Tom Quinn, the founder of the indie studio Neon, thought that Netflix was making a big mistake. After seeing “Okja,” Bong Joon-ho’s eccentric creature feature, he believed passionately that the the offbeat visuals and ambitious story of girl’s bond with a super pig needed to be seen on the big screen. So began a six-month attempt by Quinn to convince the streaming service to partner with Neon on a theatrical release, an effort that ultimately failed.
“I felt it was a huge mistake,” said Quinn.
When Bong announced that he had a script for his next movie, “Parasite,” Quinn didn’t hesitate. He bought the project at the script stage, a highly unusual move for a U.S. studio.
“My disappointment at losing out on ‘Okja’ combined with my love for director Bong’s work caused me to be relentless in my pursuit of his next film,” said Quinn. “We have high hopes for the film.”
Neon isn’t just bringing the film to Cannes. It also plans to mount an awards campaign with the hope of scoring a foreign-language Oscar for the never-nominated Bong, whose films such as “The Host” and “Memories of a Murder” have made him one of the world’s most admired auteurs. Throughout his career, as he’s moved from companies such as Magnolia and Radius, Quinn has worked frequently with Bong. But over that same period of time, American studios have become less and less likely to bet on foreign filmmakers. The movies may be great, but the financial returns just aren’t there. If a foreign movie makes more than $2 million in the States, as Magnolia’s “Shopkeepers” and Amazon Studios’ “Cold War” ($4.6 million) did last year, that’s considered a big success.
“Foreign-language films are important and they deserve to be seen in the U.S.,” said Arianna Bocco, executive vice president of acquisitions and production for IFC Films. “It’s a way to highlight great new filmmakers and important voices. We’re trying to continue in that business, but we’re not buying as many as we used to.”
To that end, IFC Films released “Non-Fiction,” a new drama from French filmmaker Olivier Assayas, on May 3 in the U.S. In the past it has distributed movies from Alfonso Cuaron, Susanne Bier and Mia Hansen-Love. But the number of American distributors who release foreign movies is shrinking. Magnolia is still in the game, as is 1091 Media (formerly The Orchard), but other indie distributors such as A24 and Annapurna primarily make or purchase U.S.-led productions. Sony Pictures Classics has had some of the greatest success in the genre, earning Oscars for the likes of Sebastián Lelio’s “A Fantastic Woman” and László Nemes’ “Son of Saul,” and recording the biggest hit in the company’s history with Ang Lee’s martial arts epic “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”
“Foreign-language movies are never a big business, but we still believe in quality film whatever the language is,” said Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics. “There’s a discerning public that wants to see them. You just have to be careful about how many you buy and what you spend.”
Indie companies such as Sony Pictures Classics need to make sure they don’t lose their shirts releasing foreign films in theaters, a pricey proposition when marketing and distribution costs are taken into account. That’s not the case with Netflix and Amazon, streaming services that are more interested in building a subscriber base than they are in reaping big box office returns. They are also companies that are trying to establish themselves across the globe, attracting customers everywhere from Europe to South America to Asia. To that end, both companies were willing to spend big for the rights to “Les Miserables,” a buzzy French film about police brutality, after it debuted in Cannes this week. Amazon ultimately triumphed, plunking down $1.5 million, an eye-popping sum for a foreign-language movie without any well-known actors. But Amazon thinks it may have an awards contender on its hands and plans to push for Oscars attention.
Studios that stay in the foreign-language game do so partly because they love the movies they’re releasing. Neon’s Quinn says he got the bug as a college student, stocking up on movies from foreign auteurs such as “Man Bites Dog” and “My Life as a Dog” at his local video store in Carrboro, North Carolina.
“I was blown away by these films,” he remembers. “As purveyors of cinema we have an obligation to share this work with the world.”