Make Way for Miky Lee: How the Super Producer Took South Korean Pop Culture Global

Miky Lee, the enigmatic vice chair of South Korea entertainment conglomerate CJ ENM, grew up believing in the simple dictum from her grandfather that would prove to be the guiding principle of her life and work: “No culture, no country.”

An heiress to the Samsung fortune, Lee has spent decades enhancing her family’s long legacy as business titans and innovators who were instrumental in building Korea’s postwar economic infrastructure. Her grandfather, who also launched a newspaper and radio and TV stations, believed that Korea would never become a strong nation without forums for nurturing and celebrating the nation’s distinctive traits, traditions and history.

Miky Lee Variety Cover

Lee has taken the family mission global in recent years, working tirelessly as an investor and a dealmaker to advance the interests of both her companies and her cultural homeland. The recent explosion of Korean pop culture, from hitmakers BTS to Netflix’s “Squid Game” to CJ’s own Oscar-winning movie “Parasite,” simply would not have happened without the efforts of Lee, who is being recognized as Variety’s International Media Woman of the Year to coincide with International Women’s Day on March 8.

As CJ ENM makes its biggest foray into the West yet with its recent acquisition of production-distribution company Endeavor Content, Lee says she’s still following her family’s mantra.

“The basic philosophy is just: We are all about supporting the next generation, nurturing the talent and supporting the creators,” Lee tells Variety in a rare sit-down interview at CJ America’s Century City headquarters.

As Lee notes, Korea’s splashy arrival on the global entertainment scene has been 25 years in the making.

“Parasite” director Bong Joon Ho is thankful for the company’s commitment. “It’s very meaningful that CJ Entertainment has stayed in the movie business for so long,” he tells Variety. “In the 1990s, big companies like Samsung and Daewoo got involved in the Korean film business, and they retreated just as quickly. But what’s more important to me is Miky Lee’s passion as a fan and her willingness to break down walls in connecting with creators and filmmakers.”

Now based in Southern California, Lee Mie-kyung, as she is formally known, has at times been an executive making industry-shaping decisions. On other occasions, she has taken a behind-the-scenes, soft-power role as a conscience, talent magnet and cultural bridge.

That a woman has enjoyed such a top leadership position is exceptional in Korean society and its entertainment industry, both of which are male-dominated, extremely hierarchical and politically complex.

Lee’s achievement emerges both from a matter of good luck — she was born into one of Korea’s wealthiest families — and from an enduring can-do spirit. It has allowed her to overcome a painful physical disability, surmount career setbacks and then rebound more strongly by leveraging a unique set of multicultural, social and business skills.

In her adopted California, Lee loves to throw dinner parties that convene standout directors such as Bong, talent managers like Endeavor CEO Ari Emanuel, music producer Quincy Jones, hip-hop artists, influencers and journalists. Her business associates will occasionally receive wondrous boxes that include Korean noodles, skin products and “Parasite”-branded sweaters. Lee herself is a fan of offbeat upcycled fashions and sneakers.

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Miky Lee accepts the Oscar for best picture for “Parasite” on behalf of the film’s cast and crew during the Academy Awards ceremony in 2020. Troy Harvey / ©A.M.P.A.S.

“I haven’t seen such fun marketing bling like that since I worked for Disney,” says producer Lynda Obst, who recently worked with Lee on the upcoming movie “K-Pop: Lost in America.”

Tom Quinn, CEO of Neon, the indie that distributed “Parasite” in North America, applauds Lee’s abilities as an influencer: “The thing I love about Miky the most is that it’s so rare for anyone in that position to actually have a true singular taste for — and consistently so — directors of the caliber of Bong Joon Ho and Park Chan-wook.” Quinn has worked with CJ for 20 years and really got to know Lee in 2019, while handling the release and awards campaign for “Parasite.” It was Quinn who pushed for Lee to go onstage at the Academy Awards in 2020 to accept filmdom’s highest honor. Lee is “truly special,” he says. “She’s a lover of cinema. And combine that with her ability to act on that — one usually does not come with the other.”

Lee is simultaneously someone who values her privacy, a socialite cultural maven and a demanding boss who is known to randomly challenge her staff on their knowledge of the latest movies. (Bong recalls Lee giving him a DVD of John Waters’ “Pink Flamingos” and then indulging in a detailed critique of the picture.) Endeavor Content co-CEOs Graham Taylor and Chris Rice have known Lee and CJ for a shorter period. But they have operated a small joint venture called Bon Factory over two years, which established trust and paved the way for the larger takeover deal.

“[CJ ENM] is a values-based company with a long-term vision of 10, maybe 20 years,” says Taylor. The pair say they share Lee’s vision of a global-content landscape where Hollywood is no longer the dominant force, and one where many cultures and influences can be at the table.

Adds Rice: “[Lee] is somebody who has always been incredibly excited by storytelling, empowering artists and backing directors. She spends her time with great storytellers. It feels as if artists are her extended family. She is passionate about popularizing and pushing out artists’ stories, Korean culture, putting stuff on the world stage. She’s on a mission. It’s inspirational.”

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Lee, who is more likely to be dressed in designer streetwear than corporate twin sets, attributes her open mind to an unusual yet privileged upbringing.

She was born in Knoxville, Tenn., the eldest grandchild of Lee Byung-chul (aka BC Lee), founder of the Samsung conglomerate that began as a trucking business and is today best known for its consumer electronics. Within Samsung, BC Lee also created commodity foods-oriented Cheil Jedang Corp., today’s CJ Group. At age 3, Miky Lee moved with her family from the U.S. to Korea when her father was called home by the firm.

Korea’s leading conglomerates, known as “chaebols,” are often family controlled, frequently sprawl across a wide range of industries and have uneasy relationships with government. Chaebols have been favored as drivers of national economic growth, but they’re also criticized as monopolistic and as sources of political corruption.

Lee says she and the other girls in the family were encouraged by BC Lee from an early age to be entrepreneurial.

“My grandfather was always open to the daughters working in the company and said to us, ‘If you can prove that you are good at it, I’m all the way behind you.’ Look at the other girl cousins — it’s in our culture,” Lee says. Indeed, Lee Myung-hee, BC Lee’s youngest daughter and Miky Lee’s aunt, is now — as the chair of the popular Shinsegae department store chain — Korea’s retail queen.

Lee watched mostly imported U.S. movies in her childhood in Korea and refers to herself as a “Hollywood kid.” But she was also exposed at an early age to Korean television production via the Tongyang Broadcasting Co., a TV channel that her grandfather founded in 1964, but which was confiscated and merged into KBS in 1980 by the military government of Chun Doo-hwan.

“It was painful, because we had enjoyed it so much. I was in elementary school and junior high, and after school one of our joys was going to the studio and watching the recordings,” says Miky Lee. “After that was taken away, it was time to really rebuild our content industry.”

She got the opportunity in the 1990s, after BC Lee’s death, when Cheil Jedang first spun off and then separated from Samsung.

“When we inherited the CJ food business in the 1990s, my brother and I sat down and reasoned that we’d been entertaining people’s tongues and mouths. Now it was time to entertain their eyes,” says Lee.

Lee becomes animated as she recounts the next steps in her journey. She and her younger brother, Lee Jay-hyun (Jay Lee), headed to the U.S. to learn the ins and outs of the entertainment industry. Samsung did not move on the opportunity to invest in DreamWorks SKG when Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen banded together in 1994. But Miky and Jay did: The Lees put up $300 million and became the second-largest shareholder in DreamWorks behind tech billionaire Paul Allen.

“My brother made it very clear to Jeffrey, David and Steven that we were not just investing for the return but we wanted to learn from the best,” says Miky Lee. “I wanted to build the whole content industry in Korea.”

Katzenberg praises Lee as a “bottomless well of ambition, curiosity and vision.” “From the first time we met, she had all of those attributes. She had ambition for her country and her company,” says the Quibi founder. “She is one of those rare people that deeply understands, unequivocally, ‘show’ and ‘business.’”

In hindsight, the timing of the Lees’ apprenticeship was perfect. The early 1990s saw South Korea picking up economic might after emerging from the oppressive effects of military rule and the authoritarian Fifth Republic, which ended in 1987. But many aspects of the culture, media and entertainment industries needed to be reinvented.

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The 1990s were also a new era for film. Authoritarian restrictions on content were only fully dismantled after the 1996 launch of the Busan International Film Festival. Headed by Kim Dong-ho, a former leader of Korea’s film censorship board, it challenged tenets, such as the banning of Japanese movies, and opened the door for an outpouring of filmmaking creativity within Korea.

One problem for the Lees’ aspiring film empire was that South Korea lacked cinemas and distributors — previously, most releases were handled by the production companies themselves. Another issue was that DreamWorks wouldn’t start delivering titles until 1997. So the new CJ Entertainment started acquiring indie titles such as “Secrets & Lies” and “Shine” that were intended as dry runs for the distribution of the forthcoming DreamWorks movies.

Under Miky and Jay Lee, CJ opened the country’s first multiplex in 1998, marking the beginning of a multinational chain now known as CJ-CGV that today spans China, Turkey, Vietnam and Indonesia.

In its infancy, the Korean film industry of the late 1990s enjoyed market share of some 30%, but it struggled to fulfill the protectionist quota system requirement that cinemas give the majority of their screenings to local films. That paved the way for CJ Entertainment to directly involve itself in local film production, with subsequent hits including Jung Ji-woo’s “Happy End” (1999), Park Chan-wook’s “Joint Security. Area” (2000) and Kang Woo-suk’s “Silmido” (2003). Lee says she first encountered Bong after his mesmerizing 2003 crime-mystery film “Memories of Murder.”

“I saw so many creators, from Bong Joon Ho, E J-yong and Kim Jee-woon. And it really excited me,” she says. “One thing that really impressed me was they were supportive of each other, going to film festivals together, reading each other’s scripts.”

That parallels Lee’s vision of the CJ Entertainment mission, which she says hasn’t fundamentally changed over nearly three decades, despite the cluster’s growth; its diversification into TV channels, TV production and music; IPOs for CJ-CGV and the Studio Dragon TV production unit; and the renaming of the entertainment businesses under the CJ ENM label.

Since 2020, the group has put heavy emphasis on TVing, its more than 10-year-old streaming service that’s now being positioned as a meaningful challenger to Netflix, which has enjoyed transformative success within Korea and as a global purveyor of Korean content.

Lee credits the DreamWorks founders with teaching her a profound early lesson. “They always said that in this people business, you have to respect and understand the people that you work with, from the gaffers to the directors,” Lee recounts. “Otherwise, just stay as an exhibitor. Don’t even try to go into production. You can have all the money and all the best ideas in the world, but if you don’t have the people who can execute, nothing’s going to happen.”

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While Miky and Jay Lee are credited as jointly starting CJ’s entertainment business — she gave her brother a shout-out from the Oscar stage for helping achieve their “impossible” dream — the siblings are hardly equal partners.

Conventional Korean hierarchy, where even a few days’ age difference matters deeply, would have Miky Lee outranking her brother, who is two years her junior. Then again, Korean and Confucian traditions would never permit a woman in such a senior role. Jay Lee is chairman of CJ Group, with its other divisions still spanning foods and food services as well as logistics, home shopping, pharmaceuticals and biochemicals. Miky Lee is the vice chair of CJ Group and CJ ENM, a cluster that includes CJ E&M, CJ Entertainment and stakes in Studio Dragon and CJ-CGV.

Miky Lee laughs off any suggestion of discord. “He’s the chairman. I’m the vice chairwoman. We [both] have a mission to make CJ South Korea’s leading lifestyle company. I’m the connector, creating synergy between the different businesses,” she says.

That’s a sunnier picture than in the early part of the past decade, when CJ’s leadership was in turmoil. Miky Lee found herself in the eye of a storm whipped up by Park Geun-hye, South Korea’s first woman president (2013-17), a fierce nationalist who traded favors and influence with some of Korea’s chaebols.

Park and female culture minister Cho Yoon-sun developed a blacklist intended to prevent state funding from flowing to creative talent such as Park Chan-wook, who didn’t sign on to their nationalist agenda.

After President Park demanded that the company make more patriotic films, CJ Entertainment enjoyed huge box office success in 2014 with rousing historical actioner “The Admiral: Roaring Currents” and flag-waving melodrama “Ode to My Father.”

But Park also pressured the company to sack Miky Lee for making CJ movies and TV content that Park disliked. Miky Lee wasn’t fired, but she departed Korea in 2013 for the U.S., citing health reasons. It was reported at the time that she was in danger of attack from the Park regime in the form of retaliatory audits and other investigations. However, exile did not endure long — she was able to return in 2015.

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The melodrama “Ode to My Father,” starring Lee Hyun, Kim Seul-gi, Jang Young-nam, Hwang Jung-min, Kim Yunjin, Ra Mi-ran and Hong Suk-youn, was a big hit for CJ Entertainment in 2014. Courtesy Everett Collection

By that time, Jay Lee had been jailed for embezzlement and breach of trust. And Jay’s children, designated as CJ heirs, weren’t ready to take the reins. Instead, the group was operated by an emergency management committee for two years.

Ultimately, CJ executives testified against Park at her impeachment trial in 2017, which ended with the political leader being sentenced to a total of 32 years behind bars. She was convicted of 16 charges, including one count of illegally pressuring the company to remove Miky Lee.

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These days, Miky Lee is mostly found in California, where she is part of the group’s drive into the U.S., underpins its expansion in contemporary music and has been intimately involved in the production of “K-Pop: Lost in America,” to be released in 2023.

“Miky has been a full-on partner, coming up with the idea for a director, helping with music ideas, giving script notes. And all of this is while she’s secretly buying Endeavor Content on the side,” says producer Obst. “She’s super fun, full of delight. Because she believes in herself, she’s confident enough to be open to other people’s ideas.”

Along with her Orange County base, Lee also has an eight-acre complex in Beverly Hills. Los Angeles’ Century City is also the HQ of CJ America, which has for many years operated as a North American distributor of CJ-produced and other acquired Korean films.

In the U.S., CJ has long dabbled in Hollywood production — it has had an association with Chris Columbus — and sought remakes of CJ’s Korean film IP. Notable among these is “Miss Granny,” a time- travel musical romance directed by “Squid Game” creator Hwang Dong-hyuk that’s been remade in Vietnam, India, Japan, China and Turkey. Tyler Perry Studios is attached for two U.S. versions addressing different demographics.

CJ’s flurry of recent M&A moves in the U.S. — in February 2020, it was a junior partner in RedBird Capital’s deal to inject $275 million into Skydance — speak to a more determined strategy to build on the decentralization of global entertainment production, and exploit the current demand for Korean content.

“[CJ has] this incredible production house [Studio Dragon] that is culturally relevant globally and produces 35 TV dramas a year,” says Vivek Couto, managing partner at analysis firm Media Partners Asia. “They’ve been looking at how to take those production values and scale them up globally. In the old days the approach might have been to launch pay TV channels. More recently it might be to scale up TVing.”

Endeavor Content’s Taylor and Rice say that they are excited by the potential for East-West crossover. “Both companies are going to be able to mine the fact that we have a big footprint in Hollywood, a big footprint in Europe and a massive footprint in Southeast Asia,” say the co-CEOs.

A remaining pillar is contemporary music. While the global success of K-pop delights Miky Lee, who is a hardcore K-pop fan, CJ has been a relatively minor player in the genre, making its mark in a more infrastructure- and event-based role with its KCON concert series in the U.S., the Mnet music-TV channel in Korea and Mnet’s MAMA Award Show.

Group development in the music sector is picking up. Late last year, the group announced construction of a 20,000-seat K-pop arena near Seoul, and CJ’s music-related content has grown in association with Hybe’s WeVerse app. But CJ has been a relative lightweight in the talent management arena.

That, too, will change if CJ ENM is successful in its bid for a significant minority stake in SM Entertainment, the historic agency home of Girls’ Generation, TVXQ and Super Junior, and the platform for current acts such as Aespa, NCT and SuperM.

Neon’s Quinn says an intimate understanding of “all phases” of entertainment and the ability to combine it with “traditional Western assets” give CJ an indisputable edge.

“I don’t know who else has done that,” he says. “And I defy you to find a woman who has done as much either, unfortunately. [Miky Lee] is in a very rare class indeed.”