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‘Parasite’ Distributor Tom Quinn Explains How the Movie Became an Oscar-Winning Hit

Exclusive: The Neon co-founder made time at Sunday's awards ceremony to explain how the historic winner became a phenomenon.

Bong Joon-ho (2nd row, 4-R) poses with key team members and stars of his film 'Parasite' at an event at London West Hollywood in Los Angeles, California, USA, 09 February 2020, after the black comedy film took four titles at the 92nd annual Academy Awards gala that was held earlier the same night at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood. The movie won Oscars in the categories Best Picture, Directing, International Feature Film and Writing (Original Screenplay).Parasite team poses after Oscars ceremony, Los Angeles, USA - 10 Feb 2020

Bong Joon Ho poses with key team members and stars of his film ‘Parasite’ at an event at London West Hollywood in Los Angeles February 9, after the film won four Oscars.

YONHAP/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Bong Joon Ho had a lot to celebrate Sunday night, as “Parasite” made history several times over. The South Korean movie was the first non-English language release to win the Oscar for Best Picture, as well as the Best International Feature Oscar. Bong — who also won awards for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay — had a lot of help from his North American distributor over the last few months, and three-year-old Neon had much to toast as well.

Co-founder Tom Quinn has been positioning the company as an aggressive player since its first awards season, when Neon bought “I, Tonya” at the Toronto International Film Festival and sped into an awards season that landed Allison Janney her first Oscar. Over time, the company has remained a competitive buyer with a robust theatrical strategy that reached its apex with “Parasite.”

Quinn, whose relationship with Bong goes back to the executive’s stints at Magnolia Pictures (“The Host,” “Mother”) and Radius (“Snowpiercer”), acquired “Parasite” at the script stage in 2018. After it became the first Korean movie to win the Palme d’Or last year, the company plotted out a wide release strategy that yielded box office receipts that just keep growing. The movie has grossed some $35.5 million in North America as it continues to be a global phenomenon.

In recent months, Quinn was reticent to address the nature of the movie’s release strategy and how it compared to other Oscar-season titles. However, as the movie picked up one trophy after another on Sunday, Quinn chatted with IndieWire from the lobby of the Dolby Theatre.

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In your mind, how much of a gamechanger is this?

This is the only context I can give you after having done this for 25 years: When I first saw “Amelie,” it was on a flight back to the U.S. It had not opened in the U.S. yet. I watched it four times in a row. I’d never seen anything like it. It was so alive and amazing. The movie was huge. It loomed so large in my head — more so than “Pan’s Labyrinth” or even “Crouching Tiger.” It was a true art film by someone who had made an original art film before, and that was “Delicatessen.” In my lifetime, I never thought it would be possible for that to happen again. For us to cross that box office last weekend is a weird milestone that I’m having a hard time reckoning with, that we’ve actually done it. We just passed “The Favourite,” we will cross “Pan’s Labyrinth.” I am in awe of that. With all of the noise around everything being broken, nothing’s working, audiences aren’t coming to cinemas, this defies all of that.

Does the rest of the world benefit from foreign-language films performing in the U.S. the way that America does?

tom quinn

Tom Quinn

Daniel Bergeron

Probably not. The Palme d’Or has been relevant in ways that are probably more impactful than maybe the Best Picture Oscar has been for many years — at least for people who care about true auteurs and global cinema. But it seems like the boundaries between everything — South Korea, America, wherever — we are growing closer together. While this may have been a local production, look at what it’s achieved. The fact that it will cross $200 million in box office globally, I think that has a huge impact.

So how do you think this will impact the marketplace?

Will there be a very foolish attempt by Hollywood to chase every single foreign-language film known to man, as it spends gazillions of dollars and pleads that it can make all of them into the next “Parasite”? Sure, that’ll happen, and that’s great. I love that. But every movie is its own film, and every release plan is unique to that film. We released this film the way that Cinema 5 released “Z.” That was our model, that was our goal. And it still worked. So the tried-and-true methods of theatrical cinema still work today as they did 50 years ago.

What do you think the enthusiasm around “Parasite” relative to the other Best Picture nominees says about the state of American cinema?

It says that people are ready for something else. There’s a new generation in town. Both older and younger. There are people under 30, people under 25, people over 60, and this may be their first Korean film. All of a sudden, it’s a gateway drug to other things — not just Bong Joon Ho and South Korean cinema. I saw Rian Johnson earlier tonight. “Knives Out” was truly one of my favorite movies in all of the categories tonight because it’s doing something with a lot of the same themes as “Parasite.” But it’s operating in a way that allows my parents to sit down and engage with it, even if they never choose to see it on its face. They love “Parasite” and “Knives Out” equally.

How might this outcome impact your business decisions going forward? 

They’re the same. They were the same year one, year two, year three. You know, the foreign-language films in year one didn’t work to the level that they have this year. The documentaries in year one didn’t work to the level they did in two and three. We’re not changing anything. It’s about the best things we can find that we think will work.

Do you think streamers will start paying more money for foreign-language films as a result of the enthusiasm around “Parasite”?

Parasite

“Parasite”

Neon

They’re already there. Our biggest competitor for “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” at Cannes was Netflix. They’ve always been interested. The question is, can they build the best model for that film? I don’t know. Sony Classics was in there. They’ve done this for years. It’s weird, but they all benefit each other, even though they’re not at the same table. That’s what I find most fascinating. “Marriage Story,” “The Two Popes,” and “The Irishman” are not on the same shelf space as where we are at the Oscars.

Streaming entities like Netflix are supposedly making data-driven decisions that tell them what people will commit to watching at home. Isn’t that relevant, too? 

Do they really make decisions based on data? Their public data decisions suggest that two minutes are the marker for whether you actually watch a film. They count that as a view. Why not just cut a trailer and call it a day? Take the trailer that wins the most views and go make that movie.

You must see some upside to the streaming part of the equation.

Look, it’s a credit to the career trajectory of Bong Joon Ho that “The Host” was a huge piece of ancillary business. It grossed like $2 million on DVD and VOD. It was massive. If you look at “Snowpiercer” and “Okja,” those are huge movies on SVOD. Here we are releasing “Parasite” in a traditional window, but will be on streaming. It is a symbiotic relationship. One benefits the other. The thing that validates this is that our movies wind up on streaming. Our movies have always wound up there. It just so happens that when they do, they’re more valuable when they get there.

What’s your biggest takeaway from the last several months?

Everybody needs to fucking settle down and figure out what’s best for each movie. The best way to see “The Irishman” was in a theater, without fail. I saw it in a theater. It had my undivided attention. Going to a theater is a massive commitment, but once you go, it’s huge. That’s a relevant thing.

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