Why “Parasite” Got Under America’s Skin

- Even prior to this year's award season, audiences were overwhelmingly associating the movie with accolades over all other attributes.

- Interest in the movie was partly driven by a small but dedicated fanbase of Bong Joon-ho, known as the ‘BongHive’. This younger group of cinephiles kept Parasite front and centre, while focussing on Joon-ho, his previous movies and Parasite’s acceptance by the Letterboxd online community.

- Young US-filmgoers in particular possess a growing appetite to explore the world around them; while demonstrating a strong inclination towards different cultures and countries – of which viewing foreign movies would be a conducive activity.

Now that the shock has passed, there was perhaps an air of inevitability about Parasite becoming the first-ever foreign-language movie to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards. While many saw the nomination of Bong Joon-ho’s social satire in the category as tokenistic, given the overwhelming likelihood of it winning Best Foreign Picture instead, there was a distinct sense of a swell of support for it as the 92nd Academy Awards approached.

Whether Parasite won on its own undeniable merits or took advantage of a universally strong field of more traditional Hollywood output that divided voters, it could be argued that a foreign language movie taking home Hollywood’s most coveted prize has been on the cards for some time. Lest we forget, it was a mild shock last year when a foreign language movie did not win Best Picture, in the shape of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma; however, the narrative for that particular near-miss was “Netflix almost wins Best Picture”. Likewise, non-US directors have won Best Director nine out of the last ten times, with Damien Chazelle the only American-born director to receive the prize within the last decade.

While there is certainly a novelty to a history-making Best Picture winner that the Oscars brand will be desperate to seize upon, Parasite taking home the biggest prize in Hollywood could also be an epoch-defining moment for US movie audiences finally looking beyond their own shores.

Hive Mind

From its very first premiere, Parasite’s success has been forged in prestige. While its box office run is not yet complete and is sure to receive a huge boost this week, Parasite is already South Korea’s most successful cinematic export, with $170 million grossed internationally and counting. When then cult director Bong Joon-ho’s latest picture made its debut to the world at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, it instantly gained award-worthy credence by taking the Palme d’Or. Within less than a year, it would become not only the first foreign-language movie to win Best Picture at the Oscars but also the first Palme d’Or winner to also take the prize.

It is no surprise then to see how Parasite’s award-frenzied zeitgeist has shaped audience perception of it. By running the title through our movie and TV audience analysis tool, LimeLight, throughout 2019 before the US award season began in earnest, we can already see that audiences were overwhelmingly associating the movie with accolades above all else.

Attributes

What is also striking is how the genre-defying nature of Parasite struck such a chord with its promotional material, which leaned heavily into the surprise at the heart of the plot and created an ambiguity around the film’s tone as to whether it was a comedy, thriller, horror, or perhaps all of the above and more. The trailers genuinely gave the impression that Parasite needed to be seen to be believed, and US audiences seemed to respond particularly favourably to the tone of the promotional material.

Sentiment

And as with all cult figures such as Parasite’s director, Bong Joon-ho, they also attract a cult-like following. A small but dedicated bunch of his American fans, known as the “BongHive”, have been cheerleading their hero’s latest project from the sidelines on Twitter throughout the last few months to keep Parasite visible on the platform before it went supernova during awards season.

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By examining the semantics of their posts as is expected Joon-ho’s name is first and foremost in its frequency, as well as his previous movies - Snowpiercer and Okja; however, it is also interesting how proud they seem to be of the Parasite’s organic success on the Letterboxd platform just as much as the prestige given to it by critics and its success at Cannes.

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Despite the one-inch barrier of subtitles, it seems Parasite was receiving a groundswell of appreciation among US audiences beyond the usual appreciation gatekeepers of critics and award voters. It could well be this sense of Parasite being equal parts crowd-pleaser and critical darling that swung so many Academy voters to its cause, from either side of the spectrum.

Furthermore, it appears that US movie audiences are becoming less and less inclined to put America first.

Expanding Horizons

By indexing a US film audience against an average US audience based on GlobalWebIndex data, we can immediately see there is a clear inclination towards international cultures and affairs.

World Outlook

Furthermore, by segmenting the above questions by age demographics, we can see that inclination grows much stronger with the future audiences of 34 years old and below.

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World Outlook 25 34

Whereas with older audiences that inclination is still present but it is significantly reduced in their interest of other countries and cultures compared to the younger demographic subsets.

Using the same indexing paradigm, we can see that US film audiences overall have increased their interest in other cultures and countries over the last three years.

Interest In Other Cultures

There is also a growing appetite among the same audience to explore the world around them, of which viewing foreign movies would be a conducive activity.

Explore The World Around Me

For all the accusations of the Hollywood Bubble and #OscarsSoWhite of recent years, it seems finally the Academy has sought to address those criticisms and – whether by accident or design – has recognised a growing trend in the taste of the US movie-watching audience. If that is the case, then Parasite may have been the first foreign-language film to take home the Academy’s most prestigious prize, but it most likely will not be the last.

If you're interested in learning more about LimeLight and our TV & Film Audience Intelligence solutions here at EntSight then visit our website to find out more or drop us a message.

David Murphy

David Murphy

EntSight Researcher