Academy Awards 2020: How a “very opportune moment” crashed the studios’ party

Dr Yannis Tzioumakis is a Reader in Film and Media Industries in the University of Liverpool’s Department of Communication and Media

A few weeks ago, when the 2020 Academy Awards nominations were announced I wrote a piece that examined these nominations as reflecting the “return of the ‘quality’ Hollywood studio film.”

With The Irishman, Once Upon A Time in Hollywood… and 1917 being the frontrunners for the coveted Best Picture Award and with the number of the nominated indie films in decline, it was clear that the Hollywood studios were staking a stronger claim to the kinds of films that seemed to be liked by the members of Academy of Motion Pictures than in recent years. I finished my piece with the sentence “But unless on 9 February 2020 when the 92nd Academy Award ceremony takes place there is one of the most major upsets in the history of the event, the winning film this year will be a studio film.”

The ceremony has now taken place. And one of the most major upsets in the 92-year history of the Oscars has occurred!

Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, a film from South Korea won the Oscar for Best Picture. It beat all the Hollywood studio films, including 1917, which during awards season had emerged as a firm favourite having received awards from the major Guilds, the members of which also vote in their respective Academy Award categories. It became the first “foreign” (i.e. non-English language) film to win Best Picture. It also won awards for Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best International Feature Film.

Adding to this historic result was the fact that in the last 50 years only seven other films in languages other than English had been nominated for the main award: The Emigrants (1972), Cries and Whispers (1973), Il Postino (1995), Life is Beautiful (1998), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), Amour (2012) and Roma (2019). Roma had been heavily tipped to win Best Picture last year but, in the end, it lost to Universal’s Green Book.

So how can one explain Parasite’s triumph against these odds? One of the possible answers is hidden in its producer Kwak Sin Ae’s Oscar acceptance speech comment: “I feel like a very opportune moment in history is happening now.” Despite not explaining what kind of opportunities this moment refers to, a lot of coverage of the film’s victory at the Oscars points towards the increasing global success of Korean entertainment and culture that includes television, pop music and indeed cinema, collectively known as halluy. No doubt, victory at the Oscars will make Parasite the crowning jewel of this success.

On the other hand, from a media industries perspective the “very opportune moment” may be referring to the increasing visibility of non-English language films at the box office and popular culture more broadly after approximately 15 years in the Hollywood margins.

During the late 1990s and the early 2000s, non-English language films seemed to have conquered the US market and through Hollywood’s huge distribution and publicity resources achieved both substantial box-office success and visibility. Life Is Beautiful (1999), Hero (2003) and especially Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) achieved unprecedented commercial success and won Academy Awards, though not the main award for Best Picture. Together with Amélie (2001), Monsoon Wedding (2001), Y Tu Mamá También (2002), The Motorcycle Diaries (2004), Kung Fu Hustle (2004), Volver (2006) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), they pointed to the presence of a very strong film market for international (commercial) productions. This looked like it was complementing the market for American indies, especially as both markets were dominated by the majors’ specialty film divisions (Miramax, Fox Searchlight, Focus Features).

But what in the mid-2000s looked like a sustainable international film boom in US screens after decades of little penetration beyond a core number of art houses in major metropolitan markets, only a couple of years later seemed to have been all but finished. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Life Is Beautiful have yet to be threatened in terms of box office success by any other film since their release at the turn of the century, while only three films released since 2007 have achieved notable commercial success, with the Mexican comedy Instructions Not Included (2013) being the only one to have achieved a crossover status (until the success of Parasite this year).

The reasons for this trend were several. First, the closure of most of the conglomerated Hollywood majors’ specialty film divisions (Miramax, Paramount Vantage, Warner Independent) limited substantially the number of well capitalised and resourced companies with significant experience in releasing foreign films in the US market. Second, the stratospheric increase in advertising and marketing costs of releases by the studio specialty film divisions in the late 2000s made all the companies in the sector become much more conservative in terms of the types of films they would invest in than they were in the earlier years of the decade, when these costs were much lower. Add to this the impact of the global financial crisis of 2008, which forced distributors to seek ways to minimise risk even further, and it is clear that the market for imports was much changed in the latter part of the 2000s and 2010s compared with the late 1990s and early 2000s.

But like with a lot of developments in recent years, the recent emergence of streaming platforms seems to have been changing the rules of the game, again. Last year’s almost victory of Roma at the Oscars was a strong indication that films in non-English language with substantial box office potential might stage a comeback. Of course, Roma was only nominally released in theatres as it was a Netflix original production. But with 3.2 million views just in the months of January and February 2019 (according to NBC News), one can appreciate that it was the equivalent of a big theatrical box office success.

Equally important, recently established theatrical distributors such as Neon (which is handling Parasite’s release in the US theatrical market) Bleecker Street, Open Road and others, together with the theatrical distribution arms of streaming giants such as Amazon Studios (which last year scored critical acclaim, Academy Award nominations and some box office success with Cold War) seem to be willing to invest with greater confidence in non-English speaking films than in the past 15 or so years.

But the lynchpin in all these developments is an expansive audience that is increasingly open to non-traditional theatrical content – films in non-English language, documentaries, shorts, and even 3 ½ hour films (that could have been made into a television series). Despite 1917 emerging as the hot favourite in awards season, social media had been on fire since the Academy Awards nominations about how good Parasite was and how much it deserved to win Best Picture – even though the Academy voters would surely never give this award to a South Korean film.

The Academy made history and gave the Best Picture award to a South Korean film! Perhaps “the opportune moment” then is for all vibrant film scenes around the world to continue their efforts to break national borders, entice distributors to release their films in the US and use Hollywood’s global visibility to make their films known to as big an audience as possible.

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