Parasite best pic c Blaine Ohigashi ampas

Source: Blaine Ohigashi/Ampas

Parasite wins best picture at the 2020 Oscars

Members of the US independent and specialty distribution community have welcomed the Academy’s rule change mandating theatrical expansions for best picture contenders next season – but have also signalled concerns over the potential impact on the smallest companies and international films.

The Academy said this week that starting with the 97th Academy Awards films must expand their theatrical footprint after the one-week qualifying run in 2024 with a theatrical run of seven days, consecutive or non-consecutive, in 10 of the top 50 US markets no later than 45 days after the initial release.

Kyle Greenberg, Utopia head of marketing and distribution, said: “We commend the Academy for reasserting the importance of theatrical at such a critical time and as a theatrical-first distributor, it’s truly exciting to see this sort of reinvigoration.

“That said, it’s difficult not to wonder how the rule changes will impact truly independent distributors, along with non-English language films. These distributors and films rarely have the financial resources to campaign for extended periods of time and have benefited in recent years from qualifying late in the winter in order to expand to more markets at a less competitive time commercially in the new year.”

Greenberg concluded: “Ultimately, this rule change may further crowd the already crowded Q4 awards market, though the January 24th deadline to open top 10 markets may help provide some necessary wiggle room that these independent and international titles may require.”

The costs involved in orchestrating a qualifying release, let alone expanding the theatrical footprint, can become prohibitive to smaller distributors and filmmakers. Booking screening venues, paying for e-blasts to entice voting members, and in some cases paying talent costs and moderator honorariums can add up. Most campaigns will include guilds and other voting bodies, which increase the financial burden.

Kino Lorber president and CEO Richard Lorber acknowledged that the Academy rule change should have little impact on his business since Kino Lorber regularly reaches the market minimums outlined within the new requirements.

“Theatrical remains core to our model,” said Lorber. “We’re not pushing our festival darlings straight to stream with only token releases.”

He continued, “We may benefit if it impacts others making them get out of the way, dissuading less deserving films from more costly full-throttle theatrical release, though if streamers now need to jam some lesser SVoD pics onto more screens for a best picture gambit that will clog exhibitors’ pores also at the arthouse level.”

Last season the Academy declared 301 films were eligible for the best picture category. Among the familiar names were titles few had heard of which in reality stood little chance of advancing in the category, prompting speculation from one veteran distribution source that the Academy was separating the wheat from the chaff. 

“It’s a paperwork reduction initiative,” said the source, who asked to remain anonymous. “The Academy’s trying to cut down on best picture submissions that have no business being submitted.”

No impediment “whatsoever” for streamers 

Some in the industry have speculated that the rule change is the Academy’s way of coaxing the streamers to engage more in theatrical. Whatever the reason, the prevailing view seems to hold that the rule change in its current form will have little impact on deep-pocketed platforms. 

“It’s not going to be an impediment whatsoever for a streamer,” the source added, noting that a platform can meet the new criteria by four-walling a best picture contender in a theatre in a less visible secondary market without any advertising spend.

Tom Bernard, co-president and co-founder of Sony Pictures Classics, welcomed the Academy move and, on the subject of streamers, took it further. “It’s a very small step in what needs to change drastically in the qualification process,” he said. “It’s not a movie if you’re not in the theatre. I believe streamers shouldn’t be able to stream their contenders until they’re nominated. They should only be in theatres until then.”

Noting the challenge the rule change may create for smaller distributors, Bernard continued: “None of the smaller distributors can compete with the streamers’ money. It’s even put some of the studios in an uncomfortable position with how much they’re now required to spend in order to compete.”

The impact on international films

International filmmakers may bear the biggest brunt of the Academy’s new requirements. Their consultants and distribution teams might elect to focus on the international feature film category or other categories without having to incur the extra costs that will be required of best picture hopefuls.

The Academy has in recent years bolstered the number of international voters in the ranks, however very few non-English-language films are able go far in the best picture race without the support of a hefty campaign and a well-connected distributor with sufficient funds.

“It’s going to be hard for an international film in that race,” noted one consultant. “It will narrow the award choices. The films that qualify will need strong distribution behind them.”

In the last 10 years out of 88 best picture nominees only four films or just under 5% were not in the English-language. Only one has ever won the best picture Oscar and that famously was Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite at the 92nd Academy Awards in 2020. The film was backed by South Korean giant CJ and distributed in the US by Neon.

Two of the five best picture nominees were backed by Netflix – last season’s German entry All Quiet On The Western Front from Edward Berger, which won four Oscars at the 95th Academy Awards including international feature film, and Alfonso Cuaron’s Mexican drama Roma at the 91st Academy Awards in 2019, which won three Oscars including what was then called best foreign-language film.

Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Japanese drama Drive My Car was nominated at the 94th Academy Awards in 2021 and won best international feature film. Janus and Sideshow Films distributed. Ruben Ostlund’s Triangle Of Sadness earned a best picture nomination last season although while it was a European co-production it was in English. Neon distributed in the US.