Friday, February 3, 2023

How Passionate Word Of Mouth Shapes What Wins Best Picture

When “Parasite” won Best Picture back in 2019, it felt like a longstanding dam had ceremoniously sprung a leak. It was, of course, the first International Feature Film nominee to win Best Picture, which was historic in its own right, but the film’s overwhelming success went far beyond setting records. “Parasite” was the fan-favorite pick of the awards season litter, a universally beloved satire that captured the cultural consciousness in a way no other nominee that year had done. However, the political landscape and historical precedent of AMPAS and the Oscars made a Best Picture victory seem unlikely at face value. However, slowly, the film began cultivating incredible momentum. Even skeptics began to come around as the big night finally arrived. The writing was on the wall as soon as “Parasite” won its Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Seeing the crowd explode louder and louder for each successive win, culminating in Best Picture, was something truly magical. For the first time in many years, a previously-deemed underdog contender solidified its place as the rightful winner in a way that united the entire awards community. It was the best possible timeline.

How did we get there? How did it become possible for a South Korean social satire to climb its way to the most coveted prize in Hollywood? It was, of course, an alchemy of many things, including the incredibly talented cast and creative team and the film’s aforementioned reflection of our current classist landscape. However, it was also because of incredibly strong word-of-mouth, cultivated by distributor NEON as a result of the film’s success at Cannes and subsequent festivals.

When looking for the source of “Parasite” and its popularity, the film’s outspoken online fanbase (aka the #BongHive) gave NEON the confidence to give it the push it needed for awards attention. It has become the pinnacle case study in modern awards campaigning, culminating in film distributors’ migration to social media platforms as hype machines and award punditry’s expansion into online communities and content. The pathway to “Parasite” is being replicated in several of this year’s biggest contenders and will likely become the de facto method for flipping the script on Academy precedents.

Flashback to 2018. Bong Joon-Ho has already hit a peak level of reputation in the independent and international film communities thanks to critically beloved co-productions “Snowpiercer” and “Okja.” NEON goes on to purchase the distribution rights to “Parasite” following its first screenings at the American Film Market, where the film is billed as a social satire that has him returning to his home country and language. In 2019, the film premiered at Cannes to rave reviews and took home the first Palme d’Or for a South Korean production. The narrative is instantly clear: this was Bong’s masterpiece.

Cinephile anticipation skyrocketed, giving NEON the leverage to promote the film in what was easily one of the most impressive festival runs for a film…ever. It delighted critics and festival audiences everywhere, from the populist (TIFF, Telluride) to the avant-garde (NYFF, Locarno), selling out screening after screening with rave reviews kept pouring in. It even pulled a publicity stunt or two, such as the distribution of peaches at the film’s NYFF screening. Fans were finally getting a chance to see it, and many were even eager to see it again, saying that the film’s densely detailed script and cinematography warranted multiple viewings.

The stage was set for the film’s official theatrical release, where it broke all sorts of box office records across multiple countries, including the highest per-theater average for any US release in 2019. “Parasite” was the hottest ticket in town in New York City, only playing in three theaters with almost every showing completely sold out. This gave NEON the confidence (nay, the obligation) to continue expanding the film across the country, where more and more people, even those who never watch international films, began to fall in love with it. The film even merited specialty theatrical runs, including an IMAX re-release and a limited run for the film’s black-and-white version, a cut overseen by director Bong.
The film community continued to support the film online through awards season, generating plenty of hilarious memes featuring some of the film’s most iconic lines (“I am deadly serious”). Some content creators even made video essays dissecting the film’s craft, giving viewers insight into the many layers that make up the film’s commentary. As “Parasite” kept topping several critics’ lists, the film solidified itself as not only the best film of the year but one of the greatest films of all time.

In punditry circles, the film already had Best International Feature in the bag. Still, several critics began pushing for the film to receive wider recognition, highlighting director Bong and his ensemble of actors as some of the best the year had to offer. NEON used this acclaim to their advantage, submitting “Parasite” for Oscar consideration for every category: not just Best International Feature, but also Best Original Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actor for Song Kang-ho, among others. The film was given an extensive screening schedule for the press and industry as well, including a spotlight in Collider’s FYC series at the Arclight in Los Angeles.

The film’s narrative continued to build and build. Despite international films rarely receiving recognition outside of their own category, “Parasite” was so beloved that it became the little Korean engine that could. It broke down people’s biases over subtitles and international films by tackling a universal subject with a dash of everything we love about cinema: comedy, drama, heart, darkness, etc. Even if people were too cynical to believe it could win, they secretly wanted it to win. They wanted to see this miracle of a movie win the day. They wanted to see David take down Goliath.

That’s precisely what happened, sending shockwaves through the awards community and setting us up for a much more open landscape in terms of what films or filmmakers are considered viable for awards consideration. As we approach the third ceremony following “Parasite” and its win, we have continued to see assumptions and precedent buckle under the pressure of solid community support. In 2021, Youn Yuh-jung became the first South Korean actress to win an Oscar for her beloved supporting turn in “Minari.” That same year, Thomas Vinterburg scored a beautifully surprising nomination in the Best Director category for “Another Round,” besting other assured nominees such as Florian Zeller and Aaron Sorkin. Both of these films mounted campaigns following strong critical acclaim.

At this past ceremony, “CODA” was crowned Best Picture–despite an early festival acquisition and a late-stage campaign effort–all thanks to strong word-of-mouth and tremendous momentum. Right alongside it was “Drive My Car,” Japan’s over three-hour entry into the race, which was honored with four nominations in the same categories “Parasite” had previously won. Even this year, we’re seeing word-of-mouth rocket films forward. One clear example is “Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio,” a film that, prior to its premiere, was seen as a contender for Best Animated Feature and little else. Now, many pundits have it down as the first animated feature to be nominated for Best Picture since “Toy Story 3.”

However, nowhere is the trend being replicated more closely than with “Everything Everywhere All At Once,” A24’s golden boy for this year’s race yet at an even greater disadvantage than “Parasite.” Coming off of their critically divisive but successful debut feature, “Swiss Army Man,” Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinart had plenty to prove. Their film was released back in March, shattering per-theater averages and eventually being crowned the distributor’s highest-grossing film ever. The film became the online film community’s obsession, becoming the highest-rated feature film on Letterboxd for an extended period of time (a record also broken by “Parasite” upon its release). Even casual moviegoers succumbed to word-of-mouth, helping the film sustain a robust theatrical run that even merited an IMAX re-release.

However, in a similar vein as “Parasite,” Academy precedent built walls around the sci-fi comedy. Daniels’ wacky, irreverent vision of multiversal sensory overload was deemed too strange to be the Best Picture frontrunner. But then, as more and more of the industry saw the film and rallied behind its colossal beating heart, not to mention its beloved ensemble, the film has secured a lock for a nomination and is inching closer and closer to being the #1 contender in the category. Many are still holding out that “The Fabelmans” will coast to the finish line, but as we saw with “The Power Of The Dog” last year, coasting has become a potential death sentence in the awards race.

In all fairness, it’s worth noting that Academy underdog stories are nothing new. In fact, “Parasite” and its victory can trace its origins back to 2016 when “Moonlight” won Best Picture over the presumed favorite, “La La Land.” Chazelle’s ode to Los Angeles and classic Hollywood musicals was seen as the industry frontrunner despite more significant universal acclaim for “Moonlight,” Jenkins’ sensitive coming-of-age story. For many people in the film community, “Moonlight” felt like a historic achievement in that it cast the light on an often overlooked perspective on screen–Black, gay men–while doing so in a way that captured people’s hearts and critical eyes. Still, it was hard to foresee the queer indie drama toppling the bombastic musical, yet that’s what happened.

In the grand scheme of things, “Parasite” feels like lightning in a bottle. Thanks to word-of-mouth, many of the more subtle victories can feel minuscule amidst several other categories and winners, confirming trends the Academy has perpetuated for years. Traditionally attuned awards contenders like “Green Book,” “Mank,” and “Belfast” still take home awards every year. Not every old tradition dies hard. But when you look at the slew of critically-praised, diverse nominees we’ve seen in recent years, it’s clear that a needle is moving.

From horror-thriller “Get Out” to the superhero film “Black Panther,” genre films have received Best Picture nominations back-to-back years. Female filmmakers, such as Emerald Fennell and Rachel Morrison, broke barriers in their respective categories. International films, especially in the wake of “Parasite,” have begun to be recognized in other categories, such as the Best Original Screenplay nomination for “The Worst Person In The World.” Even the Best Picture nomination for “Sound of Metal,” a film that spotlights deaf and hard-of-hearing communities, feels colossal when you step back and appreciate how far it came from premiering at TIFF more than a year before its awards run. The gates have never been more wide open for complex, diverse stories to be acknowledged at the Oscars.

As the population of the Academy skews more and more diverse year after year, and as awards punditry expands to fresher online publications and voices, the kinds of films people wish to recognize at the Oscars are changing. Many of the Academy’s conventions for prestige storytelling–American or English, historical settings, biographical subjects, self-important character dramas–are becoming less standard. Many of them are even rejected by modern critics and film lovers because they refuse to include valuable films that capture the zeitgeist in a significant way for them.

Films like “Get Out,” “Parasite,” and “Everything Everywhere All At Once” do not fit these conventions. Yet, they still become impenetrable pieces of social commentary that people wish to see awarded. As more and more reactions on social media are funneled into the eyes and ears of studios and distributors, this gives them the confidence to push the film into campaigns. Suddenly, industry professionals become exposed to these films, like them, spread the word, and the momentum builds. Despite all of the politics, at the end of the day, a film’s quality is the basis for whether or not it succeeds during the season, and quality is beginning to become the trump card.

All of this isn’t to say that word-of-mouth is the end all be all. The Oscars have a long way to go before they begin to fully reflect the community of cinephiles they are supposed to represent. But in the internet age, plenty of films are making considerable waves thanks to online support. “Parasite” only sprung a leak in the dam, but at this rate, full-on destruction is imminent. This is exactly the kind of momentum that could propel “Everything Everywhere All At Once” to one of the greatest underdog Best Picture wins in Academy Award history alongside recent winners “Moonlight,” “Parasite” and “CODA.” Tastes within the film community are constantly changing (as evidenced by the new Sight & Sound Top 100 Films Of All Time Poll), and the definition of an “Oscar contender” has already been completely redefined. With the right passion, word of mouth, and campaign from A24, we may see that narrative continue for the Daniels’ latest.

​Do you think word of mouth will help push “Everything Everywhere All At Once” to a Best Picture win? What do you think is the current frontrunner and who are you predicting to ultimately win the Oscar for Best Picture? Please let us know your thoughts in the comments section below or on our Twitter account and check out the Next Best Picture team’s latest Oscar predictions here.

You can follow Larry and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @_heylarry_

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