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It’s been 48 hours since Parasite swept the Oscars, and Tom Quinn — co-founder of Neon, the independent distribution outfit that helped usher the South Korean film to its four wins, including best picture — is still a bit dazed. “The happiest night of my life was marrying my wife,” says Quinn. “The second happiest was winning best picture for Parasite and Bong Joon Ho.”
Quinn’s path to one of the most successful modern Oscar campaigns began when the 49-year-old — who grew up in Sweden and Dubai, the son of a basketball coach, before moving back to the U.S. for college — first arrived in Hollywood to pursue acting. He fell into a labyrinth of jobs, including publicity at Samuel Goldwyn Films and acquisitions at Magnolia in New York, where he fostered a relationship with Bong on his early efforts The Host (2006) and Mother (2009). He went on to launch Weinstein Co. spinoff Radius with counterpart Jason Janego and release Bong’s Snowpiercer (2013). Quinn then co-founded Neon in 2017, and 30West acquired a majority stake in 2018. Quinn returned to L.A. in August as Neon and its staff of 28 prep the company’s next phase: making movies. “To be in production,” he says, “I don’t think you can do it without having a firm foot in L.A.”
As a producer, the intent is to make films for less than $10 million. As a distributor, budgets aren’t necessarily so modest. Quinn invited THR to his West L.A. office to explain both and also address the bleak track record of Oscar-winning indie studios, Parasite’s TV remake at HBO and recent Sundance acquisitions — including the record-breaking $17.5 million (and 69 cents) that Neon and Hulu shelled out for festival darling Palm Springs.
What’s the value of an Oscar to a company like Neon? Will you now put out more movies?
No, possibly less. We did a fair number of incredible documentaries and foreign-language films in year one , but they didn’t have the same impact that [doing fewer] documentaries and foreign-language films had this year. I don’t think the slate changes that much. The one thing that we are intent on doing, and we feel that we’re ready, is that we’d like to make movies.
Will you enter that arena with just one film or several?
I don’t think you can cherry-pick, and I don’t think you can do just one. It’s the same with foreign-language films and documentaries. You have to be committed to cinema throughout your whole slate. A director we may discover on film one, working with them on their second film, that’s a gateway. It would make us an awesome home for filmmakers to come and grow with.
How do you avoid ending up like Open Road, an indie that went out of business just two years after it distributed a best picture winner in Spotlight?
It’s good to remind yourself you’re not immortal or infallible. We’ve certainly made mistakes, but the one thing we haven’t done is chase things that aren’t reflective of what we want to be involved with. We’ve never chased a deal or the bottom line. We’ve chased things we believe creatively are a reflection of cinema. What Parasite can say about us as a label is that we support filmmakers at an earlier stage. That’s something we always hoped we’d be in a position to do, and now we are. Also, we’ve always been naive and confident enough in our own work to sit at the table with companies that were decades older than us and compete for movies like I, Tonya.
When you’re competing with streamers for festival hits, even with the cash infusion from 30West, what’s the biggest obstacle facing an independent?
It’s the most competitive I’ve ever seen, and a success like [Parasite] is only going to make it even more competitive. The good news is that we’ve been a top-tier buyer since we opened and had solid financing from day one. With [30West’s] Dan Friedkin’s investment in 2018, that has placed us at the top of the independents. Not every film is to be released in the same manner. The idea that it’s one-size-fits-all, which is very much the Netflix model, I believe is a major flaw in how it approaches the business.
How is Neon’s approach different?
Netflix makes films with various budgets — it’s a very eclectic mix. Ours is a very eclectic mix, too, but we are buying films that are tailored for the cinematic theatrical experience. We’ve embraced our position as a top-tier provider for Hulu while respecting the traditional theatrical window to compete with Netflix. That is new. Our films wind up on streaming. The only difference is that they’re more valuable when they get there.
Who is your biggest competitor?
More consistently than anybody else, Netflix has tried to buy the films we’ve wanted. I’m very happy to say that they have failed to secure the films whenever we’ve sat at the table. They didn’t get I, Tonya.
What’s a strategy you learned during your time at Radius that you’ve found useful at Neon?
We’ve done a few day-and-date films at Neon. That was exactly the right launch for Revenge, which we worked on with [streaming service] Shudder. Its theatrical prospects were smaller, but it deserved to be launched across the top 25 markets. That’s what we did, and it did extremely well. It was very much a Radius approach to what multiplatform can be. Snowpiercer launched as a theatrical release with a compressed window, and then it did exceptionally well on DVD. But if I had that film today, I’d release it wide [theatrically]. I think it would ultimately be an even bigger success.
Do you and Bong have an understanding or a deal for his next film?
We’ve never had an understanding, and I don’t think any output deal that you’ve ever had with anyone is really worth anything beyond the relationship that you have. Of course, we would love to work with him again.
How do you feel about U.S. remakes of foreign-language films?
I’ve always viewed the remake business as exploitative in a way. Yes, there’s money to be made there. I get it, but I firmly believe that a film like Parasite to be remade as Parasite the English-language feature does not make sense to me at all. Reconfiguring it as a limited series, that will actually explore new territory. That is probably a more sensible evolution.
Were there ever discussions about Neon being involved with the limited series?
We had an opportunity, but we’re not in a position to compete with HBO.
Now that you’re getting into production, how much thought have you put into entering the TV space?
It’s inevitable. We have films and filmmakers who have pitched stuff. We have ideas. It will happen, but it’s not top of mind today. Film production is definitely more of the focus.
Care to elaborate on the extra 69 cents that made the $17.5 million sum for Palm Springs the largest Sundance acquisition ever?
I didn’t come up with it, but it’s a joke that will live in infamy. God, I really, really love it.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the Feb. 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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