'Awards Chatter' Podcast — Tom Quinn (Neon)

Bong Joon-ho and Tom Quinn - Getty - H 2020
Jerod Harris/Getty Images

"I'm still in shock 48 hours later," Tom Quinn, the founder and CEO of Neon, tells me as we sit down at his company's humble West LA offices the Tuesday after the Sunday on which Parasite, which Neon distributed in the U.S., became the first film not in the English language to ever win the best picture Oscar and its director, Bong Joon Ho, became the first person since Walt Disney 66 years ago to personally win four Oscars in one night. The 49-year-old exec, whose bicoastal company comprises just 28 people, continues, "Somebody asked me, 'Was this the happiest night of your life?' And I was like, 'The happiest night of my life was when I married my wife Celeste Wright. But the second-happiest night of my life was winning best picture for Parasite and Bong Joon Ho.'"

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LISTEN: You can hear the entire interview below.

Past guests include Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, Lorne Michaels, Barbra Streisand, George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Robert De Niro, Jennifer Lawrence, Eddie Murphy, Gal Gadot, Warren Beatty, Angelina Jolie, Snoop Dogg, Jessica Chastain, Stephen Colbert, Reese Witherspoon, Aaron Sorkin, Margot Robbie, Ryan Reynolds, Nicole Kidman, Denzel Washington, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Matthew McConaughey, Kate Winslet, Jimmy Kimmel, Natalie Portman, Chadwick Boseman, Jennifer Lopez, Elton John, Judi Dench, Quincy Jones, Jane Fonda, Tom Hanks, Amy Schumer, Justin Timberlake, Elisabeth Moss, RuPaul, Rachel Brosnahan, Jimmy Fallon, Kris Jenner, Michael Moore, Emilia Clarke, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Helen Mirren, Tyler Perry, Sally Field, Spike Lee, Lady Gaga, J.J. Abrams, Emma Stone, Al Pacino, Julia Roberts, Jerry Seinfeld, Dolly Parton, Will Smith, Taraji P. Henson, Sacha Baron Cohen, Carol Burnett and Norman Lear.

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Quinn was born in Greenville, North Carolina, but spent much of his childhood  in Europe, where his father was coaching basketball. Returning stateside at 14, he hoped to become a basketball player himself, but by the time he enrolled at UNC-Chapel Hill he had shifted his focus to acting, and majored in speech. (A side job while in college was working at a video store, where he was introduced to art house cinema.) He graduated in 1992, and in 1995 headed to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career. Eventually, though, he realized that his acting prospects were limited, and began working temp jobs in other areas of the entertainment industry. "The minute I said 'I don't want to act' was liberating," he recalls, and before long he was working as an entry-level publicist under Nancy Willen at Samuel Goldwyn Films, and subsequently at DDA. A screwup at work cost him his job — but, he says, "It's the best thing that ever happened to me."

In 1997, a former colleague at Samuel Goldwyn Films with whom Quinn still played softball asked him to come back to the company, not in a PR capacity, but rather as an assistant to Samuel Goldwyn himself. Quinn was eventually moved into an acquisitions position, and before departing the company in 2004 had helped to bring to it films like 2002's Raising Victor Vargas and 2004's Super Size Me. Hoping to work on larger-scale projects, too, he left for a job at Magnolia, where, under Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner, he helped to pioneer day-and-date/multiplatform releases and the theatrical distribution of Oscar-nominated shorts. He also started its genre label, Magnet Releasing, and, for its Six Shooter series, acquired 2006's The Host, a South Korean film directed by one Bong Joon Ho. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. (Magnolia, during Quinn's tenure there, also distributed Bong's 2009 film Mother.)

In 2001, Jason Janego, a friend and colleague at Magnolia, ultimately convinced Quinn that it was time for them to "go pro," and they accepted an offer from Harvey Weinstein to create a boutique operation under the umbrella of The Weinstein Company. With a staff of just 10, Quinn notes, "We managed to change the face of what distribution was," blending theatrical and VOD releases to make for a consistently profitable division. Among the films that they handled were 2013's Snowpiercer, from Bong, and two documentaries, 2013's 20 Feet From Stardom and 2014's Citizenfour, which won the best documentary feature Oscar in back-to-back years. But they became aggrieved when Weinstein began impeding their ability to acquire films like Whiplash and Nightcrawler, which then went on to success elsewhere. And they departed the company in August 2015, just over two years before allegations against Weinstein caused TWC to implode.

By late 2016, Quinn — in partnership with Drafthouse's Tim League, but no longer Janego — had already launched his own distribution company, Neon, intending for it to be "a home for directors" and "dedicated to the big screen." The company made its first big splash at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival when it won the distribution rights of Craig Gillespie's I, Tonya over Netflix, despite placing a lower bid, and then carrying the film all the way to the Oscars, where Margot Robbie was nominated for best actress and Allison Janney won best supporting actress. That same year, though, Quinn experienced a major disappointment when he lost Bong's next film, Okja, to Netflix; he even "tried desperately" to convince Netflix to partner with Neon and allow Neon to give the film a theatrical release, but he was denied. He recalls, "Whatever Bong was going to do next, we wanted to be a part of." And, consistent with that, he bought Parasite at its script stage.

Parasite had its world premiere at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, where it was greeted with an eight-minute standing ovation and was rewarded with the Palme d'Or. At that point, Quinn decided to model the rest of the film's rollout after the late Cinema 5 chief Don Rugoff's rollout for 1969's Z, which, a half-century earlier, had become the first film ever Oscar-nominated for both best picture and best foreign language film (the latter of which is now known as best international feature), and also received director, screenplay and film editing noms. He instructed his in-house team and outside consultants not to promote Parasite as just another strong non-English language film, but as "cinema on par with Steven Spielberg, Guillermo del Toro, Alfonso Cuarón — any global director operating at the top of their game." And with an Oscar campaign spend of less than $5 million, none of which went toward outdoor advertising, the film wound up with six Oscar noms: best picture, best international feature, best director, best original screenplay, best film editing and best production design. (A South Korean film had never previously received so much as one.) And on Oscar night, it won the four biggest.

How will the success of Parasite change things for Neon? "We're gonna keep doing the same thing," Quinn insists, noting that the company may even release fewer films this year. He did, however, make one bit of news about the company's future plans: "The one thing that we are intent on doing, to be a home for filmmakers to grow with, is — we feel that we are ready, we wanted to walk before we could run — we'd like to make movies." Quinn says that the company intends to make movies in the budget range of Moonlight ($1.5 million) to Hereditary ($10 million). He "would love," of course, to continue working closely with Bong. Reflecting on an Oscar night that he will never forget, Quinn says, "I'm happy that maybe this encourages others to commit to what is an extraordinary way to launch a film: the traditional theatrical window." He says that Parasite's victory "is a testament to fools like us doing fools' errands for films we believe in and filmmakers we think represent the best the world has to offer."