The Washington Post has learned that the film’s U.S. distributor, Neon, has decided to hold off on sending the movie to Oscar voters until close to Christmas, an uncommonly late date for a film that has been out for months.
“It’s very purposeful. Theaters, a communal setting — that’s where we want voters to see this movie,” said Tom Quinn, Neon’s co-founder. Executives hope that higher-quality viewing at voter screenings is worth the loss in wide exposure — a notable gamble.
Then again, “Parasite” has been beating the odds for a while. The film about a Seoul grifter family that ingratiates itself into a wealthy household has disrupted the industry — it’s a non-studio hit in 2019. That it comes in a foreign language only magnifies the feat.
But its key trick may be yet to come: “Parasite” could be the first foreign-language movie in the 92-year history of the Academy Awards to win best picture.
“If ‘Parasite’ is able to win, it would completely upend the expectations of what a best picture is,” said Dave Karger, a host on TCM and a veteran Oscar analyst.
A victory, Karger and others note, would suggest a landmark moment for a business that has become more global — suggesting Hollywood in at least some ways is as eager to import the work of other countries as it is to export to them.
It would also probably prompt grumbling from some observers and rivals that Oscar voters are out of touch with mass tastes.
Like many experts, Karger says “Parasite” is a long shot to win Hollywood’s top prize. But he notes that the very fact that it is considered a lock to land a nomination next month is itself a feat. Only 11 foreign-language movies have ever been nominated for best picture, an average of about one per decade.
The winner of the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival in May, the film by Korean director Bong Joon-ho seemed destined for a niche theatrical rollout in the United States in October. Any wider discovery, if it happened, would come later on streaming platforms. (Neon has a deal with Hulu.)
But the South Korean production soon began bucking the odds. Even before its U.S. theatrical release, “Parasite” generated a huge amount of traffic on social media, particularly among young people who don’t typically form a large part of the foreign-language audience. Runs in Los Angeles and New York were soon sold out. Other cities followed.
As of this week, the movie has reached $18 million at the U.S. box office — double that of any other foreign-language movie this year. Forecasters peg the ultimate total at $25 million or higher, a very large sum. Movies from foreign-language territories that gross more than $25 million in the United States are very rare, particularly those not in Spanish. One of the last such films to exceed the total was the offbeat French romance “Amelie.” It was released 18 years ago.
According to the awards website Gold Derby, which devises a forecasting model based on expert polls, “Parasite” has the fifth-best chance of all 2019 movies to win best picture, with odds of 10 percent. It sits just three percentage points behind the leader, “The Irishman.”
To push it even higher, Neon and Cinetic Media, the New York-based company hired to design and execute the campaign to bring the movie to awards voters’ attention, are attempting an approach that emphasizes communal viewing. The companies have held large numbers of voter screenings in New York and Los Angeles. Their belief is the movie plays much more strongly in a group setting, where the gasps at the film’s twists and shocks can be amplified in the same manner as the laughs at a comedy. They have also pitched stories about the thriller’s have-and-have-not social overtones, which are hitting at the same moment as Democratic presidential candidates debate income equality.
And the companies have brought Bong and the cast, unknown quantities to many American voters, on frequent trips to the United States. Executives at Cinetic declined to comment for this story.
Foreign-language movies have historically had an uphill battle for best picture because there also is an entire separate award category devoted to foreign films — and because many voters don’t know their cast and crew.
But affection for “Parasite” at awards shows is a sign of the global times.
The Oscars have been moving in an international direction. Of the 11 foreign-language nominations for best picture in the 90 years of the awards, more than half have come in the past two decades.
The past few years have seen the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences redouble its efforts to diversify. The group has grown its ranks by nearly 20 percent in the past two years alone, concentrating on members from other countries. Nearly a third of those added this year were people of color, according to the group.
That helped make the Spanish-language coming-of-age drama “Roma” a serious Oscar contender last season, with the film sailing to a best picture nomination and Alfonso Cuarón winning best director in February.
And there are broader factors. “People don’t see subtitles as an obstacle the way they once did,” said Tom Bernard, co-chief of Sony Pictures Classics and a veteran of the foreign-language Oscar wars with best-picture nominees “Amour” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” in past years and the Spanish-language “Pain and Glory” this year.
Some pundits say “Parasite” has an even better chance to win best picture than “Roma.” The latter came from Netflix, which some voters eye warily because of its unfavorable stance on theatrical releases. As a thriller, “Parasite” also is seen as a more accessible commercial product than “Roma,” a black-and-white art film (though that film’s director, Cuarón, has directed a “Harry Potter” movie and is far better known to the Hollywood rank-and-file).
“Parasite” is considered an overwhelming favorite to win the Oscars’ international prize.
But before “Parasite,” the theatrical business for Korean cinema was decidedly minuscule. One of the highest-grossing Korean-language movies in the modern era is Bong’s own “The Host,” a monster movie that came out in 2006. Its domestic total: $2.2 million. Other movies, such as Park Chan-wook’s “Oldboy,” were also largely discovered on home-viewing platforms.
Neon expanded what’s possible by starting small. It opened “Parasite” on just three screens, two in New York and one in Los Angeles, instead of the more typical four or five screens for art-house films with high demand.
Opening at so few theaters created a sense of scarcity, which fueled anticipation.
“We wanted to create that line-around-the-block feeling, to really event-ize it,” Quinn said.
It also did something else — boost the “per-screen averages” and giving a sense of a phenomenon. The movie actually had a higher per-screen average box-office take than “Avengers: Endgame,” prompting a lot of favorable coverage, which in turn drew more consumers.
“It was a little manipulated to get that status,” said an executive at a rival company, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so as not to be seen criticizing a competitor. “But with independent film you’ve got to use all the tricks. And have a movie people really want to see.”
Bernard noted that whether it wins the Oscar or not, “Parasite” has pulled off an unlikely feat. “It’s a foreign-language independent movie that has almost studio-level awareness,” he said. “That’s really not easy to do.”