The South Korean film Parasite made Oscar history in several ways on Sunday, winning four of the six Academy Award categories in which it was nominated. Parasite was the underdog movie of this year’s Oscars race, and its groundbreaking showing is all the more impressive when you look at the eight other Best Picture nominees, all of them mainstream films with bigger studios campaigning for them than Parasite, which was released domestically by indie distributor NEON.
Netflix reportedly spent “at least $70 million” to promote their eight films in the race, with the streaming giant going into the night with a total of 24 nominations. And yet, in the end Netflix won only two — Marriage Story’s Laura Dern took home Best Supporting Actress and American Factory nabbed Best Documentary — with its most heavily promoted contender, Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, completely shut out. So why was this Parasite’s year and why did Netflix come up short?
“In the end you cannot buy an Oscar nomination and when you try the Academy tends to resent it,” Richard Rushfield, veteran entertainment journalist and writer of The Ankler newsletter told IGN. “It’s been, for a long time now, when you have these films that ‘the establishment’ sort of declares in unison, ‘this has to win, you have to give this all the prizes,’ that the membership says, ‘Well, no we don’t.’ And [The Irishman] just has this force of not only [a 96%] Rotten Tomatoes score, but the biggest budget ever put behind a awards campaign for it, and this platinum-coated team … It just felt like this giant behemoth being forced down on people. And I don’t think the Academy members like it, and it’s not a good story to tell [as an institution].”
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And few “good stories” about a Best Picture winner are more appealing to Oscar voters than that of the underdog film, which Parasite certainly was heading into the 92nd Academy Awards. “Parasite’s win came after a combination of momentum, word-of-mouth, and sheer fandom. It was always a film celebrated for how different it was, and how risky it was in the way it balanced all of these different tones,” said Erik Davis, managing editor of Fandango. “Make no mistake, this film winning Best Picture was one of the great moments in Oscar history. It’s a moment long overdue and one audiences have been waiting for. It’s the kind of win that tells the rest of the world that any film, big or small, from America or abroad, can win Best Picture. That’s an important message to send to the next generation of filmmakers: you can make it here, too.”
That’s a sentiment echoed by Rushfield: “In the end it’s always about the film. It was having a movie that people really liked that sort of snuck up by surprise on people because it wasn’t this goliath like The Irishman, that demanded that everybody fall in line behind it.”
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IndieWire Editor-at-Large Anne Thompson suggested that the biggest obstacle against Netflix was the streamer’s own end game – which was to draw more subscribers to the streaming service. Despite opening their films “really effectively” and winning rave reviews on the film festival scene, Thompson believes “they wanted to use all of that attention to drive more people to watch the films on Netflix. That is their goal, and all of this Oscar attention achieved that goal whether they win or not. I would argue that if they were in movie theaters, which is, by the way, not their business trying to make these films into box office successes, they could have held onto more momentum all the way across the finish line.”
It’s also possible The Irishman lost the old-fashioned way: something better came along to vote for. “Parasite and 1917 are what happened to The Irishman,” said Davis of the incredibly competitive awards season that saw the frontrunner constantly changing. “Both films debuted in theaters to wide acclaim after momentum for Scorsese’s film had evened out. Perhaps a late surge by those two films are what put a damper in Irishman’s chances in the long run.”
Here’s why IGN named Parasite the best movie of 2019:
Thompson said she had observed the goodwill on the part of Academy members towards Parasite building over awards season, especially when director Bong Joon-ho and his cast spent time in Hollywood campaigning for the film and winning Oscar voters over on a personal basis. “It was like Moonlight, he way that they wanted to root for this movie. The way they cared about it, were invested in it,” Thompson said, adding that her fellow Oscar ceremony attendees went wild every time the film won.
For more on the 92nd Academy Awards, check out the complete winners list, learn why Joker was never going to win Best Picture, and discover who Parasite director Bong Joon-ho is tied with for Oscars wins in a single ceremony.
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