Parasite rocks US box office, helped by upstart studio

LOS ANGELES • It was not a surprise critics would love Parasite, the latest film from acclaimed South Korean director Bong Joon-ho.

But box-office success for this sometimes funny, sometimes horrifying Korean-language tale of economic inequality was no sure thing.

Enter Mr Tom Quinn, head of Neon, a rising independent film distributor and production company.

Mr Quinn, who had worked with Bong on four of his earlier movies, secured the North American distribution rights to Parasite in October last year on the strength of the script.

He was there at the Cannes Film Festival in May this year, when the film received a standing ovation and the festival’s top award, the Palme d’Or.

After returning home, he saw it once more in a theatre. He said he cried through the ending.

That was months before a theatrical run that has defied assumptions about the entertainment industry at a time when streaming has threatened the cinematic experience and films with superheroes are among the few surefire box-office bets.

Since rolling out internationally over this summer and in North American theatres in October, Parasite has grossed more than US$114 million (S$156 million) worldwide. In the United States, where it played on 620 screens, it is still going strong, having earned more than US$16 million.

Bong said he appreciated working with someone like Mr Quinn, an executive unjaded enough to weep in a movie theatre.

“I was a little taken aback when I heard that,” Bong said. “Usually, distributors focus on analysing and luring the audience through marketing campaigns. But Tom can still put himself into the audience. I think that’s pretty unique.”

Mr Quinn, 49, is not one for the sky-is-falling mentality that has gripped much of Hollywood. He has built Neon into a power among independent distributors with an old-school formula: trusting his taste and acquiring intelligent films.

“Where else can we create this communal experience?” he said. “It has a little bit of fellowship, a lot of fun, and it only happens in church, school and the theatres.”

He started Neon in 2017 with Mr Tim League, founder of the Alamo Drafthouse theatre chain.

In addition to Parasite, Neon scored this year with documentary Apollo 11, which had a 38-week theatrical run on its way to earning more than US$16 million worldwide.

While box-office revenue for independent films was sinking during the first half of the year – down 36 per cent – according to box-office analyst Paul Dergarabedian, Neon also found success with Aretha Franklin documentary Amazing Grace, which played in theatres for 50 weeks starting last December.

Parasite is practically guaranteed an Oscar nomination in the international category and has a strong chance of a Best Picture nod.

“Looking at Neon’s original and witty marketing campaigns, I can feel the energy that comes with being a young company and a young distributor,” Bong said.

After working at a video store when he was a student at the University of North Carolina, Mr Quinn started his career at Samuel Goldwyn Films before joining Magnolia Pictures, where he discovered Bong’s The Host (2006) and its follow-up, Mother (2009).

In 2011, he went to work for Harvey Weinstein, starting Radius-TWC, a label at The Weinstein Co. In that job, Mr Quinn protected Bong’s 126-minute cut of 2013 thriller Snowpiercer from the boss, who was known as Harvey Scissorhands for his tendency to cut films in the editing room.

Mr Quinn left in 2015, two years before the company imploded after sexual misconduct allegations against Weinstein. Little by little, he raised US$30 million to get Neon off the ground.

The company, which has 27 employees, became a player at the Toronto Film Festival in 2017, when it joined media investment company 30West to beat Netflix for domestic rights to I, Tonya, despite offering less money.

I, Tonya later made US$30 million and won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Allison Janney.

Mr Quinn said Neon had often found itself in competition with Netflix. “A lot of times, the money is three times what we are offering.

“But they are offering it without a guarantee of a theatrical window or even a theatrical qualifying window. And we are committed to the theatrical experience.”


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