened in the film, I was surprised to know that I was not the only one who had thought about it.”
The cheery Lee pauses, becoming momentarily serious. “That is the power of a movie,” she says. “You sit in a room and laugh and cry with the rest of the audience, and you know that you are connected to a larger community.”
Lee began going to the cinema near her family’s house in Seoul every weekend, encouraged by her parents and grandparents, including her grandfather Lee Byungchul, the founder of Samsung. Her interest became an all-consuming passion and, eventually, her career. She is now the vice-chair of CJ Group, a South Korean conglomerate founded in 1953 by her grandfather as a sugar and flour manufacturing business. Under Lee’s leadership, it branched into the film industry in the 1990s and has since become one of the world’s largest entertainment companies.
While the astronomical sums made by the company—a total of more than US$27 billion in 2019, for example—regularly make headlines, Lee herself has kept a relatively low profile. Until, that is, the night of February 9, 2020, when Parasite, the Korean black comedy she had executive produced, won Best Picture at the Academy Awards, making history as the first non-English-language film to receive the accolade. Lee accepted the Best Picture statuette alongside director Bong Joon-ho, the cast and fellow producer Kwak Sin-ae, who spoke first. When Kwak finished her speech, the Dolby Theatre was plunged into darkness before Lee could reach the microphone. Seeing that she had been cut off, the crowd booed, and Tom Hanks and Charlize Theron began a chant of “Up! Up! Up!” The lights rose to cheers and applause, spotlighting Lee. “Hello, everybody,” she said, laughing.
The moment was a turning point for Lee. Western directors and producers came knocking, wanting to collaborate on stories from Asia, while Asian filmmakers wanted her help breaking into the West. “We were saying, ‘Yay! We’re going to use this momentum and go and make more content, better content and bring more people to theatres,’ says Lee. “And then boom, the pandemic hit.”
Covid-19 has postponed some projects, but Lee has not been sitting idly by. She has more than 40 films and TV shows in the pipeline and has also been working on a passion project: the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, a new museum in Los Angeles dedicated to the art, history, science and cultural impact of film, which is set to open to the public on September 30.
The 300,000 sq ft museum features seven storeys of galleries, event spaces and two cinemas—one with 288 seats, the other with 1,000—split between a heritage building and a striking spherical extension designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano. Items from the museum’s 13-million-item collection, including one of the pairs of ruby slippers made for Judy Garland to wear in The Wizard of Oz and a full-scale model of the shark from Jaws, will be shown in a mixture of permanent and temporary exhibitions. Lee is the vice chair of the museum’s 27-member board of trustees, which includes Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos, actress Laura Dern, director Ryan Murphy and fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg.
For Lee, it is especially important that the museum celebrates global cinema. “The museum will be representing voices from around the world, including Asian voices,” she says. One of the opening exhibitions is dedicated to the work of legendary Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki, the co-founder of Studio Ghibli and the director of films including Spirited Away, My Neighbour Totoro and Howl’s Moving Castle. “The Oscar gallery features an Oscar won by director Ang Lee for Best Foreign Language Film for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; and our identity gallery features a costume worn by Awkwafina in Crazy Rich Asians,” says Lee.
Those are moments of Asian representation to celebrate, but the museum is not shying away from difficult conversations about prejudice either. Another gallery, this one focused on make-up, examines the use of blackface, yellowface and redface in cinema. Elsewhere, an exhibition on the history of the Academy Awards will highlight the treatment of the 1940 Best Supporting Actress Hattie McDaniel, the first Black American to win an Oscar, who was forced to sit at the back of the room during the awards ceremony.
Lee’s work with the museum is the latest step in her lifelong mission to use culture to bridge Asia and the West. She was born in 1958 in the US but grew up in Seoul, where her family introduced her to films from around the world. “We watched Ben Hur, Cleopatra, Scaramouche—Doctor Zhivago, oh my God,” says Lee, her excitement building. It was uncommon to publicly screen Japanese films or TV shows in South Korea at the time, following the end of Japanese occupation of the country, but her father and grandfather would bring analogue U-matic video tapes back from business trips to Tokyo and play them at home. “We watched Chinese films, too. All the Run Run Shaw films and all the Bruce Lee movies. We were very culturally diversified, growing up,” says Lee, who is fluent in English, Korean, Japanese and Mandarin.
In 1994, Steven Spielberg, David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg approached Samsung asking for investment in a new film studio. The deal fell through, but a year later Lee approached the trio directly. By then, Lee and her brother, Lee Jay-hyun, were operating CJ Group as a separate entity. They agreed to invest US$300 million in the new studio, DreamWorks, securing a 10.8 per cent stake and distribution rights to its films in Asia, excluding Japan.
Some of Lee’s advisers questioned the decision. “People said, ‘Why do we have to invest in Hollywood? How are we going to recoup the money? It’s such an intangible business’,” says Lee. “But my brother and I said, ‘We’ve been satisfying our customers’ mouths [due to CJ’s history as a food company]. Now it’s time to satisfy their eyes and ears.’”
Hong Kong tycoon Peter Lam, chairman of Hong Kong’s Lai Sun Group, which owns the Media Asia film production and distribution company, describes Lee as a visionary for venturing into entertainment. “The recent success of Parasite is well deserved and a result of longterm vision and hard work,” he says. “She’s always been at the forefront of the movie industry—not just within Korea but also globally, having the vision to invest in DreamWorks right from the start.”
For Lee, the investment wasn’t simply a way to make money, it was an opportunity to learn. Shortly after the DreamWorks deal, she began funding films in South Korea, which at the time made only a handful a year. It was a risky decision, but it soon paid off. Joint Security Area, a 2000 thriller produced by CJ, broke all box office records in the country. At the time of writing, five of the ten highest grossing films ever released in South Korea were backed by her company. “Steve, Jeffrey and David were very good teachers. We learned from the best of the best,” says Lee.
Parasite’s success has significantly increased global interest in Asian content, directors and actors— Miky Lee
While producing films, Lee was also building cinemas across South Korea, giving CJ a stake in almost every step of a film’s creation and release, from the director’s drawing board to the moment fans sit down with their popcorn. CJ opened its first multiplex in the country in 1998; it now operates more than 100, making it the largest cinema chain in the country.
See also: 7 Korean Movies to Watch on Netflix
Lee’s investment in all aspects of the industry has transformed cinema culture in South Korea. In 1999, South Koreans saw an average of 1.17 films on the big screen; in 2019, they saw an average of 4.37, making South Korea the world’s fourth largest box office market, behind only the US, China and Japan. When CJ opened its first cinema in South Korea, “consumption of Hollywood films was around 85 per cent and consumption of local films was around 15 per cent”, says Lee. Now, that split is roughly 50-50. “Korean audiences loving their own local content: that really makes me proud,” says Lee.
But Lee didn’t want only Koreans to celebrate their culture, she wanted the world to join in. Lee has played a behind-the-scenes role in the spread of K-pop around the globe: CJ presents the Mnet Asian Music Awards, the K-pop equivalent of the Grammys, which since 2010 has often been hosted outside South Korea to promote the genre far and wide. And in 2012, the group founded KCon, a roving international festival that brings K-pop stars to major arenas, such as Madison Square Garden in New York and the Staples Center in Los Angeles.
More television and film followed. Lee backed Snowpiercer, Bong Joon-ho’s English-language debut, a sci-fi action film released in 2013 that was distributed to more than 160 countries—a record at the time for a Korean production. Another global success was 2016’s The Handmaiden by auteur Park Chan-wook, an erotic thriller that received universal critical acclaim and numerous international awards, including a Bafta. On the small screen, CJ produced and distributed Crash Landing on You, the romantic drama that has become a global phenomenon and is now available on Netflix worldwide. Then, of course, there was Parasite.
“Parasite’s success has significantly increased global interest in Asian content, directors and actors,” says Lee. “It began momentum for Asian artists to become more involved in the international projects. It’s not just a Korean thing—it’s an Asian thing.”
So Lee is broadening her scope: she is currently working on films by writers, producers and directors from across the continent that she plans to distribute internationally. “When you watch Netflix in the US, you see a lot of Hispanic content like Narcos,” says Lee. “It’s almost seamless. The actors and directors cross cultures; you see these continents—North America and South America—creating content together. I want Asian content to be like that among Asians—Vietnamese, Thai, Chinese, Korean, Japanese.”
One of these pan-Asian projects is with the Japanese star Hirokazu Kore-eda, who wrote and directed Shoplifters, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2018. “Now he’s shooting a Korean movie in Korea called Broker. I just went to his shooting location last month and it’s really exciting—I was so humbled and so excited seeing this,” says Lee. “He is working with our Korean actors and shooting this Korean story in Korea. I want to see that kind of thing happen more and more.” She is also producing a “Hollywood film” with Indonesian director Joko Anwar and collaborating on a project with Derek Nguyen, a Vietnamese American filmmaker.
See also: Oscars 2021: 7 Asians That Made History
Back in the US, Lee is particularly excited about working with a “very high-profile American creator, artist”. “Can I say more?” Lee asks her team, some of whom are listening in on the call. A few seconds pass.
Lee has worked in the entertainment industry for nearly 30 years, but shows no signs of disillusionment, growing only more animated as the interview goes on, reeling off the names of films she loves from around the world, asking after each one, “Do you know it?” Her exuberance is especially impressive because she suffers from Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, a neurological condition that causes a steady loss of muscle tissue and sensation in hands, arms, legs and feet.
Lam, who has been friends with Lee for years, has long been struck by her energy. “I have the most respect for Miky. I always find her to be a person of great heart and also young at heart,” he says.
Perhaps it is Lee’s passion that keeps her going. “It’s energising working on a daily basis with writers, directors and producers to make our vision for Asian content a reality,” she explains. “My long-time dream of spreading Asian culture, and Korean culture, is being realised. And I will continue to work towards my dream until Asian culture transcends borders and generations and becomes a universal, global culture.”