For a ceremony seemingly desperate to shore up its “inclusive” bona fides, the Academy Awards made history this year by giving top honors to a South Korean film for the first time in its 92-year history. After presenters spent nearly three-and-a-half hours meekly joking about a dearth of women and non-white nominees, the Academy voted to give Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite” Best Picture, International Film, Director, and Original Screenplay, rewarding a film that even those nominated against it seemed to agree deserved the wins.
But even as the wins mark a benchmark achievement both for the Academy and for international storytelling—“Parasite” is the first film in a foreign language to win Best Picture—it also heralds the arrival of an up-and-coming distributor as a major player for awards contention. In just three years, NEON has quietly risen through the ranks of scrappy independent companies to gain legitimacy as a purveyor of eclectic, high-quality films, and the “Parasite” win validates both its choices and highlights an infrastructure capable of shepherding titles to the awards season finish line.
NEON first acquired the rights to “Parasite” at the 2018 American Film Market, long before the film unanimously won Cannes’ Palme d’Or in May 2019. At that point, NEON’s list of accolades included Independent Spirit nominations for Matt Spicer’s “Ingrid Goes West,” and more encouragingly, Craig Gillespie’s “I, Tonya,” which earned three Oscar nominations. (Ali Abbasi’s “Border” would receive a nomination for Best Makeup and Hairstyling in 2019.) “Parasite” and the documentary “Honeyland” would earn the company eight more nominations between them this year, a remarkable leap showcasing the distributor’s growing skill recognizing important, interesting work (tellingly, a company that’s been in this game for longer with more megabuck backing, Amazon Studios, only earned one Oscar nomination this year).
Co-created by Tom Quinn and Alamo Drafthouse founder Tim League, NEON picked up the torch of League’s own Drafthouse Films, which earned three Oscar nominations but more importantly established a fascinatingly unpredictable approach to choosing projects for development and distribution. While Annapurna, A24 and others sought (and eventually attracted) prestige artists for high-profile projects, NEON and its predecessor seemed to focus on the films first, offering newcomers unique opportunities to get their work seen simply because it captured the imagination and sometimes just the attention of the company’s acquisitions team.
Fledgling (and even established) distributors have attempted to make a name for themselves in the awards space for decades; after Miramax transformed into an Oscar powerhouse in the 1990s—thanks to well-funded, ruthless campaigns—dozens of companies tried to follow suit. Annapurna earned a combined 17 nominations since 2012; A24 has received 25 since 2013, including a Best Picture win for “Moonlight.” NEON’s four wins Sunday numerically match those of established powerhouse studios Sony Pictures and Disney, but the categories in which Bong’s film won mint the company’s pedigree as a credible competitor against major studios.
Meanwhile, too many other companies, even those producing quality, modestly successful work, have gone under precisely because they failed to net the kind of attention that NEON did this year. Focus Features absorbed FilmDistrict, co-producer of acclaimed projects like Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive” and Rian Johnson’s “Looper,” becoming part of TriStar before disappearing. Open Road launched as a partnership between AMC Theatres and Regal in 2011, won Best Picture with “Spotlight,” and went bankrupt in 2018. Radius attempted to pick up where Miramax and The Weinstein Company left off, winning a Best Documentary Oscar with “20 Feet From Stardom,” but Weinstein’s legacy scuttled any chance to move forward. Does anyone remember the shortlived Apparition film distribution company founded by Bob Berney and Bill Pohlad in 2009 that lasted not even a year?
While the vagaries of the industry—both financial and existential—certainly sealed these companies’ fates, the difference between NEON and some of its competitors seems to be largely philosophical. As difficult as it becomes to operate on such a modest level of success—good as, say, Paul Thomas Anderson’s (or even Bong Joon Ho’s) films are, they’re unlikely to make as many waves at the box office as they do with critics and awards organizations. Looking at the output of FilmDistrict or Open Road, it’s tough to see a throughline that explains making both “The Nut Job” and “The Host.” The unfortunate, if perhaps necessary split focus on (hopeful) commercial hits and critical ones seems to undercut the potential for both. NEON’s aspirations seem to be to support their films as actively as possible acknowledging how big they can be, rather than “accept” prestige projects that they accept from the outset as a loss leader against some prospective blockbuster they’ll blast into thousands of theaters. (It’s worth noting that “Parasite” will expand into over 2,000 theaters this weekend, thanks to its Oscar night wins.)
Interestingly, several of those other distributors obtained Bong’s films for release in the U.S., and either attempted to re-shape them for a domestic market or simply accepted the disappointing premise that foreign-language titles can’t compete and supported them much more quietly. But with “Parasite,” NEON earned its place among those distributors with the taste and shrewdness to choose great projects, and then the muscle and determination to get them to the finish line when there’s a realistic opportunity to earn money or awards consideration. Either way, NEON is a name that earned its place in the awards season conversation—ironically not by trumpeting the company’s artistic mettle with campaigns bright, vivid, and overpowering, but by quietly doing consistent, thoughtful work that’s simply too good to ignore.