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.