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  • How does ‘Minari’ reflect the diversity of American experiences?
  • How does ‘Minari’ reflect the diversity of American experiences?
    A24 (2021) ©
CASE STUDY

‘Minari’: redefining the American experience

Minari tells the story of a Korean-American family forging their own American Dream in rural Arkansas. With plenty of industry buzz, Minari shows the appetite for complex cultural stories of modern America, and how original marketing can make an impact among mainstream film audiences.

Location United States

Scope
Minari is a resilient vegetable that can thrive in nearly any environment and purifies the soil and water around it, an apt metaphor for the spirit explored in A24’s film. Minari is a semi-autobiographical account of writer and director Lee Isaac Chung’s Korean-American family move to rural Arkansas in the 80s. The film tells the story of a Korean-American family trying to acclimate to life on a farm. The Yi family pursues the American Dream, striving to carve out a life by working the land. Slowly paced and beautifully shot with an emphasis on the natural landscape, the Yi’s story mirrors idealized pioneers and frontiersmen, while also being “distinct in its Korean language and cultural references, the story that it tells is paradigmatically American,” says Dr. Michelle Cho, professor of East Asian studies. [1] It’s far from the sort of movie that traditionally attracts award recognition yet, it has garnered six Oscar nominations as well as winning the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, Best Motion Picture in a Foreign Language at the Golden Globes, and Best Supporting Actress at the BAFTAs. According to Moonlight director Barry Jenkins, “everyone says, ‘I know what an A24 film is, but no A24 film is like any other.” [2]

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A24 is an independent film distribution and production company known for its culturally relevant, critically acclaimed movies and television shows. For Minari, A24 looked for a way to capture a familial feel and Americana. Available for purchase on its online store is a family cookbook of dishes seen in the movie. There is also a set of postcards modeled after famous American artworks, replacing the all-White subjects in the original pieces with the Yi family. The campaign has also played through its awards season with child star Alan S. Kim quoting the film during his Golden Globe acceptance speech, “Is this a dream,” and Lee Isaac Chung’s daughter saying, “I prayed, I prayed!” [3][4] Both of which became viral moments, helped along by A24’s loyal and digitally active following.

A24 films push the boundaries in form and content and have become the standard to which independent film aspires. In Sam Levinson’s TV show Euphoria, teen addiction is explored authentically, not shying away from the emotion or pain. [5] The Safdie Brothers’ Uncut Gems was designed to induce anxiety and has been likened to a heart attack. [6] And Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse is a homoerotic Promethean metaphor presented in a nearly square aspect ratio to create claustrophobia. [7] In the case of Minari, the film patiently explores a family’s challenges while looking to reshape the narrative of underrepresented communities in America and to redefine what it is to be American. A24 has thrown its support behind films and shows so different or challenging that studios deemed too risky or niche to consider – its success illustrates the changing desires of modern film lovers and the diversifying cultural expectations of American audiences.

Many Americans feel on-screen visibility is in need of an update
Many Americans feel on-screen visibility is in need of an update
TIFF_NET | Twitter (2021) ©

Context
In 2020, the American box office brought in its smallest haul since 1981. [8] With theatres closed during the pandemic, many theatres face an existential threat. The Arclight and Pacific Theatre chains have closed for good. [9] And Cineworld called off its merger with Cineplex, which would have created one of the largest cinema companies, due to concerns related to the pandemic. [10] Studios are opting to premiere movies on their own streaming services to reach audiences, exacerbating the plight of theatres. [11] Theaters can expect a boost once they’re allowed to open in full as there’s a backlog of highly anticipated releases that should bring in huge audiences. [12]China opened cinemas on the Lunar New Year where audiences flocked to the critically panned Detective Chinatown 3. It opened to the tune of $397 million, outpacing Avengers: Endgame for a new opening weekend record. [13] However, with the emergence of streaming services, many of which are owned and operated by the studios producing most movies, the long-term future of theaters looks tenuous.

A24 is built on the idea of doing things differently. “They make things work that, according to standard procedures, really shouldn’t work,” says Alex Garland, writer and director of Ex Machina. “And I’m not saying they’re magicians. I think what they’ve understood is there’s a sufficient number of people out there who want more challenging or different material. And they’re aiming at them.” [14]While studios have made big bets on tentpoles, A24 has found its niche in more intimate films. The emphasis is on the unique perspective of the film’s creator, entrusting the artist to make a more meaningful connection with the audience than the machinery of a studio production. Nonetheless, superhero movies and big-name franchises are more popular than ever and likely to see long-term interest. [15] But with their success came the opportunity for smaller movies to flourish – over $600 million was earned by the most successful five independent films in 2019. [16] “They have a very good understanding of the zeitgeist,” says Robert Pattison, who has starred in A24 films. “You get a movie with them and it represents something.” [14]

Minari tells the story of an underrepresented demographic in America. There are more than 44 million immigrants living in the US, which account for 13.7% of the total population. And Asians make up 28% of the foreign-born US population. [17] There’s a desire for audiences to see themselves and their stories represented on-screen. All visible minority groups in America believe they are underrepresented and inauthentically portrayed on the big screen – 46% of Black Americans say so as well as 23% of Hispanic Americans. [18] A study by McKinsey finds that the entertainment industry is losing $10 billion per year due to a lack of opportunities and poor representation for Black creators and artists. [19] This underrepresentation is consistent across all ethnic demographics and suggests that a more diverse Hollywood would be a more profitable one. [20] Minari is an example of that specificity paying off as the film has connected with audiences in the US and Korea, says Dr. Cho. [1]

People are seeking out media that capture more diverse stories
A24 | YouTube (2020) ©

Insights and opportunities

Original marketing approach
A24 tailors each of its marketing campaigns to its films. This is a departure from the practice of releasing a trailer and supporting it with billboards, some social media posts, and talk show appearances by its stars that has become standard practice in the industry. Perhaps A24’s most infamous marketing campaign was for Ex Machina, when during its premiere at SXSW, a fake Tinder profile was created for its character, Ava, played by Alicia Vikander. The profile, a play on the Turing Test, created so much buzz at the festival that it began a strong word-of-mouth campaign that continued into its theatrical release. [21] Ex Machina went on to be A24’s top-earning movie at the time and the marketing campaign won A24 an award at the social media-focused Shorty Awards. [22]

New frontiers
Hollywood has invested heavily in rebooting popular material and relies heavily on successful IP from other mediums. As Hollywood mines the past for content perceived as being low-risk, risk-takers like A24, Neon, and Annapurna have emerged in the independent film scene as creators of fresh, exciting, and culturally relevant stories. [23] They have also proved that non-traditional stories told by underrepresented creators can have critical and monetary success; audiences want to see something new. A24’s Best Picture-winning Moonlight is a character study of an impoverished gay black man in Miami. Barry Jenkins, its writer and director, was only able to get it made at the risk-taking A24. [24] It was in theatres for an unusually long 20-plus weeks, took in $55 million, and has been embraced by the film community as a modern classic. [14][25] Though proven storylines are perceived as being less risky, original content remains attractive to audiences.[26]

Bigger giants, more crumbs
The 2008 financial crisis caused a major disruption in the film industry. The mid-budget movie died out and was replaced by the tentpole blockbuster. Also in 2008, Iron Man was released, marking the beginning of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and a new era in Hollywood. [27] Though independent film production fell, the audience demand remained, and with studios focused on bigger movies, companies like Annapurna and Neon and, later, A24 were able to fill the void left by the consolidation. Similarly, the pandemic has caused major disruption across almost all industries. Many industries have contracted and consolidated in efforts to survive the economic downturn. Just as in 2008, there will be new opportunities in the holes left by consolidation that will provide fertile ground for adaptable companies.

Sources
1. Interview with Dr. Michelle Cho conducted by the author 
2. Washington Post (August 2019)
3. The Cut (March 2021)
4. Yahoo News (March 2021)
5. New York Times (June 2019)
6. Variety (August 2019)
7. Slate (October 2019)
8. Box Office Mojo (accessed April 2021)
9. Deadline (April 2021)
10. Hollywood Reporter (June 2020)
11. Variety (December 2020)
12. Hollywood Reporter (December 2020)
13. New York Times (February 2021)
14. GQ (May 2017)
15. Freedom Lab (August 2019)
16. Deadline (December 2019)
17. Pew Research Center (August 2020)
18. YouGov (March 2018)
19. Variety (March 2021)
20. Variety (February 2020)
21. Deadline (April 2015)
22. Shorty Awards (accessed 2021)
23. New York Times (March 2018)
24. CBC News (October 2019)
25. New York Times (August 2020)
26. Nielsen (January 2021)
27. Harvard Business Review (July 2019)

Featured Experts

Dr. Michelle Cho

Dr. Michelle Cho is professor of East Asian studies at the University of Toronto. Her research focuses on questions of collectivity and popular aesthetics in Korean film, media, and popular culture.

Author

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