Driven by excellent reviews, steady word-of-mouth and an energetic marketing campaign, Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite” was, by many measures, 2019’s most surprising success story. The class-conscious South Korean thriller earned more than $50 million at the U.S. box office and became the first foreign-language film to win the Oscar for best picture.
As the film finally concludes its theatrical run, the question remains: Was “Parasite” a fluke, driven by a deliciously suspenseful storyline and director Bong’s brand-name auteur status? Or are American audiences primed to continue turning subtitled films into blockbusters?
Specialty exhibitors across the country would love nothing more than to keep the momentum going.
“I think we’re always a bit surprised when something breaks through to the extent that ‘Parasite’ did,” says Greg Laemmle, president of the 81- year-old Los Angeles arthouse chain Laemmle Theatres. “We’ve never seen a film from [South] Korea do over $2 [million] or $3 million at the U.S. box office, and to see something move that by a whole order of magnitude is really impressive.”
Russ Collins, CEO/executive director of the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor, Mich., says, “‘Parasite’ caught on with college students as well as mainstream arthouse audiences. It jumped when we first opened it, and was very well-attended. It was right up there with ‘Star Wars’ in our particular case.”
Collins’ theaters are just steps from the University of Michigan campus, and over the past couple decades, he’s worked with foreign-language departments to build attendance for international programs and festivals. (Upcoming weeks include retrospectives of Agnès Varda and Abbas Kiarostami.) As a curator, he’s tried to broaden horizons, introducing French films to high school students and anime classics to college freshmen.
“Subtitled films are kind of like going to a Shakespeare play,” Collins says. “There’s that first 10 minutes or so when you’re adjusting your ear to Shakespearean English. And subtitles, if you’re not familiar with them, are kind of the same way. And then two days after you’ve watched the film, you’ve forgotten that it was subtitled. You just hear the film in your own language.”
Collins is thrilled about the success of “Parasite,” but is careful to put its blockbuster status into perspective. He says he’s frustrated that we talk about movies as representing a singular market, when there are different categories with different barometers of success.
“People who write about music wouldn’t think of including the New York Philharmonic in the same breath that they talk about Taylor Swift. There’s all kinds of market gradations that we understand broadly in music, and cinema is the same way. ‘Parasite,’ in terms of its gross, was a very, very successful film, but it didn’t do nearly the business that ‘Joker’ did.”
For Laemmle, whose theaters’ slogan is “Not Afraid of Subtitles,” the L.A. audience has never been resistant to international programming, and he says that the breadth of foreign options available on streaming services has helped expand tastes further.
“We’ve been operating for 80 years with the premise that Americans should enjoy subtitled films, that it shouldn’t be a barrier. And in many respects, the barrier, at least from a commercial standpoint, was access.”
A more durable challenge, at least for exhibitors in big cities, is volume. “There are 20 films being released every Friday,” Laemmle says. “It’s the work of the distributor or the producer to create that awareness. Sometimes you rely on mass-market techniques, because you think it’s a film that can appeal to everyone, and sometimes you rely on niche marketing techniques, and you’re spending $100 on Facebook to find the people who liked some previous French film. As best we can, we are using the tools at our disposal.”
Looking from the distribution side, Tom Bernard, co-president and co-founder of Sony Pictures Classics — one of the most significant players in foreign-language cinema — says a current “disaster” facing subtitled films is the collapse of newspapers, the death of alt-weeklies and the diminished sway of film critics.
“This is the biggest problem I see in exhibition today,” Bernard says. “It’s a huge problem for any specialized product that’s not Marvel or ‘Star Wars.’ You [used to have] the newspapers and the critics, you had all that media that you read on a weekly basis that informs you when the movie was opening.”
Collins agrees. “There’s nothing good about the death of local news. However, in Ann Arbor, people still read the New York Times. We distribute Film Comment to our members. There are a lot of online resources for them to learn about new films, but it’s up to us as curators.”
In other ways, though, Bernard feels the terrain is getting friendlier. The previous touchstone in terms of a foreign-language blockbuster was Ang Lee’s martial-arts epic “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” which grossed $128 million at the U.S. box office after Sony Classics released it in 2000.
“If you look at ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,’ it was in the same position as ‘Parasite’ in terms of the awards season,” Bernard says. “It was going up against ‘Gladiator’ and there was lots of talk of it winning best picture. But the demographics of the Academy have changed dramatically since that day.”
In addition, exhibitors no longer shy away from foreign-language films. “That was a problem back in the day,” he says. “And they’ve come around. All the major circuits now have an outlet for specialized product.”
For Jeff Bock, an analyst with Exhibitor Relations, it’s telling that “Crouching Tiger,” a 20-year-old film, is the nearest available comparison for the success of “Parasite.”
“‘Parasite’ is a massive outlier,” Bock says. “I don’t think even [the distributor] Neon was expecting this kind of box office performance, much less the attention. When we look at the historical box office of foreign films, there are certain peaks, but they’re very few and far between. We can go back to ‘Like Water for Chocolate’ and ‘Il Postino’ in the early ’90s, and, obviously, ‘Life Is Beautiful.’ But we’re talking years apart and sometimes decades apart.”
Now that “Parasite” has turned its director into a household name, it’s possible that his next film could match its success. Bong has worked in English before (“Snowpiercer,” “Okja”), and he could do so again.
“If Bong decides to keep working out of Korea and keep doing the films that he does that would be phenomenal for the foreign-language film,” Bock says. “That said, there’s going to be a lot of money thrown at him by Hollywood to get him to do his next film in English.”
Neon was already trying to parlay its “Parasite” success into the release of another well-reviewed subtitled film, Celine Sciamma’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.” The French period piece had already grossed $3.7 million in the U.S. until its climb was halted by theater closures across the U.S. as the coronavirus pandemic grew. The entire exhibition industry is reeling as closures hit ’plexes across the U.S.
“Yes, [“Lady”] made it into multiplexes and mostly because of the success of ‘Parasite.’ You will see exhibitors give these films more of a chance, but unless there’s another hit like ‘Parasite,’ that window is going to dwindle quickly. And that’s how it’s always been, at least over the last 30 years, for subtitled films.”