How ‘Parasite’ Changed What Foreign-Language Films Can Do At the Box Office

Full credit goes to the clever strategy of distributor Neon — but the filmmaking career of Bong Joon Ho also provided enviable advantages.
Bong Joon Ho - Best Motion Picture, Foreign Language - Parasite77th Annual Golden Globe Awards, Press Room, Los Angeles, USA - 05 Jan 2020
Bong Joon Ho

This week, “Parasite” received six Oscar nominations; this weekend, Neon will place Bong Joon Ho’s film in 843 theaters. Its widest release to date, concurrent with its introduction to home viewing, are timed to improve Oscar odds and maximize the already-stellar performance of the foreign-language arthouse movie.

Full credit goes to Neon cofounders Tom Quinn and Tim League for their smart strategies, but what’s also notable is the context of its success. By today’s standards, it’s a near miracle; at another time, it would have been just another job well done. Here’s some perspective on its achievement:

“Parasite” Defied 21st-Century Odds

The last major foreign-language hit was the French comedy “Intouchables,” at $10.2 million. Since “Amour” in 2012 ($6.7 million), only Wong Kar Wai’s “The Grandmaster” has even grossed $5 million (unless Netflix’s unreported “Roma” managed that; it likely came close). Recent successes like “Pain and Glory” ($4 million to date) “Cold War” ($4.6 million) “Shoplifters” ($3.3 million) all fell short.

“Parasite” Won’t Break Records

Definition first: The biggest non-English domestic release — by far — is “The Passion of the Christ” (like all upcoming numbers, adjusted to 2020 prices) at $533 million. Other art-house titles that grossed over $100 million include “La Dolce Vita,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “Z,” “Life Is Beautiful,” and “I Am Curious (Yellow).” Titles to pass $50 million include “La Cage aux Folles,” “Pan’s Labyrinth,” “Amelie,” “Il Postino,” and “Like Water for Chocolate.”

The “Parasite” Advantage

First and foremost: Neon was involved with “Parasite” far ahead of its release. When Quinn ran The Weinstein Company’s niche label Radius, he worked closely with Bong on his English-language “Snowpiercer” (and fought fiercely with Harvey Weinstein over the film’s editing and release.) Neon bought North American rights for “Parasite” shortly after filming wrapped in October 2018, and that long runway was key: It gave the company time to create marketing, strategize distribution plans, identify press and festival opportunities, and conduct audience research. All of that bears little resemblance to subtitled standouts that are acquired at Cannes and, three months later, must hit the ground running at fall festivals.

Then, at a Cannes that featured a stellar lineup (“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” “Pain and Glory,” “A Hidden Life,” “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” “Les Miserables,” and more) “Parasite” won the top prize. Although Bong was already a well-known and respected filmmaker, that triumph came as a surprise. (It also represented the first time that a Korean director won the Palme d’Or.)

As a director, Bong had another North American advantage over most subtitled filmmakers: His work already reached younger audiences. In addition to “Snowpiercer,” he directed Netflix title “Okja” and 2006 horror film “The Host,” which was a modest hit ($3.2 million) and as earned cult affection over the years. Even an established European master like Pedro Almodovar doesn’t have the same currency. Bong is more like Alfonso Cuaron, who has shifted seamlessly between studio and art-house fare, which brought credibility for “Roma” ahead of most other non-English releases.


A Brilliant Release Plan, Executed Perfectly

Whether studio or specialized, distribution professionals face many choices in releasing a film. For studio distributors, dates are the primary consideration; for specialized, that initial date is only the beginning. Neon’s considerations also included a staggered expansion while also considering the pace that would keep it in public view through two sets of holidays and maximize its awards chances as well as overall revenue.

Ahead of this, Neon had to figure out how to integrate the top festivals. “Parasite” played the post-Cannes big three Telluride, Toronto, and New York, which dictated that the earliest it could go was October 11. That’s an unusual date for a foreign-language title hoping to sustain a long run. Recent contenders have opened between mid-November and as late as just before New Year’s in order to guarantee play during key dates around the height of the awards season. However, that early date proved to be an excellent choice.

The film had a staggering opening weekend of $393,000 in three theaters, the best platform debut of 2019. The theaters had far less demand on that October date, allowing far more capacity than most later dates might have permitted. Another very unusual choice followed: Neon delayed opening at its second New York theater in Lincoln Center. That meant that city’s audience had only one theater, and a larger overall per-theater average resulted — as well as more rapturous box-office coverage. That giant total caught the attention of all exhibitors, even those who have limited interest in non-English titles, and gained “Parasite” major entree.

Buoyed by uniformly excellent reviews, and then word of mouth, “Parasite” is a now in week 14 of its run with a nearly $26 million gross. That included six weeks of initial expansion, up to 620 theaters and $15 million. The eight weeks since, with fewer theaters, have added $11 million.

That steadfast performance is almost unheard of, even among top Oscar contenders. Yes, Thanksgiving and Christmas helped once the film sustained enough business to compete during those crowded dates. But the film has ranked between #10-#18 every week since its opening. That further feeds its momentum, especially in Los Angeles and New York. (It was #3 last weekend at the high-end Arclight Hollywood, where it’s played since day one.)

At $30 million, it would be second only to “Uncut Gems” (which had a much wider release) among initially platformed specialized releases from 2019 — higher than “Jojo Rabbit,” “Judy,” “The Farewell,” and “Booksmart.” Neon’s biggest success to date was “I, Tonya,” which grossed $30 million.

The Best May Be Yet to Come

Old-school folks might wonder why “Parasite” is starting home availability just as it goes wide. However, the film could end up making more money through these secondary venues than in its theatrical run.

Historically, an independent film with a long run and a high gross will likely will see film rentals of 45% or lower from exhibitors. At $30 million, the distributor will receive about $13 million.

Given the way Neon released the film, and its Oscar nominations, the reality is there are a lot of potential consumers still out there. Outlets like iTunes, Amazon Prime, and VOD provide a far higher return to a distributor than film rental, particularly in later weeks. Distributors are reported to get 65%-70% on streaming/VOD revenues. Prices vary (the initial premium rate is $14.99), but a more standard $6.99 rental times 3 million purchases might return more to Neon than their theatrical take.

All of this goes back to a great hand that Neon played to the hilt. With it comes library value, elevating the company as an even more important go-to distributor, and showing of its finesse to major filmmakers. And beyond Neon, this proves it’s possible for subtitled films to reach the highest levels of specialized returns. It might be unique, but it will increase the interest of distributors — and more importantly, of younger audiences.

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