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Behind the Scenes of Bong Joon Ho’s Oscar-Winning ‘Parasite’ PR Campaign

Anne Thompson

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Publicist Mara Buxbaum is still in a good mood two days after the Oscars and staying up all night in Koreatown as Bong Joon Ho and the team behind “Parasite” celebrated their historic four-Oscar win. Did Director Bong drink as promised? “We all did, we all drank all night,” said Buxbaum on the phone Tuesday. “We had so much fun, drinking Soju and beer. We ate and laughed and gave speeches. It was very moving.”

You can’t blame Buxbaum for being emotional. She’s the first to recognize that success has many fathers, and that when it came to pushing Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite” to Best Picture, Director, Original Screenplay and International Feature Film, “it takes a village.”

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But Buxbaum did jump on board the “Parasite” train early. I ran into her back in Cannes in May, envious that she was hanging out with the Competition jury as the guest of Yorgos Lanthimos, watching all 22 films without a care in the world. It was her reward for a job well done on “The Favourite,” which was nominated for 10 Oscars, including Best Director, and won Best Actress for Olivia Colman.

The president of Hollywood PR agency ID-PR, Buxbaum had been to Cannes many times, accompanying other clients including Sean Penn, Jake Gyllenhaal (who worked on Bong’s “Okja”), and Winona Ryder. But when she first watched “Parasite,” she she was left “speechless.” As the jury left the Palais after the late screening, they ran into Bong’s entourage. The jurors couldn’t say anything, but Buxbaum locked eyes with him and bowed: “Oh my God! Amazing!”

She saw what could happen. As she said, “I chased Bong.” In the next days she reached out to Bong’s agent and manager, his producing partner, and his Korean distributor, CJ Entertainment. (She later connected with its North American distributor, Neon’s Tom Quinn, who acquired the film at the script stage.)

“You felt you were in the hands of a great auteur filmmaker,” she said. “He had a clear vision with that perfect screenplay. The actors were working together at the highest level. The crafts were at the highest level. It was so disciplined, so entertaining. I forgot I was reading subtitles, I was so taken away by his storytelling and filmmaking prowess. The movie felt original, fresh, relevant, and universal. I couldn’t believe that an arthouse foreign-language movie could be so accessible and commercial. It felt like something I hadn’t seen before.”

A few months after Cannes, when the film won the Palme d’Or, Buxbaum got on a Skype call with Bong in Korea to finalize the deal to represent him and his movie, starting in Telluride.

She told him: “I see a Best Director, Picture, Screenplay campaign. I believe you deserve to be on that path. I passionately want to help ensure that.” Buxbaum was going with her gut, that what she experienced other people would share. And at Telluride, that faith was borne out. “I’ve been on tons of campaigns and projects where that is not always the case, and you wind up feeling alone because people don’t always love it the way you do.”

She politely refused to listen to the conventional wisdom that a foreign-language film couldn’t win Best Picture because no movie ever had, not even “Roma.” “The rules don’t say you can’t do it this way,” she said. “You can, if you love it that much, if you think it’s deserving. All you can do is get the movie seen, get people thinking beyond Best International Feature Film.”

By Telluride, Neon’s VP of Publicity, Christina Zisa, had set a promotional schedule for Bong around the film’s October 11 opening in North America. Of course, it all came down to Bong’s willingness to work hard, beyond the Toronto, New York, and London festivals; he and his family moved into a Los Angeles apartment. “He worked tirelessly not just for North America,” said Buxbaum, “but throughout the world to bring this movie everywhere.”

Neon pursued the beats of the campaign step by step (which included hiring Oscar consultants Perception PR, Ryan Werner’s Cinetic, and Nancy Willen’s Acme PR), and launching the awards campaign with the Hollywood Film Awards. The campaign evolved as the opening weekend delivered strong box office, with lines around the block.

“This movie had a grassroots feel to it,” said Buxbaum. “It was special, equally because as we believed it, others believed it too. The love for movie kept building like a snowball that got bigger.”

Early press champions out of the festivals, from Vanity Fair to IndieWire, clued the rest of the media to check out the film. “People came on board,” said Buxbaum. “There was an underdog quality of this movie. Others felt they could champion it and be part of this history, too.”

The SAG Ensemble nomination was the gamechanger for Buxbaum, who was in London with Bong and broke down crying when she heard the news. “This is real,” she told him. At the show, the audience stood and cheered when “Parasite” was first introduced with a clip. When “Parasite” won, the room erupted.

That meant the movie had support from the actors, but “Parasite” did not win the DGA or PGA. It did win Original Screenplay at the WGA and BAFTA. Bong himself was the special sauce.

“You have to make the journey easier so that people want to wrap their arms around you,” said Buxbaum. “Bong is that person. People kept falling in love with him and his voice throughout his process.”

Even his rivals adored him, from old fan Quentin Tarantino and new friends Todd Phillips, Taika Waititi, and Martin Scorsese, who Bong movingly tributed on Oscar night. “They all loved him, but they also had such a good time,” said Buxbaum. “He wants to talk movies with them.”

During the long campaign, Bong relied on his adept translator, filmmaker Sharon Choi, who’s writing a book about her unexpected journey from Cannes through the Oscars. One night when she got sick and couldn’t show up for the Academy’s International Feature Film panel, Bong used a different translator — and spoke more English than he had all season.

The director always wrote his own speeches, delivered with a genuine smile, throughout. “He was tired,” said Buxbaum. “But he showed up 100%. He doesn’t look to anyone, doesn’t fabricate any of it. He’s a man wholly authentic and himself.”

That’s the magic of what happened with “Parasite.” In the end, everyone just wanted to ride that train.

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