Neon’s Tom Quinn: An Eye for Talent

by Tina Jøhnk Christensen April 2, 2020
Filmmaker Bong Joon Ho and Neon president Tom Quinn, 2019

Tom Quinn with Bong Joon Ho at the premiere of Parasite.

jerod harris/getty images

(Note: this interview was conducted on March 11th before mandatory quarantine and the closure of all domestic theaters.)

This year, history was made during the award season. South Korean Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite went from being frontrunner in the Foreign Language Film category to the big winner on all fronts by winning Best Picture at the Oscars, as well as taking home three other awards. The U.S. distributor behind it, Neon, has only existed since 2017 but has already made itself known as an independent player in the world of indie studios, racking up blockbuster hits. We spoke to CEO and co-founder Tom Quinn about his recipe for success.

Parasite started its winning streak in Cannes and at the Golden Globes. What did the success during award season – culminating in winning four Oscars – mean to Neon?

Oh my God. Amazing. Neon has its very own Oscar now and it’s a dream come true. Going forward, it gives us license to continue doing all the things we believe in and to do them with great confidence. It says to the industry that we have something valuable to offer and can be a long-term home for filmmakers from all over the world. It’s also been a wonderful validation for the vision and hard work of everyone here. While the team’s been nominated before, and we have enjoyed multiple wins in the past, this is the pinnacle. Neon was only six months old at the time when we did I,Tonya. We were under a tremendous amount of pressure to play it safe, but very early on we chose to approach the film creatively in a way that made sense to us – we did little things like launching a red band trailer in the heat of an awards campaign - ideas that were offbeat, but were ultimately validated with three nominations in both the Golden Globes and the Oscars and a win in both for Best Supporting Actress for Allison Janney. That same philosophy – that of doing things the way we at Neon choose to do them, versus “this is how it's supposed to be done” - is also how we approached Parasite.  The entertainment industry comes with a lot of “know-it-alls” who believe things should be done a certain way. We simply start from a common-sense point of view of asking what’s best for the film, hoping that it will find an audience and that when the Awards come around, voters will feel the same way about it as we do.

Did you also take those risks with Parasite?

Yes. One way was that we chose not to do any outdoor advertising. Seeing all the billboards in LA is just so overwhelming. I frankly find it to be quite obnoxious. I suspect there are many voters and audience members who feel the same way. I personally don't like that kind of campaigning or advertising. You don’t need to be on 20 billboards canvassing the city to be impactful and the campaign for Parasite proved it.

What is it like these days to be the CEO of Neon following the success this awards season?

It’s hard to describe. It’s rewarding, fun, satisfying and ultimately encouraging. Some have said, “This is as good as it gets so enjoy it while you can - the likelihood is it’ll never happen again.” While that may be true, it’s also a wonderful validation of what we do. Cinema won in every way possible. What’s happened with Parasite, with Bong Joon Ho, NEON and all those who have believed in the power of cinema, gives us all great hope for the future.

And your films Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Honeyland did very well too during awards season.

The fact that Honeyland received double Oscar nominations – as Best Foreign Language Film and Best Documentary Feature - is almost as significant as winning Best Picture was for Parasite. We fell in love with Honeyland at Sundance, and it turns out it was the highest-grossing theatrical documentary of all the nominees this year. Along with Parasite, we experienced another incredible success with Portrait of a Lady on Fire. When the French decided that Les Misérables was to be their submission for the Oscars, we decided to do everything we could to get Portrait of a Lady on Fire nominated for a Golden Globe. It is an exceptional film and has done about $3.8 million so far, which is fantastic. It’s one of my favorite films this year and should absolutely have been nominated by the Oscars. The Globes got it right though by nominating it. I always loved the more egalitarian approach of the Globes in this regard by including multiple nominees from the same country. If the Globes can do it, why can’t the Academy?

How difficult is it to be independent in a film business where the studios operate with big budgets, and how do you manage to succeed in this climate?

I don’t know that we have a particularly innovative business model in having this very traditional and passionate belief in the power of cinema. But I do think that therein lies exactly why we stand apart from other independents and can comfortably compete with mini-majors and the studios because what we do is something wholly dedicated to building immersive and singular experiences in the theatre. Creating cinematic events is not for the faint of heart and takes real confidence in what you’re doing. We couldn’t do it without a relentless pursuit of exceptional cinema. Every film on the Neon slate, no matter how big or small, reflects that same philosophy.

Will you change anything in the future?

We have a really good foundation with our partners, Universal and Hulu, and I’m not sure we would be as successful without them, but our belief in what we’re doing and the films that we are doing it with will not change. The only change at this point is that we intend to finance and produce films and get involved in projects earlier.

Do you think that your role in the film business is even more important now that Disney has gobbled up Twentieth Century Fox? And how has this affected the business in your opinion?

I believe in the experience of watching films in a cinema. This is the only place you get the full and complete attention of an audience. The only other place where that happens is church - which tells you just how precious that power is. As Bong Joon Ho says; the cinema is the only place in which he can protect his vision of the film. At home, you have the capacity to stop, to finish the film early, to walk away and watch it in sequences. Inside the theatre is where the real power of cinema exists. Cinema is a commitment to protect the filmmaker’s vision and ultimately a more satisfying and passionate experience. In a world where singular and memorable experiences are harder and harder to come by, it’s more important than ever to protect and promote the power of cinema.

So I assume, you are not the biggest fan of Netflix?

I think they are their own worst enemy and are doing a great disservice to their films and their audiences. The reality is that distribution is not a “one size fits all” strategy. The majority of our films are released focusing on a theatrical strategy because those are the films we are drawn to. But some films demand other strategies: a wider release on day one versus a smaller NY and LA exclusive launch, or using Hulu or VOD simultaneously to expose the film to parts of the country where theatrical release simply may not be viable. It’s all fair game assuming you’re doing what’s best for the film. But it is not wise simply to shove each film into the same tube assuming you’ll garner the same result, because all films are different.

At the Golden Globes, Bong Joon Ho said: “Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” Are you more eager to introduce foreign language films to American audiences than before?

There are so many people that have seen their first foreign language film thanks to Parasite. This is exactly the path we’ve been on for three years. A commitment to introducing new audiences, both young and old, to the power of cinema.

You acquired Palm Springs at Sundance – a film by a relatively new filmmaker, Max Barbakow. Do you find it exciting to work with new talent?

Yes, we acquired it in partnership with Hulu. We work as much with first-time filmmakers as we do with veteran filmmakers. Both are equally exciting, but everyone is different and each film has its own story in terms of how it got made, etc. It’s also as much about the teams around these filmmakers. There is an incredible writer involved with Palm Springs, Andy Siara, as well as actor and producer Andy Samberg, who shepherded the project from the start as both star and producer. I love that kind of collaboration - the people on screen being as impactful as those off it in making and delivering these films. The same was true for Margot Robbie, who was a producer on I, Tonya. She was a big influence on how it got made and how we released it. We’re also working on a documentary from second-time feature filmmaker Benjamin Ree called The Painter and the Thief, which has the experienced hand of Academy Award winner Morgan Neville behind it as executive producer.

You grew up in Sweden and Dubai. How do you think this has shaped your cultural taste and interest for foreign language films?

I think there are two things that have influenced me. One is that I had the benefit of growing up speaking different languages. I spoke Flemish in Belgium, Dutch in Holland and Swedish in Sweden. I give great credit to my parents for giving me that. It opened my mind up to multiple points of view. Second is that my father was a basketball coach and each game was a live event with an audience. So I grew up loving that live experience. Initially, I was consumed by sport too, playing basketball every waking hour. It was my first passion. That morphed into my love of theatre, which later changed to film. They’re all connected in a way. I definitely inherited a perspective of combining sport and commerce and a sense of competition from watching my father. The correlation is pretty clear. So I love the sport of what we do, whether it’s for awards or the market place, but it’s only as rewarding as the art is itself.

What was the first foreign-language film you remember seeing?

It was Swedish. It was a silly Swedish Viking farce just like Monty Python. Sweden for the Swedes.