The Untold Story: How Radius Brought the Edward Snowden Doc 'Citizenfour' to America

Tom Quinn and Jason Janego, who head the distribution label, discuss the secrecy involved with releasing the controversial film (code names, encrypted messages) and their fears about how it would be received ("Would Harvey fire me?").
Jason Janego and Tom Quinn

Just over a year ago, Tom Quinn, who along with Jason Janego runs Radius-TWC, the Weinstein Co. division that specializes in both VOD and theatrical releases, got an urgent, but mysterious phone call from Josh Braun of the Submarine sales agency. "He said, 'Listen, I've got this interesting project I want to talk to you about,'" Quinn recalls. "I was like, 'Great, what is it?' And he goes, 'Well, I'm not gonna talk to you about it here. Why don't you meet me at the Red Egg in [New York's] Chinatown for lunch. Don't bring your cellphone.' I was like, 'Are you kidding?' He was like, 'No. Just don't bring your cellphone.'" Chuckling, Quinn remembers, "I was like, 'Am I gonna return to the office?'"

So began Radius' involvement with Citizenfour, Laura Poitras' Oscar-nominated documentary about Edward Snowden. For Quinn and Janego, striking a deal to release the movie and then seeing it through to distribution was unlike anything they'd previously experienced in their careers. Working under heightened secrecy, they adopted code names, used encrypted communications and even risked challenging their boss Harvey Weinstein, who had been critical of Snowden's action in leaking secret NSA documents.

Read more Laura Poitras on Snowden Doc 'Citizenfour,' Possibility the Fugitive Will Return to U.S.

"It's been a once in a lifetime experience," Quinn, who is also credited as a producer of the film, told me on Friday when we talked by phone. "That's a feeling that Jason and I have had from the first moment we saw the initial cut of the film." Adds Janego, "We kind of looked at each other and realized, 'Oh, my God, we're so lucky to be sitting here and participating in this thing. '"

Quinn, 44, and Janego, 42, were hired by Weinstein three-and-a-half years ago to "try to build the best possible model" for niche films, as Quinn puts it, be that a traditional or multiplatform release, and so far, they've compiled an enviable track record.

Their first major acquisition, Bachelorette, became the first VOD release ever to top the iTunes movie downloads chart. Following a few bumpier experiences with other narrative movies such as Butter, Only God Forgives and Lovelace, their focus turned largely to docs. They have now released nine, which have collectively grossed $11.2 million theatrically; three have been nominated for the best documentary feature Oscar — 20 Feet From Stardom and Cutie and the Boxer last year and Citizenfour this year — and all indications are that Citizenfour will follow 20 Feet From Stardom into the winners circle on Feb. 22.

But their journey with Citizenfour was not a simple one, and though the two men have been reluctant to call any attention to their role in the process — preferring to instead heap praise on Poitras, the muckraking journalist-filmmaker who was previously best known for her Oscar-nominated 2006 doc My Country, My Country — they agreed to discuss it with me in detail.

Read more New York Film Fest: 'Citizenfour' Hacks Way to Top of Uber-Competitive Doc Oscar Race

"This film was sold in a way unlike any other film — it had to be," says Quinn. "It was the only way to protect the source, to protect the material, all of it." Poitras and her married producers, Mathilde Bonnefoy and Dirk Wilutzky, had retained Submarine's Braun to explore distribution options for the film. He and Diane Weyermann of Participant, a Poitras confidante, were given very specific directions, as Quinn would later learn: "They didn't want to work with a corporate entity and they didn't want to work with a company that may have had other ties that would be in conflict with the movie, so that limited it to a group of independent companies. And then it became based on a recommendation about who, within that group, was the right fit. And they all collectively agreed that we could potentially be that fit."

But when Quinn, following Braun's instructions, arrived at the Red Egg restaurant, he recalls, "Nobody is there — a waiter and Josh — and we sit down and I was like, 'What the f— is going on?' And he says, 'Listen, it will all be clear to you once I tell you what this is.' It was almost, 'Tell me now if you don't want to know any more.' I was like, 'What is happening?!' Then I said, 'If this is your very sexy sales ploy, it's certainly working. I'm very interested. I have no idea what we're about to talk about.' And he said, 'Do you know who Laura Poitras is?'" Quinn, who'd seen her film The Oath, said he did, and that's when Braun told him, "She's been working on a film about Edward Snowden."

Looking back, Quinn admits, "I didn't really have an opinion about Ed — I didn't think he was a traitor or a patriot and, in my own sort of willful ignorance, really did not care about the issue. You know, I have nothing to hide — the government can watch me anytime they want. But the prospect of working with Laura and working on what could be an incredible film? 'Yes,' I said, 'we are 100 percent interested.'"

He was advised that, to move forward, he would have to travel to Berlin to meet with Poitras — who had relocated there after being hassled flying in and out of America on more than 40 occasions, leading her to conclude that she was on a "watch list." And he was told that he could not talk to anyone else about it. He said to Braun that he would have to share the information with Janego and was informed that was OK. And he also told his wife — "But other than that, nobody knew."

Read more Harvey Weinstein on Edward Snowden's 'Citizenfour': "It Changed My Opinion of Him"

Quinn flew to Berlin and met up with Braun and Poitras at the Soho House — ironically, a former Stasi headquarters. "She likes to meet there because meeting in public is honestly the safest thing to do," Quinn explains. Before they got down to business, he wanted to be upfront with her about something else, which they ended up laughing about: "My dad actually worked for the original incarnation of the NSA, the Armed Forces Security Agency," he said. "And another member of my family worked in the NSA. And I always thought, 'I guess I never got the call to come work in the family business.' How ironic is that?!"

They discussed other hot-button films that Radius had handled (like Inequality for All and Outrage) as well as others Quinn had worked on in his previous positions at Participant and Magnolia (such as Food, Inc. and Countdown to Zero). "We got along," he felt, and he was subsequently invited to her production office — which is "like an eighth-floor walk-up, an impenetrable place not for the faint of heart" — where he was shown some footage from the film, which was still a work in progress. But becoming involved with it, he chuckles in the retelling, "was an absolute no-brainer."

Quinn and Poitras agreed on a "verbal deal" which included some very clear-cut "rules of engagement." He remembers, "We couldn't have email exchanges about this movie, and we couldn't talk about this movie on the phone — it could only be in-person." Additionally, "We learned how to use an encryption key, not unlike what Glenn [Greenwald] uses in the movie, and for anything that was really, really sensitive, that's how we would communicate. And we had code names — the film was called The Agenda." Moreover, he notes, "It wasn't just that we couldn't talk about it publicly; we couldn't talk about it internally. It was just so sensitive." And, he emphasizes, "We honored that at every turn, even though it was incredibly difficult to be truly proactive as a distributor within that framework." (Back in the U.S., his main point-of-contact was Brenda Coughlin, who worked out of the U.S. production office of Praxis Films, which has handled all of Poitras' films.)

In July 2014, Poitras invited Quinn and Janego to Berlin to screen a rough cut of Citizenfour with her, Bonnefoy and Wilutzky. "We started watching it at like 1 o'clock in the morning," Quinn says. "We sat and watched the movie, the movie ended and our jaws dropped. Jason and I looked at each other after the screening was over and I think we mouthed, 'Holy shit.'" Quinn recalls thinking, "I understand what we're a part of now." Janego thought to himself, "Oh, my God, this is unbelievable. This is unlike anything I've ever experienced before."

Read more 'Citizenfour' Filmmakers Demand End to Lawsuit Over Edward Snowden Disclosures

The two men were also forced to acknowledge to one another that associating themselves with the film could put a lot of "things at risk," as Quinn put it. "Harvey was the single most outspoken individual in Hollywood about Snowden. It wasn't lost on us, and it wasn't lost on Laura either that he had a very strong opinion that Ed was not a patriot or a whistleblower, that he was a traitor. I don't think we had ever considered that but, at this point, having seen the movie, we had to ask ourselves, 'Where will we fall within the company?' " He wondered, "What if we wind up in a situation where we're not able to retain our autonomy if we have a disagreement internally? I was really concerned about that. Would Harvey fire me?"

There were other concerns, as well. Quinn says it occurred to him that he and Janego might now be on the watch list, begging the questions: "Would we forever change the way that we can travel? Would we risk sinking the company?" He continues, "It scared me. And I got angry that it scared me." Janego adds, "It may seem ridiculous now, but we went three or four months where every time we met to discuss The Agenda, our cellphones were taken out of the room and were placed in a different room because everything that we were being told and were learning along the way was, 'This is potentially a real powder keg.' We didn't know what was going to potentially happen." Quinn cuts in, "From July to September — my wife will tell you — I had a lot of sleepless nights trying to figure out how we were going to make sense of this movie purely as a release and a piece of distribution, having to wade through a potential minefield — it was nerve-wracking."

In order to prepare to effectively distribute the film, they obviously needed to bring more people into the loop. "After coming back from Berlin, we made the decision to open up the discussion to the entire Radius team, which was 10 people [none of whom had seen the movie at that time]," Quinn says. "We had a meeting, and we said, 'This is what we [had been] doing, we think this is an amazing film — but we don't know what's going to happen and what could happen to us, to you and to all of us personally, individually, professionally. We think nothing's going to happen, we feel confident nothing's going to happen, but we don't know, and because we don't know, everyone has an equal vote, and we want each of you to consider this seriously. There's no shame in saying that no, you don't want to work on this.' " He pauses, choking up, before continuing, "I get a little emotional. Man, there was no hesitation in that room. Every single individual in our office raised their hand immediately."

They also briefed Weinstein — partially. "We said, 'We're working on a film by Laura Poitras that is about surveillance,' " Quinn recollects. "But what the film was — the fact that these were breaking stories — none of that was discussed. And that was because the circle we had to maintain simply was as small as possible until Laura was ready to lock picture." It wasn't until a week before the film's late-addition world premiere at the New York Film Festival last Oct. 10 that Poitras showed Quinn and Janego a final cut. "And that's what Harvey saw," Quinn adds. (Weinstein later told me that the film "changed my opinion" of Snowden.)

Read more Academy Rejects Challenge to 'Citizenfour' Oscar Eligibility (Exclusive)

The film quickly became a sensation, earning rave reviews and holding strong at the box office. This is its 16th weekend in release, it has grossed $2.6 million domestically and it is still playing in more than 40 locations. It is scheduled to premiere on HBO on Feb. 23, the day after the Oscars. And it has won the top doc awards from the DGA, BAFTA, IDA, Gotham, Cinema Eye, National Society of Film Critics, Los Angeles Film Critics Association and New York Film Critics Circle. It has also humanized Snowden for millions of people.

For the Radius chiefs, the film has not only been a professional milestone, but a personal one as well. "What I've taken from this movie is an extraordinary gift: to be able to stand up for something," Quinn says. "My own personal opinion — where I've wound up on this issue, and where I've wound up about what I think about Ed Snowden — is the man is a hero, he's a patriot and he's a whistleblower. And he's opened an issue that we all need to be aware of." He adds, "I'd like to see Ed Snowden pardoned — and I was somebody who didn't care about this issue." Janego concurs: "A pardon or some situation where he's able to come back and live a somewhat normal life in the United States would be incredible."

But even if Snowden isn't welcomed back to America anytime in the foreseeable future — which Poitras told me she doubts he will be — Quinn and Janego believe the film still has made a difference. "If it inspires people to do what's right, I think it will have accomplished an incredible amount," Janego states. Quinn chimes in, "That was the inspiration to keep us going whenever we approached the fear of the unknown. What could happen? It was nothing compared to the risks that Ed took and the courage that he and Laura and Glenn had." Both men emphasize that they are eternally grateful to Poitras for trusting them and inviting them along for the ride — "Ed picked Laura, and Laura picked us," Quinn says. As he puts it, "It's one of the few times that we've gotten to be a part of something that is so much bigger than ourselves."

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg