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Thanks to “Parasite,” we know what it takes for Americans to see an international film in theaters

Kwak Sin Ae, Han Jin Won, Bong Joon-ho
Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP
Winning doesn’t hurt.
  • Adam Epstein
By Adam Epstein

Entertainment reporter

Published This article is more than 2 years old.

Following its historic Oscar win, Parasite is now winning at the US box office.

The South Korean thriller made $6.8 million over the Presidents’ Day weekend—its top-grossing weekend since debuting in select American theaters in October. In total, it has grossed $205 million globally and $44.5 million in the United States, not too shabby for the fourth highest-grossing foreign-language film in the US of all time (not adjusted for inflation).

That Bong Joon-ho’s masterpiece saw a boost in ticket sales in the days after becoming the first foreign-language film to win the Oscar for Best Picture shouldn’t come as a shock. Most Best Picture winners get a box-office bump after the ceremony. But the size of Parasite‘s jump is unprecedented in modern times. If it reaches $50 million in the US, as analysts expect will happen in the next week, that would be the biggest post-Oscars jump (29%) since Million Dollar Baby in 2005.

While impressive, Parasite‘s unique box-office success underscores just how difficult it is for most other foreign-language films to make a similar mark in the US.

Historically, Americans don’t pay to see international films in theaters, and it’s only partly their fault. That’s because many of these films have trouble getting into theaters at all. For example: The new Sonic the Hedgehog movie opened in 4,167 American theaters. Parasite opened in three theaters (that’s not a typo) before slowly expanding over the course of several months into just over 2,000, as of the weekend.

Only 12 foreign-language films have ever even been released in more than 1,000 US theaters. The last one before Parasite was Fearless in 2006. The last to be released in 2,000 theaters before Parasite was Kung Fu Hustle in 2005.

There are only so many theater screens, and the big franchise blockbusters—the only movies that can singlehandedly affect a Hollywood studio’s bottom line—take up most of the real estate. That leaves little room for mid-budget original films, let alone ones that are not in English. The major studios, meanwhile, have generally stopped committing resources to make films that don’t stand a chance at turning massive profits.

But Parasite makes it clear that Americans are willing to see these kinds of films in theaters if given the opportunity. The problem is, most films aren’t afforded that opportunity—in fact, many are simply relegated to streaming services in lieu of a theatrical release. Even after winning the Academy Award, Parasite could only manage to sneak its way into half as many theaters (in its fourth month of release) as the blue hedgehog zoomed into on its first day.

Theater chains, in addition to not wanting to take risks on films that won’t do blockbuster ticket sales, have no idea how to market films like Parasite. They’re unsure if audiences will watch something that has subtitles. Most international films don’t even receive wide US distribution at all.

Thanks to Neon, which purchased the US distribution rights to the film in 2018, Parasite received an actual marketing campaign, which helped it garner enough attention to become a serious Oscars contender (and, eventually, win). The vast majority of foreign-language films don’t get that sort of treatment. Despite being a relatively new shop (Neon started releasing films in 2017), Neon had experience shepherding an Oscars hopeful: In 2018, its film I, Tonya was nominated for three awards.

It also helps that Parasite is, you know, really good. The film sports a 99% on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. Since winning the prestigious Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival last year, Parasite has been a popular topic of water cooler conversations and Reddit threads. Critics and reporters have written about the film often, which increases its awards hopes, which, in turn, makes journalists write about it even more. It’s a self-fulfilling cycle that can greatly enhance the box-office prospects of a film lucky enough to get it—and one that makes us realize how many deserving films are not.

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