‘Parasite’s’ best-picture win portends a new Hollywood globalism

LOS ANGELES – Several hours after he left the Oscar stage, “Parasite” director and producer Bong Joon-ho took another stage a few miles west in Beverly Hills.

The man behind the newly minted best-picture winner was introduced by Tom Quinn, the head of the film’s U.S. distributor, Neon, and a key player in its Oscar campaign, at a party celebrating the win.

“Tonight was so unbelievable,” Bong told the invitation-only crowd, to loud cheers.

“Parasite’s” big win turned what had previously been simply been a night of outliers – with director, screenplay and international-feature victories for “Parasite” earlier in the evening – into the stuff of history. Screenplay and directing wins for non-English movies are rare, but not unprecedented. Before Sunday, however, every single best picture in the 91-year-history of the Oscars had been predominantly in English. “Parasite” is in Korean.

Quinn added his observation. “Tonight, we put the industry in check,” he said, to another decibel-shattering surge of cheers.

It would be hard to overstate the disruption caused by “Parasite’s” win. Hollywood has exported its product to countries around the globe with increasing vigor in recent years. Overseas box office exceeded $31 billion in 2019, a record, and nearly two-and-a-half-times the amount the studios generated in the U.S.

Yet importing other countries’ output has been much rarer. Broad hits from outside the English-speaking world until now were almost non-existent; the previous foreign-language best-picture nominee to be released widely in theaters, 2012’s “Amour,” generated $7 million in U.S. receipts.

And the best picture award was the ultimate sign that the industry club that until relatively recently had ensured that its big prize didn’t go to films made outside the studio system, let alone one made in a country 6,000 miles away had fractured.

Agents, producers, directors, and publicists – but notably no major studio executives – who populated the party wondered if “Parasite,” with $36 million in U.S. box office receipts and likely a bunch more after the Oscar exposure, is a sign that globalism will now cut the other way.

“I think what you’re seeing here is that this isn’t just Hollywood telling people in Europe, Asia and everywhere else what to see,” Céline Sciamma, the French director whose drama “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” was nominated for a Golden Globe this year, said in an interview at the party. “It’s a dialogue, and sometimes the rest of the world might tell America what’s worth seeing, too.”

The Oscars were created for an essentially local industry that now exists in a world that’s gone beyond the local. Sciamma raised the questions that had been percolating even before Oscar voters decided to offer an answer: What are now the responsibilities of an industry that exports so much of its product to the rest of the world to hear what the rest of the world has to say in return? Can it continue looking outward for money but turn inward for glory?

The “Parasite” gathering late Sunday night – essentially a more darkly lighted and well-tailored version of an election-night victory party – was taking place at Soho House, the private club atop a skyscraper that serves as a kind of cultural nerve center for modern Hollywood. It is the space where deals are hashed out over meals during the day and triumphs are celebrated at night; every network or studio in town has hosted an event there.

That it was the place where the night’s best picture was celebrated was not a surprise.

That such a celebration was filled with representation of Korean culture was.

A Korean boy-band, A.C.E., played, jumped and danced in matching suits as they did call-outs to the movie. In one corner sat Miky Lee, the 61-year-old South Korean media magnate who, as vice chair of the country’s CJ Group, financed “Parasite” along with many other shows, movies and K-pop outfits. She held court, greeting a long line of well-wishers while sitting next to the legendary American music producer Quincy Jones, making literal the transpacific moment that “Parasite’s” win represented.

The convergence was not lost on people throughout the film industry.

Thierry Fremaux, the director of the Cannes Film Festival where “Parasite” got its start, said that “this shows that America and Cannes can come together, not live apart.” He also added that “it means cinema belongs in theaters” – a clear jab at Netflix, with which the festival has feuded and which came away with just an acting and documentary prize Sunday despite spending hundreds of millions of dollars to produce and market its awards contenders.

Producers were equally buoyed.

“I think it changes Hollywood forever,” said Rodrigo Teixeira, the Brazilian-born producer behind both foreign- and English-language films, including this year’s cult favorite “The Lighthouse ” (English), “The Father’s Shadow” (foreign language) and past Oscar winner “Call Me By Your Name” (multi-lingual).

Already he and others are relishing the chance to pitch projects to financiers with “Parasite” in their back pockets. In a town that elevates a fear of missing out from social-media anxiety to professional animating principal, “Do you really want to risk losing the next best picture winner?” packs a big pitch-meeting punch.

“Parasite’s” disruption was not limited to its global aspects.

Also behind the movie’s success was social media, particularly “film Twitter,” the loose collection of critics, fans and other voices whose support has become increasingly important in recent years.

Oscar campaigning, consultants say, has changed. Where many past best picture winners have been part of efforts organized by studios that aim directly at the top – members of Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences – the “Parasite” campaign worked differently.

Orchestrated by Quinn and a consultant group led by longtime indie-film marketer Ryan Werner of Cinetic Media, its goal was to seed the grassroots first. Werner and his team courted “film Twitter” out of the movie’s Cannes premiere last May and then in the award-season months that followed in the fall.

The idea was that the group had become instrumental enough to basically send the buzz the other way – from its own digital wilds up to mainstream media outlets, then on to younger academy members and ultimately to an older academy guard that is still required to secure the best-picture vote. Far from just measuring the buzz, “film Twitter” propelled it.

“You need the right movie, the right moment – all of that,” said an executive at a rival company who spoke on condition of anonymity. “But does anyone doubt these champions online played a big role in this win?” The executive said he believed it would be a playbook others would follow.

Many awards experts said the win showed that, foreign-language or not, the academy has now become the place that sees no distinction between studios and independent companies, and in fact sometimes prefers the latter. This marks the third time in five years the top prize has gone to an independent studio. Neon is certainly that, not part of a global media conglomerate but owned and funded by the Gulf States Toyota mogul Dan Friedkin, who also finances Neon’s sister entities 30 West and Imperative – a kind of mini-cluster of independent film financing, production and distribution.

It remains to be seen what the award efforts from the studios, who dived in massively this year as Universal, Sony and Warner Bros all made big plays with studio films – and all came up short for the big prize. That was particularly true in the case of Universal, which had one of the years biggest bombs in “Cats” but an apparent surefire best-picture winner in “1917,” the prohibitive frontrunner. That the movie has grossed $288 million around the world may help ease the sting.

One sales agent said he was certain that, in a culture of global franchises, the academy might swing more toward foreign-language films but that studios were unlikely to take the plunge. Even if they don’t, companies with the “Parasite” mindset might carry the baton. Imperative has recently financed “Mosul,” a new dramatic thriller about an Iraqi police force directed by a Hollywood filmmaker. Its primary language? Arabic.

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