“Cinema won tonight,” NEON head Tom Quinn said as he escorted his father to his waiting limo in the parking garage of the Soho House, where a long line of partygoers was still waiting well past 11 p.m. just to get inside to the wild and very packed celebration Quinn’s company had planned for its Oscar nominees, Parasite and Honeyland.
When I saw Quinn at the Indie Spirit Awards on Saturday, he knew it was going to be a good night on some level, but I can tell you he didn’t know it was going to be this good. As we were talking, another NEON associate arrived with the newly engraved Oscar for Best Picture that has NEON’s name on it. Each studio gets their own duplicate Academy Award, in addition to the film’s producers receiving statuettes. At Soho he told me he was still reeling that Parasite pulled off Best Picture, after already winning International Film, Original Screenplay and Director, something of a Roma-style triumvirate that Alfonso Cuarón pulled off last year, only to be upended by Green Book in the end for the big prize.
That sounded like a plausible outcome Sunday too, especially when 1917 took on front-runner status after winning at BAFTA, DGA, PGA and the Globes. But no, this movie went all the way in a pure victory to one of the most incredible, and certainly improbable, triumphs ever at the Oscars. Quinn hoisted NEON’s Oscar in the air as Bong Joon Ho’s South Korean phenomenon made history on so many levels. The excitement about it was electric at this party as Quinn and Director Bong later took the makeshift stage in one of Soho House’s massive rooms once the now-four-time Oscar winner finally arrived just past 1 a.m. “Is this the film I directed?”, Bong asked, still incredulous at the historic victory as the crush of people trying to get near him was a bit overwhelming. It was like a reception for a major rock star. When I saw Bong at the Indie Spirits on Saturday, he said, “I’m fading” — to which I replied, “Just one more day, that’s it.”
He clearly revived enough to have his name and picture on Oscar night forever linked with Walt Disney, who also collected four Oscars in one night in 1954 — the only other person to do it. But in Disney’s case, it was for a number of shorts the studio produced, and in those days they all went to Uncle Walt. And congratulations to Sharon Choi, a ubiquitous presence all season as the interpreter for Bong and his Korean posse. She joins Disney as the only person to make an acceptance speech for four Oscars in one night!
Bong has been on the circuit in one way or another since Cannes Film Festival in May, where Parasite took the Palme d’Or, a sign of things to come. In fact, the only other Oscar-winning Best Picture to also have that distinction — as I have written many times — is Marty, which won both prizes in the very first year the Palme was introduced. Prior to that, the top prize in Cannes was the Grand Prix, which another Best Picture winner, Lost Weekend, shared with several other movies in 1945.
When I ran into Cannes Fest topper Thierry Fremaux at the Governors Ball following the Oscar ceremony at the Dolby, he understandably was thrilled — and not only that this film, which was first seen at his iconic festival, ruled the Oscars but also for another reason. “And it is so great that it became the first foreign-language film to ever win too,” he told me. And even better news for Fremaux: It was one of three Oscar-winning films last night that debuted on the Croisette, along with Elton John’s Original Song victor Rocketman and Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which took two Oscars out of 10 nominations.
In recent years Venice has been stealing a bit of the thunder from Cannes in launching high-profile awards-season contenders as a place where campaigners think a movie can get its prime push into the season. But this was a huge deal for Cannes and might make it easier for Fremaux to persuade distributors to premiere there since going that early certainly didn’t hurt Parasite’s chances. In fact, winning the Palme only emboldened NEON to go big into the season beginning at Telluride over Labor Day. That’s where I first met Bong, who I keep saying is perhaps the most effective campaigner, if that’s the word, or at least willing contender, that I have ever seen do this in all the years I have been covering Oscars.
Right from the start last summer, when I got a call from ID-PR’s Mara Buxbaum excitedly telling me she had signed a new client in Bong Joon Ho and his film, she insisted they were going for Picture, Director, Screenplay, everything, not just International Film. And that mantra never changed in all the various encounters we had right up to Oscar’s red carpet arrivals last night. It was a concentrated strategy that obviously paid off. As for Bong, he charmed this town like no one else, and I love how he kept it up through all his acceptances Sunday night — most notably when he called out Martin Scorsese, who had just lost to him. Great moment in a show that actually had more than a few, but most revolving around what seemed like an impossible outcome.
However, after the show I was predicting a likely ratings downer since, Brad Pitt aside, an Academy Awards that centered on a subtitled foreign-language film from South Korea — a country that had never before even had a single nomination for anything — was not likely to keep the sets all tuned in across America. Indeed it hit an all-time low, down double digits from last year’s rebound. Plus, the four acting winners were so set in stone there was just no surprise about any of them, with the only suspense revolving around what they might say that they haven’t said at every other awards show in the past month. Some of the speeches didn’t exactly help the cause, getting predictably political and causing at least one top exec to tell me after the show: “We have just got to stop preaching to America. This is an entertainment show. We’re driving them away!” The always-sincere and heartfelt Joaquin Phoenix’s Best Actor acceptance speech easily could have been made on the stump in New Hampshire rather than on the stage at the Academy Awards.
This all just proves again that the movies are the draw ratings-wise and the Academy’s panic movie to move this year’s date up (made before last year’s ratings rebound) to become the earliest telecast ever was not the answer. Fortunately, the show goes back to the end of the month — for the next two years at least — where more voters (and audiences) will have time to actually see the movies and theaters can exploit the nominations a little longer and perhaps give the viewers some sort of rooting interest.
That said, at least from my vantage point in the first mezzanine, the show was engaging, with tons of standing ovations, some good musical moments (Eminem!), though at times it looked like they were doing the Grammys instead of the Oscars (that show dropped deep in ratings this year too so maybe its systemic) and met the goal of first-time Oscarcast producers Lynette Taylor Howell and Stephanie Allain, who tried to respect tradition while bringing the show into a more diverse world that it exists in today. They did a nice job, and I liked the fact they didn’t try to play off winners going on too long, though it cost them in terms of a bloated three-hour, 35-minute running time. It isn’t easy putting together a massive enterprise with all these moving parts, and one that has 20 more categories along with the four featuring marquee-draw actors. In that regard, though, I also liked the way they presented all the acting nominees into one clip package that brought each category’s nominees together. Nice.
TV ratings and critical grumbling aside, the outcome of the 92nd Academy Awards was very good for the Academy. It validated efforts to increase membership in a big way with women, people of color and international filmmakers. And thanks to Parasite in particular, it would be hard-pressed for anyone to be trotting out #OscarsSoWhite for a while. AMPAS went its own way, showed a real independent streak, and joined the outside world, following some significant success with Mexico’s Roma last year, with an encouraging result. I am only sorry the major categories couldn’t be spread around a bit more, considering the greatness of many of the other nominees including Jojo Rabbit (happy for Taika Waititi’s Adapted Screenplay win, though), Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, QT’s masterpiece if you ask me, and the equally great 1917. When I caught up with the latter’s director, Sam Mendes, at the Governors Ball, he clearly was disappointed, but I congratulated him on an amazing movie I just saw last week for the third time — in Imax, no less. “I will see you again, maybe in another 10 or 20 years,” he said with a laugh, referring to that Oscar he won first time out at this party for American Beauty exactly 20 years ago.
Finally, there is the Netflix factor to assess. The streamer, which isn’t shy about spending cash, came in with a leading 24 nominations but only won two pretty much sure things in Laura Dern for Supporting Actress in Marriage Story, and its second Documentary Feature win, this time for American Factory. Best Picture remains elusive, but as I pointed out to a good-natured Ted Sarandos when I caught up with him at the Governors Ball, every little step is something because Dern’s win represented Netflix’ first in an acting category. Incremental steps.
He told me he was happy for Parasite, a movie he said he loved, though obviously he would have preferred one of his films to be in that position. He said the global nature of the business is really changing, further evidenced by this victory. He said about 5% of his streamer’s vast foreign-language film output is watched in America, while upward of 85% is the norm for subtitled product in the rest of the world. He’s hoping to double interest in this country this year and is starting with TV series as well with 130 hours of subtitled shows available. Again, incremental steps. It is a slow process but every little thing helps, and that most definitely includes a movie like NEON’s Parasite. As Bong Joon Ho says, “Once you overcome the 1-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.”