Na Byung-jun, 37, former-manager-turned-CEO of Fantagio Company, has opened a "Managers' Academy," to properly train "managers" in their work of driving, assisting and promoting stars. / Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul
By Kim Ji-soo
Want to get closer to a star? Or get an interview?
The first bar to get across are the "managers," who in the Korean entertainment industry, are recruited and trained in apprenticeship. They are not office-type managers, but those who drive, set the schedule and look after publicity for the stars.
When the stars are working on a drama or film, the managers accompany them 24 hours a day. It's one of the most grueling jobs in the industry, and a former manager-turned-CEO is seeking to imbue a new level of professionalism.
Na Byung-jun, 37, the head of Fantagio Company, opened March 4 a "Managers' Academy" this month, the first of its kind. Fantagio is a relatively new company, and Na, a young CEO. However, the company has big name stars including Ji Jin-hee ("Jewel in the Palace") and Ha Jeong-woo, whose recent film "Berlin" is flying high at the Korean box office. The maiden program at the academy will be training in acting and speech, film production and media relations, among others.
Na's move is unique in that he is investing in a niche portion in the industry when K-pop groups fuel the popularity of "hallyu," or the Korean wave. His company, founded in October 2008, focuses on actors, although it has a girl group "Hellovenus," and plans to introduce two new groups — one boy band and another girl group — this year.
"People like to doubt hallyu but I believe the demand, if not necessarily for hallyu, but for Korean content will increase," said Na. "We want to be prepared to respond to that."
Na may well be going back to his roots. He was a manager, having started out at Sidus HQ in March 2001. Working at Sidus was a great opportunity. There, he worked with actors Kim Hye-soo, the Cannes-winning actress Jeon Do-yeon and Ji. He realized how hard a manager's job can be. He himself used to drive and carry bags or luggage for stars as he managed their schedule. "I tell people who are just starting or still in the field that ‘my knee is not my own'" he said, meaning that he's ready to fold his ego whenever necessary.
But he wanted the job to be more than that, all the more so because of the hardship that he went through. He repeatedly emphasized that his experience has taught him that an enhanced self-awareness and professional pride are crucial.
"A manager has to communicate with the stars, be it about a film or drama and image-making to produce the best outcome. So communication is naturally important. And when this is done effectively, (and the star is highlighted) the value of the manager also rises," Na said.
"That's the cycle of the business."
The Bank of Korea announced in early February that the country posted a first-ever surplus for its culture exports bolstered by hallyu. The nation exported cultural content worth $1.25 billion in 2012 and imported $1.16 billion, resulting in an $85.5 million surplus. Na said the talk among industry insiders is that the market may well grow to where the surplus can expand as much as by tenfold.
For Na and his company, the ultimate market is the Chinese one; at the moment, the Japanese entertainment market remains the largest and the most lucrative market. Before he named his company Fantagio, its name of NOA stood for Network of Asia, a telling sign of where in terms of the market he was focusing. By changing of the name to Fantagio, Na stands among a select number of younger next-generation movers in the hallyu or the Korean entertainment industry.
"For me, fantasy means a dream everyone can dream of," he said.