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Tom Quinn on How Neon Nailed the Landing With ‘I, Tonya’

This winter, Tom Quinn hit the ice with Tonya Harding.

The indie film executive and the controversial Olympian grew close during the rollout of “I, Tonya,” the acclaimed dramedy that Quinn’s company Neon is releasing. They bonded over being parents of young children, and Quinn came to see Harding differently from her tabloid image as a Nancy Kerrigan-hobbling harpy. Still, he was nervous about lacing up his skates.

“I can’t say I comported myself well,” he says. “But I did not fall.”

“I, Tonya,” with a box office haul of more than $25 million and three Oscar nominations, is an unqualified success and has propelled Neon, a newbie distributor that launched roughly a year ago, into the top ranks of indie players. But it’s hard out there for a film company. Just ask Broad Green or October Films or Relativity. All of them began with grand ambitions, and all have expired or are running on fumes. Quinn knows that launching a successful studio is nearly as difficult as landing Harding’s fabled triple axel.

“Nobody told me it would be hard,” Quinn says with a laugh. “I’m doing this in an atmosphere of who in the world needs another film distributor?”

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It’s Quinn’s first sit-down interview since starting Neon in January 2017. He’s snacking on lamb meatballs and sipping green tea in the drawing room of the Crosby Street Hotel, a space whose governing aesthetic is a hybrid of baronial and bric-a-brac. As he sits by the fire, flanked by a portrait of an imperious Jack Russell terrier and a cigar-store Indian, Quinn articulates Neon’s secret sauce. He calls it the decalogue.

“We’re doing 10 movies a year,” says Quinn. “It’s almost an impossible number to get right. Most companies are in the 15 range, but I feel it’s an inadequate amount of attention paid to a job that requires real attention to detail.”

Neon’s not just offering a bespoke approach to film releasing. The company was co-founded by Alamo Drafthouse’s Tim League, and reanimating the theatrical experience is a major part of what it wants to pull off. Every one of its films will get a big-screen release, and the studio has partnered with the Drafthouse on in-theater promotions. Sometimes it hands out pins or commemorative tickets to moviegoers; in other cases, theater staff members wear shirts bedecked with lines of dialogue from upcoming releases.

“We want to see if what we do inside the Alamo can be a test case for in-theater marketing,” says Quinn. “We want to take what works and apply it elsewhere.”

There’s another competitive distinction. Most indie players — the Bleecker Streets and Focus Features of the world — cater to older moviegoers who love their Judi Dench with a sprig of Victorian-era pageantry. That can be a winning strategy, as the clientele represents a group that grew up going to the cinema and can be counted on to catch the latest awards bait.

Neon is a different animal. So far, it has released “Risk,” a warts-and-all look at WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange; “Beach Rats,” a sexually explicit story of a closeted gay teen; and “The Bad Batch,” a dystopian thriller featuring a one-legged Suki Waterhouse and desert-dwelling cannibals. The films are edgy, even a touch scabrous, and intended to appeal to younger crowds. It’s the same audience that is abandoning multiplexes for streaming services.

Tom Quinn Portrait Neon Distribution
CREDIT: Patrick James Miller for Variety

“People say that’s the hardest age to reach, so I thought that’s where the opportunity lies as well,” says Quinn.

Filmmakers who’ve worked with the 47-year-old say he has a youthful spirit. That filters into his marketing campaigns. “I, Tonya” director Craig Gillespie credits Neon for releasing a red-band trailer for the film, full of Allison Janney unleashing profanity-laced invective. It was not your typical campaign for an Oscar hopeful, but it did spotlight the movie’s anarchic spirit.

“To do that in the middle of awards season is courageous, but they got what the film was and did not shy away from it,” Gillespie says.

Quinn courts directors with similar chutzpah. While making his pitch to distribute “Ingrid Goes West,” he showed up with avocado toast for the filmmakers. It was a reference to the trendy breakfast food one of the main characters writes odes to on her Instagram feed.

“On the wrong day, that could rub you the wrong way, but it just told me they were excited by the film and its possibilities,” says Matt Spicer, director of the film.

Quinn is smart and down-to-earth, colleagues say. Jason Blum, whose Blumhouse Prods. tapped Neon to handle its genre label BH Tilt, calls Quinn “shrewd” and “a man with very little ego.”

In a short time, there have been major changes at Neon. At this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Quinn’s initial investor, the Chinese-based SR Media, was bought out by 30West, the financier launched by ex-CAA agent Micah Green and entrepreneur Dan Friedkin. Flush with cash from the deal, Neon made its presence felt at the mountainside festival. It was perhaps the busiest buyer at Sundance, acquiring four titles, including “Assassination Nation,” a splashy thriller it snagged for $10 million in partnership with AGBO.

Neon left Sundance with a higher profile — but buzz doesn’t equal success. Most start-ups lose money, and Quinn won’t provide many specifics about the health of the company. “We’re within the margin of error across most of our slate, and ‘I, Tonya’ is a runaway hit, so we look really good year one,” he says.

Prior to Neon, Quinn spent more than a decade at Magnolia and Radius-TWC, where he specialized in navigating the Wild West of day-and-date releasing, the industry term for debuting a film simultaneously on-demand and in theaters. At Radius, Quinn worked for Harvey Weinstein, the Weinstein Co. founder whose career has been in tatters since he was accused of harassing and assaulting dozens of women. Radius operated at arm’s length, but Quinn doesn’t mince words about his former boss.

“I almost didn’t go work there because he’s a notorious bully,” he says. “For that alone this should have happened long ago. We were fortunate enough to be our own satellite operation in our own office and budget, but it’s absolutely insane what this man has done.”

Quinn left Radius after growing frustrated by the corporate constraints placed on him. The studio was supposed to focus on micro-budget films with only limited theatrical rollouts. That prevented it from nabbing projects such as “Drive” and “Whiplash” that Quinn had longed to distribute.

Then he had a eureka moment. While futzing about on his computer, he suddenly knew he wanted to start a company called Neon. The glowing signs evoked memories of favorite movies, noirish classics like “Casablanca” and “Blade Runner.”

“The name came first,” he notes. So did a dawning realization that being a distributor in today’s film business requires a certain soullessness. Companies drift from release to release without leaving much of a cultural imprint. Quinn wants Neon to be something different — a company animated by an artistic spirit.

“It used to be if you could sell 80% of your slate with a straight face, then you were batting way above average in terms of making films you believe in,” he says. “That’s not Neon. At this company, it’s 100%.”

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