With the global film industry in a state of flux amidst unprecedented shifts in the production and distribution landscape, Tom Quinn’s indie label Neon isn’t just weathering the storm, it’s completely thriving. Currently in its fifth year of operation, the production and distribution company is quietly riding high after debuting three titles to critical acclaim at the Cannes Film Festival last month: Julia Ducournau’s gutsy and provocative body horror Titane, which notably earned Neon its second consecutive Palme d’Or win after Bong Joon Ho’s 2019 win for Parasite; Tilda Swinton starrer Memoria, which tied for Jury Prize; and anthology feature The Year Of The Everlasting Storm, one of the 10 productions that Neon greenlit since the beginning of the pandemic (yes, you read that right). Its festival pickup A Chiara also won Directors’ Fortnight.
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“It’s almost an embarrassment of riches,” Quinn tells Deadline. “But it’s indicative of all of the work that we’ve done over the pandemic. We committed ourselves at the beginning of the lockdown to do what we could to really impact the industry and that immediately set off the trajectory of the company. At every step we tried to remind people that business moves on during difficult times.”
On the acquisition front, Neon certainly flexed its muscle during the pandemic. Last year, the company and Topic Studios won domestic rights to hotly contested Cannes market package Spencer, directed by Pablo Larrain and starring Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana. Earlier this year at Sundance, Neon picked up North American rights to Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s animated documentary Flee, about the extraordinary journey of a child refugee from Afghanistan. Both titles are featuring heavily in the fall festival circuit with Spencer premiering at the Venice Film Festival next week before moving onto Toronto.
When you consider that this is a company with just 27 employees that’s less than half a decade old, it’s bound to instil some faith of what is possible in the indie sector during this parlous time.
“I always describe Neon as this very organized, highly-attuned and well-functioning amoeba,” Quinn says. “We’re just a group of cinema lovers who never compromise in what we believe in. Everything we do is absolutely driven by our view that this is the best cinema the world has to offer, and we must be a part of it.”
Anyone in the industry who knows Quinn, knows that he’s a cinephile to the core and hearing him wax lyrical about each of the movies on his current slate, it would be hard to envisage him as a CEO driven solely by bottom lines, excel sheets and marketing gimmicks. When he describes seeing Titane for the first time, he says, “I felt like I’d seen the future” and returning to Cannes’ Lumière theatre last month to watch Memoria was “like putting my feet in the sand at the beach, I was so relaxed.”
His sharp instinct and passion for unconventional genre titles, edgy arthouse movies and smart documentaries are what has seen him craft Neon into one of the most agile and interesting companies operating in the indie sector right now. He’s been a long-time champion of eclectic and thought-provoking global cinema ever since the early days of his career in acquisitions at New York-based Magnolia Pictures, where he first established a relationship with Bong when he released the South Korean helmer’s The Host in 2006.
Quinn, who is now based in L.A., calls Bong “one of the world’s greatest directors, if not the greatest director” and has released five of his titles in the last 15 years through Magnolia, multi-platform Weinstein Co. spinoff Radius and now, Neon. So, the proof is in the pudding when it comes to establishing deep relationships with filmmakers and, in many ways, that’s what makes Parasite’s success for Neon so sweet.
The pic not only nabbed four Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director, but it turned out an epic $53.4M box office tally in the U.S., besting box office totals of 2015 winner Birdman and 2016 winner Spotlight by $11M and $8M respectively, and 2017 Best Picture Moonlight by $25.6M.
But Quinn is humble about the successes and quick to note that it’s all about the collective: his loyal team coupled with great filmmakers. “Everybody’s involved in the overall voice of the company, and I think that’s something which makes it a great place to work but also produces incredible work,” he notes.
Quinn recalls celebrating Oscar night in 2020 with Bong and Portrait of Lady on Fire helmer Céline Sciamma, another director they were working with, at a Korean barbeque restaurant until 4AM. “It was this beautiful celebration of cinema and all of the things that we had hoped to accomplish with these movies,” he reminisces.
“I kept playing that moment over and over through the entire pandemic and to hold onto that canned memory, come back to Cannes last month after this year of cinema purgatory and find ourselves in this wonderful situation with a film [Titane] that we bought many, many years earlier, not unlike Parasite, is just amazing.”
Ducournau’s Cannes win, the first singular Palme d’Or win for a female director (Jane Campion’s The Piano was the first female director to win the accolade in 1993 but she tied with Chen Kaige’s Farewell To My Concubine) is a notable achievement and, says Quinn, is in many ways “as big a deal as Bong Joon Ho winning for Parasite.”
“With Julia, I’d seen someone who was going to take cinema into a new realm,” he says. “I felt like I’ve been waiting for a film like this for 20 years and then to see it and to see it get recognized like this at the biggest international film festival is just the most wonderful situation.”
Quinn co-founded Neon in 2017 with Alamo Drafthouse’s Tim League (who has since stepped away from the company’s daily operations). Pretty quickly, Ducournau, who had just come off her debut coming-of-age cannibal horror title Raw, was earmarked as a director they “had to work with.” Quinn and his team actively pursued the French filmmaker and pre-bought Titane at script stage in 2019. For Quinn, it’s hard not to draw parallels between this and how he pursued Bong some 15 years ago.
“Titane itself is very singular and the Palme d’Or is such an established and older tradition so for her to win this is almost as provocative as winning Best Picture with a foreign-language film,” he says. “Her first film Raw is very indicative of how that can appeal to a younger generation and, for us, it’s the absolute perfect nexus of what we want to be a part of.”
Neon has set an aggressive release date for Titane on October 1, hoping to arouse a young, cinephile audience after it opens Toronto’s Midnight Madness section and plays in the New York Film Festival. Likewise, it’s earmarked awards contender Spencer for a November 5 theatrical release. The company previously opened Parasite during the second weekend of October 2019.
“We really commit ourselves to these releases in ways that I think are indicative of the sweat and commitment our filmmakers have made to creating this work and so we put as much attention into detail as we believe our filmmakers would want us to,” says Quinn. “We don’t really view ourselves as a distributor, but more as a creative partner with our filmmakers and that takes on a different kind of relationship.”
Whether these newer titles have the legs to run down the Parasite path, time will only tell but to date, Neon has garnered 12 Oscar nominations and five wins. Titles range from Craig Gillespie’s I, Tonya, a $6M Toronto Film Festival acquisition which scored $30M domestically and earned an Oscar win for Allison Janney, to Tamara Kotevska and Ljubo Sefanov’s Honeyland, the first non-fiction feature to earn an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary and Best International Feature Film. After partnering with 30West on I, Tonya in 2018, the Micah Green, Dan Steinman and Dan Friedkin-led investment company took a majority stake in the company.
“We’ve done about 80 films since we’ve launched,” says Quinn. “I never thought I’d find that much to surpass our bar for what would equate as a great Neon film – I couldn’t predict that we would find all of these extraordinary films. The hope was there but you never know.”
Neon’s size and experience across the multiplatform space meant that, when the pandemic hit, it was able to respond accordingly. The company had already committed to start financing productions and pushed ahead. Since then, Neon has greenlit 10 productions including The Year Of The Everlasting Storm, Ben Wheatley’s horror title In The Earth and Brandon Cronenberg’s Infinity Pool.
“After having spent 15 years working in the multiplatform space, I think we’re sort of primed to make the most of what the pandemic has offered us and to not give up and sacrifice anything on the kinds of films that we want to do,” says Quinn. He refers to In The Earth as an example, a film Wheatley shot across 15 days in the UK during the pandemic.
“Being innovative and jumping into the unknown of producing something like In The Earth and believing you can figure out how to do it safely before anyone else has done it, that’s a huge risk,” notes Quinn. “But the benefit was that having produced early in the pandemic and doing it successfully alleviated some of our concerns for doing production safely.”
Neon pushed that microbudget film across 500 plus screens in April, amassing $1M before a strong VOD opening across all platforms three weeks later via Decal, its joint venture home entertainment label with Bleecker Street.
“A couple of years ago, even in the height of all of all the experimentation on the indie side for the multiplatform and collapse windows, you couldn’t do something like that at that scale,” he says. “It’s an extraordinary result.”
He adds: “But these films are far more provocative and more challenging than what’s being offered in the mainstream and it’s the kind of cinema we gravitate towards. So, simply by changing the release pattern, being able to collapse the window, we’ve actually ironically found more success.”
Then there’s Nicolas Cage starrer Pig, an acquisition which Neon was able to get across the $3M theatrical mark before launching on VOD three weeks later via Decal, where it landed number two in the marketplace.
“Pig was greenlit 10 days from launch and knowing how to turn on a dime based on availability in the marketplace and knowing we can pull all the campaigns together in that amount of time is incredible,” says Quinn. “It’s the value of us being this highly-functioning amoeba.”
And while Neon continues to focus on what it does best, one can only wonder what the next five years will bring the for indie. The current cycle of private equity investment in media financing continues to light up the sector with a wave of mergers and acquisitions seeing companies like Reece Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine go for $900M while Amazon’s $8.45B acquisition of MGM, although not reliant on private funds, is still pending.
Deadline’s sister publication Variety reported last month that A24 had been exploring a sale for a price of $2.5B to $3B. That New York-based indie competitor is twice as old as Neon with four times as many employees. It would seem there’s a clear appetite in the marketplace for investors looking to come into the content game and capitalize on brands, particularly models that have proven to be pandemic-proof.
But Quinn’s not about to pontificate on the subject right now, he’s got more pressing things to focus on: “We will continue to stay true to our values – nothing has changed for us. Cinema is something that is precious to us and it’s a clear mandate for what we want to do, what we want to support. We’re agile and nimble enough to address any mounting challenges and the pandemic is proof of that.
“But I can assure you that what we will not be doing is selling $50 candles. It’s just not part of who we are. It feels inauthentic. We’ll continue to focus on the things that are really meaningful – our filmmakers and our audience.”
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