President Donald Trump on Thursday lamented Oscar voters’ recent decision to name “Parasite,” the Korean-language thriller, as this year’s best picture.
“And the winner is a. . ..movie from South Korea. What the hell was that all about?” Trump told a crowd at a re-election rally in Colorado Springs, Colorado. “I thought it was best foreign film, right? No, it was [best picture].” He said he wanted to see more winners like “Gone With the Wind,” the epic love story set in the American South.
But it turns out “Parasite” won thanks to the backing of the very type of All-American character Trump complained the Oscars overlooked – a Texas car-dealership mogul.
Neon, the company that distributed “Parasite” and staged its successful awards campaign, is controlled by Daniel Friedkin, a born-and-bred Houstonian who owns Gulf State Toyota Distributors, the largest supplier of Toyotas to Texas and surrounding states. His headquarters sits not in Seoul or even Hollywood but on the far west side of Houston, near a local marketing company and an offshore drilling firm.
The “Parasite” moment brought to a head Friedkin’s years-long effort to parlay success from the scrappy world of car wholesaling to the Hollywood hustle. The 30West media-investment arm that Friedkin funded with his car profits bought a majority stake in Neon in 2018, and the cash Friedkin funneled to the distributor helped the company release the movie and run its Oscar campaign.
The game-changing “Parasite” moment, in others words, might never have happened without Texans’ affinity for Toyota Tundras.
“What we see with what Dan Friedkin and 30 West is how profits from a very Middle American business can have a significant effect on global film,” said Ross Fremer, an executive in business development with the production and management company Cinetic Media who follows the space closely.
Contrary to Trump’s assumption, Friedkin’s “Parasite” connection demonstrates the domestic roots of even the most seemingly global part of the entertainment business: a Korean moment in Hollywood was made possible by an American businessman wholesaling Japanese cars in Texas and the nearby states.
Rendering Trump’s comment further ironic is that Friedkin has roots in Republican Texas politics: He was appointed to two six-year terms as commissioner at the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission by former Texas Republican Gov. Rick Perry, Trump’s first secretary of energy.
Friedkin, who is famously press-averse, declined to be interviewed. So did several of his top Hollywood lieutenants, including Micah Green, the ex-Creative Arts Agency powerbroker who runs 30West, and Tom Quinn, who runs Neon.
But his story demonstrates the unlikely link between a Texas tycoon and the global movie business.
With a Forbes-estimated net worth of $4.2 billion, Friedkin is the 187th richest person in America, just eight spots behind Mark Cuban and 30 spots ahead of Meg Whitman. His fortune comes in large part from Gulf States Toyota, the exclusive distributor of the automaker’s cars and parts to dealers in Texas and surrounding states. The company has nearly doubled its sales over the past decade to $9 billion last year, much of which has gone to Friedkin’s pockets.
Yet the cash hasn’t just been a way for the Texan, 54, to feed interests such as a notorious private-plane obsession – it has fueled his bid to reshape Hollywood. In addition to 30West, he created the production company Imperative and has spent years financially backing movies as varied as “Parasite,” “The Mule,” “I, Tonya” and “The Square” as well as far less-regarded pictures such as the J. Paul Getty kidnapping tale “All the Money in the World” and the Julia Roberts drama “Ben Is Back.”
Interviews with 10 film veterans and executives who have had dealings with Friedkin, many of whom spoke on condition of anonymity so as not to jeopardize relationships, yield a portrait of one of the more enigmatic men in the modern entertainment business. Money and cinema have been mixing uneasily in Hollywood since Thomas Edison flexed his monopoly on film patents more than a century ago. But even in an industry where art and commerce make for odd bedfellows, Friedkin stands out.
The executive, according to two people who’ve worked with him, can have broad commercial tastes. Yet his film ventures involve some of the most upscale projects in town, including Martin Scorsese’s period drama “Killers of the Flower Moon,” which will shoot this year, and “Lyrebird,” a WWII art-heist picture that Friedkin directed himself and was acquired by the upscale Sony Pictures Classics last year for a 2020 release.
Friedkin has an in-person manner that two entertainment veterans who met with him but asked for anonymity so as not to jeopardize relationships described as down-home and not oriented toward foreign-language titles. (“Lyrebird,” despite being populated by foreigners, is in English.) Yet he has often put money in prestige-oriented projects. Those movies also include “The Square,” the layered 2017 Swedish-language film about moral choices and social norms that, like “Parasite,” also won the Cannes Film Festival’s top prize, the Palme d’Or.
Friedkin has a pedigree far from the world of film geekdom. His late father, Thomas Friedkin, was a pilot who became the largest shareholder of the now-defunct discount airline Pacific Southwest, which his own father had started.
A racecar owner and enthusiast, Thomas Friedkin dabbled in Hollywood as a pilot, often on lower-profile movies such as the Disney science-fiction comedy “The Cat from Outer Space” and “Police Academy 4: Citizens on Patrol.” He became a Toyota wholesaler via his racing connections during the 1960′s, when Toyota was not yet a desirable brand in the U.S.
When his father died in 2017, the younger Friedkin inherited not just operating control of the business (his three siblings are less involved day-to-day) but also his father’s affinity for combining flying and Hollywood. As he piloted his own planes all over the world, Friedkin started an aerial photography company. The firm handled a lot of the overhead scenes in the 2017 World War II hit “Dunkirk;” Friedkin flew some of the planes himself.
His actual Hollywood involvement, however, was modest for years. He founded two production companies in 2014. One was Imperative, with the help of Bradley Thomas, a longtime collaborator of the gross-out creators the Farrelly Bros (“There’s Something About Mary,” “Dumb and Dumber”). The other was a nonfiction entity called Pursuit with Lauren Sanchez, the former Good Day LA host who has been romantically linked to Washington Post owner Jeffrey Bezos. Sanchez, a helicopter pilot, also has a love of aerial photography. But neither venture gained much traction, producing few works of note.
Things began to change when Friedkin hired Green away from CAA in 2017. Long a fixture on the film-financing scene, the agent had worked closely with Friedkin while he was at CAA, inhabiting the role of matchmaking the billionaire with directors and scripts that are the mother’s milk of Hollywood agencies.
That set the ball in motion. Green and Friedkin hired the former’s CAA colleague, a financing expert named Dan Steinman. The trio then brought on Trevor Groth, a longtime respected Sundance Film Festival programmer, to cement its indie-film bona fides.
Then came Neon. In keeping with that old adage that nothing happens in Hollywood without the story of a disgraced ice skater, the mogul helped finance “I, Tonya,” the Oscar-winning film about the Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan scandal. Neon, at the time an upstart founded by Weinstein Company refugee Quinn, acquired, distributed and marketed the film, landing an Oscar for star Allison Janney. Friedkin so liked the job Neon did he decided to buy a majority stake in the company.
Friedkin can operate in Hollywood with a kind of Netflixian range, stepping in and writing checks that others won’t. Scorsese’s next movie is a period story of oil and murder on Native American land, is being financed by Friedkin in a manner similar to how Netflix took on “The Irishman”- with a high budget that scared off traditional studios. (Robert De Niro’s in this movie too.)
Friedkin has made other financial decisions that ran against Hollywood wisdom. #MeToo allegations against Kevin Spacey in 2017 threatened to sink “All the Money in the World,” the J. Paul Getty kidnapping drama, with distributor Sony Pictures ready to bury the movie that Imperative had financed. Friedkin stepped in and wrote an additional check for more than $10 million so filmmakers could hire Christopher Plummer, reassemble the cast and crew and reshoot every scene in which Spacey appeared.
“Most people would take the hit and move on,” said a producer who asked not to be identified because he did not wish to offend potential partners. “I think when that happened a lot of people said ‘this is a guy who does things differently.'”
But how much Friedkin can become an established part of the Hollywood firmament remains unclear.
Two prominent film executives The Post interviewed with no competing interest said they were skeptical Friedkin, like many billionaires, would maintain interest in the film business, especially without a steady stream of hits. “All The Money In The World’s” title proved to be misleading; it grossed just $57 million globally. “Ben is Back,” notched just $10 million domestically. Friedkin was noticeably little-seen at events over Oscar weekend even as “Parasite” was racking up prizes, suggesting a desire to keep a low Hollywood profile.
Meanwhile, three producers The Post spoke to, all of whom asked for anonymity for the sake of relationships, said 30West’s strategy remains unclear. “Are they investing in movie companies? Putting equity in movies? Investing in business that have nothing to do with movies? It’s not really clear what they are,” one said.
At this story was about to be published 30West said the it would be acquiring a significant minority stake in Altitude Media Group, a British film sales and production company behind such films as the documentary “Diego Maradona.”
Friedkin’s financial success comes from a mix of skill and luck, according to auto-industry experts.
“Toyotas are some of the best-selling cars around, so to have an exclusive license like that is almost automatically going to be very profitable,” said Jack Cohen, a Los Angeles-based expert on automobile wholesaling and retailing. He noted it would be nearly impossible to obtain such a license today in the face of greater competition and corporate oversight.
“But you still need to manage it well, because if suddenly cars are selling better in other states, Toyota comes in and says ‘why are we giving the exclusive to you?'”
Hollywood is littered with billionaires who’ve packed up their bags when obstacles arose. For every Arnon Milchan, there are five outsiders who came and went. This is particularly true for billionaires who white-knight commercially challenged foreign films that often need the money. Unlike other industries, success in the movie business is often illusory.
It’s a theme Friedkin appears aware of and interested in. “Lyrebird” is about a pricey piece of art and how its value, in a world of fickle perceptions, can quickly evaporate. Speaking at a Toronto international Film Festival screening, he noted the power of these illusions.
“Where do we draw the line on what is a fake?” he said. “Everything comes from a collective view and vision of other experiences and other things that we’ve been exposed to,” he noted. “When does something become a fake and when is it not a fake? We all recognize that those lines are pretty blurry.”
Source : Nation Multimedia