Despite pumping out some of the most riveting cinema in the world, South Korea has long flailed at the domestic box office. Until now, with NEON’s release of Bong Joon-ho’s Cannes Film Festival Palme D’or winner Parasite, which soared past $11.278M this weekend, with many distribution sources projecting the pic’s stateside endgame at $20M.
Worldwide, Parasite has amassed $106.7M, 67% of that gross coming from South Korea, easily making the pic the helmer’s highest-grossing title of all-time. Joon-ho’s previous global best was 2006’s The Host ($89.4M), followed by 2013’s Snowpiercer ($87M), the latter of which was his best stateside with $4.6M.
Parasite‘s current running B.O. is literally on the verge of besting such foreign language pics as 2007 Best Foreign Language Oscar winner The Lives of Others ($11.286M), and will soon overtake the original Swedish version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo ($12.7M), and Alfonso Cuaron’s Y Tu Tambien ($13.6M) per Comscore.
How did NEON achieve such a feat, especially for a South Korean release? Despite being a booming overseas market not just for Hollywood movies, but it’s own local fare, South Korean pics haven’t translated at the domestic office historically in the way that China releases have, with Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon ($128M), Hero ($53.6M) or Kung Fu Hustle ($17.1M).
Some notable top grossers for South Korean pics stateside include Joon-Ho’s The Host ($2.2M) and Park Chan-wook’s erotic thriller The Handmaiden ($2M). In the lead-up to Parasite winning the Palme d’or,, you could sense there was something special in the air at Cannes: Typically the final day of press screenings at the fest rarely draws applause. But those who caught Parasite hours before it won the grand prize gave it a rapturous response on par to what a pic receives after a world premiere in the Grand Lumiere Theatre. The socially charged thriller follows a down-on-their-luck family whose college prospect son becomes a tutor for a rich teenage girl. He eventually gets his whole family jobs with the wealthier family. Then all goes sideways in a way no one would ever imagine, with several shocking twists.
Coming away from Cannes, NEON only had access to half of the movie when it came to cutting a trailer, which greatly worked in its favor. Says NEON Chief Marketing Officer Christian Parkes, “We looked back at how Hitchcock released his movies, and (producer) William Castle, we tapped into that to give this film its own voice.” Like those masters, it was key not to reveal any spoilers from Parasite, or clues in the trailer, keeping a tight hand while selling the moviegoers on the experience they’re bound to have with the pic in small details.
The sacred payoff here for anyone seeing Parasite is the collective wow the audience shares at the end. Joon-ho sat in the
edit bay with the NEON marketing folks as the US trailer was being cut. One of the key critic pull quotes in the trailer –which is the perfect description of Parasite– comes from Deadline’s sister site Indiewire, which exclaims in the final moments of the pic’s trailer that “It’s a magic trick.”
Parkes said that pull quote resonated greatly with the team. “Bong is the master magician, and he pulls the reveal just as you think the film is going in one direction, it pivots. We were forced into this same position in marketing. We wanted to lead people down a path, to set up the concept of the secrets, leaving Bong as the master magician in the theater.”
Two trailers were cut with over 30 pieces of digital content. Not a single piece of marketing materials included content from the second half of Parasite. On the pic’s Instagram, NEON created an interlocking puzzle of images to promote the film, a series of cliffhangers with interconnecting ads. Social media monitor RelishMix reports that the Parasite trailer’s YouTube views are tracking well at 24.5M, with average daily views in the 10k-14k range, with the top NEON-owned trailer at 8.5M. That boosted to an exceptional 462k daily views recently.
“With this film, the marketing has never just been about week 1,” says Parkes. “But week 5, week 15, week 20 and beyond.”
While Parasite has crept into 602 theaters in its fifth weekend (making $2.55M) in the top 175 markets, NEON is taking it week by week when it comes to the the pic’s expansion. Typically, most specialty distribs at this point in the awards season game like to be at their widest point during Thanksgiving week. But NEON wants to keep Parasite out there amid all the buzz as long as possible. The pic is currently playing in a cross section of multiplexes and arthouses, with solid core runs in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Boston, DC, Seattle, Portland, OR; San Antonio, Austin, Toronto and Montreal.
Parasite has received a nice split of over and under-35 moviegoers, with a good showing from Asian audiences, overall leaning heavily male. Joon-ho fans are, of course, coming out. But “the movie is reaching people who never heard of Bong Joon-ho, and that’s an incredibly rewarding thing for us,” says NEON distribution boss Elissa Federoff, “People are going because their friends are going, or because their friends are telling them to go, or because they saw the trailer.”
Typically how high any foreign film goes at the B.O. has to do with, natch, how much heart and bucks a distributor puts in its P&A. And as a genre thriller coupled with being a Palme d’Or winner, there’s always been a lot of potential for NEON to sell in Parasite. Also, being South Korea’s foreign language Oscar entry helps Parasite greatly.
Back in 2016, South Korea selected The Age of Shadows, upsetting the awards season chances and box office potential of Amazon’s The Handmaiden, which also excited many after its Cannes world premiere. NEON boss’ Tom Quinn has had a longstanding relationship with Joon-ho going back to Snowpiercer at Weinstein Co.’s Radius; NEON buying into Parasite during the script stage. Parasite was reportedly made around $11M after Joon-ho’s pricey $60M+ streaming pic Okja for Netflix.
In regards to the trick of crossing over a South Korean movie to mainstream audiences, Parkes says that the trick was “We didn’t look at this movie as a foreign film. We looked at this as a best picture contender. And when we looked at the film in that context, it removed any barriers.”