Suho, Park Jin-young, Hoya, Da-som, and Park Gyu-ri: This crop of K-pop idols have all recently made their acting debuts in low-budget films. Former MBLAQ member Lee Joon, who started his now-thriving acting career in 2013’s Rough Play, written by Kim Ki-duk, was a trailblazer for pop stars looking to expand into film.

But despite their high profiles and earning power, these pop idols have launched their acting careers through low-budget – and sometimes low-profile – independent films.

Suho is a member of EXO, one of the best-selling K-pop boy bands that made almost US$18.17mil in 2015 through music sales alone. His debut film, One Way Trip, was made on a budget of a little more than US$272,500.

Representing a multinational boy band GOT7, which is enjoying huge pan-Asian popularity, Park Jin-young’s film debut, A Stray Goat, was financed through crowdfunding and the Jeonju International Film Festival. Hoya, who’s a member of one of the top K-pop boy bands, Infinite, acted in Hiya, which was made with less than US$545,000.

A former member of major K-pop act Kara, Park Gyu-ri, started his acting career in Two Rooms, Two Nights, an independent title made with some US$363,300. Da-som of Sistar played the lead in Shin Yeon-shik’s micro-budget omnibus, Like A French Film.

“One of the strengths of K-pop-idol-turned-actors is that they are used to harsh competition in the industry, since they have been through the very intense training system of K-pop agencies since a young age,” Shin says. “Compared to actor aspirants in similar age groups, idols are less scared of trying and proving themselves.”

Having tutored multiple K-pop idols in the art and craft of acting, Shin teaches and hires them because the Korean film industry needs more young actors, and they have passion for acting, which he believes is important.

“In the current filmmaking environment in Korea, where only a (limited number) of actors are active, smaller productions tend to be short of actors,” Shin says. “Having more actors will help not only the directors, but also the producers and investors. And there are many K-pop idols who initially wanted to become actors and still have that passion. When it’s mutually benefitting, why not try?”

stray goat

Park Jin-young’s (left) film debut, A Stray Goat.

On the other hand, a casting director who recently cast a pop idol for a low-budget film says the trend reflects how the music industry has come to capitalise on its talents.

“Until a few years ago, K-pop idols were mostly regarded as singers,” says the casting director, who wishes to remain anonymous. “Now, they are singers, dancers, actors, and show hosts, impacting almost every aspect of the entertainment industry in Asia. Talent agencies have come to realise that they can diversify the sources of profits by including acting aspirants in their idol groups. Forming multinational bands with multilingual Asian members can be understood in the same context.”

He adds that talent agencies prefer small films that are normally shot within a few days, because active boy groups frequently travel overseas for concerts and other activities, making it difficult for them to participate in full-scale commercial films that takes months to shoot.

Cho Sung-kyu, director of Two Rooms and How To Break Up With My Cat, both starring Park Gyu-ri, predicts that the trend will continue, as the idol actors’ fandom guarantees the minimum ticket sales.

Box office results, however, are uneven: Trip earned US$1.35mil from 189,100 admissions, becoming the biggest local indie film of the year; while Hiya earned US$157,897 from 21,700 admissions; Two Rooms and French Film, however, managed more than 5,000 and 2,000 admissions in theaters, respectively.

Stray Goat is set for a theatrical release later this year.

According to Contents Panda, the company that handled international sales for French Film, pop stars presence in films is not a huge advantage when it comes to rights sales.

“Having K-pop idols may help when pitching to buyers, but that rarely raises the price we are offered for the title,” says Danny Lee, director of international sales at Contents Panda. “If it’s top bands like EXO or BigBang, buyers may add a small amount of money, after calculating the exact market share that those stars account for in their countries. Still, the titles’ overall quality and commercial potential is considered more important than the idol cast.” – Reuters/Sonia Kil