Neon’s Tom Quinn or (The Unexpected and Relentless Pursuit to Get a Documentary in Best Picture)

It's not just about best documentary or international feature for Tom Quinn - he's looking for them to be embraced in a major way by the Academy Awards.

Tom Quinn
Daniel Bergeron

I first met Tom Quinn, the film distributor Neon’s co-founder, at a party at the Telluride Film Festival in August 2019. With his film talent in attendance, including “Parasite” director Bong Joon Ho and “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” star Adèle Haenel, a 10-minute side conversation with the CEO has remained prevalent in my mind. At the time, I conveyed to him my thoughts that Bong’s film from South Korea had a real chance to win best picture at the Oscars later in the year. I probably wasn’t the first person to make such a declaration, as the film had premiered at Cannes months earlier, and the buzz was palpable, even though it probably wasn’t believed by the masses as of yet. Without skipping a beat, Quinn almost ignored the comment, quickly stating, “That’s great, but do you know what I really want? I want the first documentary in best picture.”

In 2019, Neon had documentary hopefuls with Sydney Pollack’s “Amazing Grace,” John Chester’s “The Biggest Little Farm,” Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov’s “Honeyland” and Tim Miller’s “Apollo 11.” Miller’s film was the most prominent of the contenders, leading in the critics’ awards before being snubbed for best documentary feature. The doc “Honeyland” was the official selection for Macedonia for international feature, making history when it was nominated in both categories, the first film to ever do so. As the 92nd Academy Awards showed us, it wasn’t the end of Neon’s historic run, as “Parasite” became the first film not in the English language to win best picture, in addition to picking up awards for directing, original screenplay and international feature.

In this extended eligibility year, Neon had a robust powerhouse of non-fiction films in its arsenal. When the Oscars announced its shortlist for documentary feature, three of its movies had been listed for the next round of consideration: Victor Kossakovsky’s “Gunda,” Gianfranco Rosi’s “Notturno” and Benjamin Ree’s “The Painter and the Thief.” In addition, they also landed two features in international feature, including Russia’s “Dear Comrades!” from Andrei Konchalovsky and Ivory Coast’s “Night of the Kings” from Philippe Lacôte. Many of the films look poised to be nominated by the Oscars.

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The Painter and the Thief Benjamin Ree

This year, the Academy had 238 documentaries submit for consideration for the Oscars, blowing out the previous record of 170. It’s becoming increasingly difficult for films to not only stand out in a crowded field but to ensure the doc branch of approximately 600 members can fully participate and consider in the voting process. This has highlighted a discussion in the industry about expanding the nomination field from five to ten nominees in the documentary category, not dissimilar from the expansion to ten nominees for best picture in 2009.

“It’s an arduous process to go through screening all these films, and you want everyone to participate as fully as possible,” Quinn shares after being asked about the idea of expanding in an interview with Variety. “Looking at these shortlists, I do think they really help fine-tune the process into nominations, and it’s a wonderful honor to be highlighted in that way. I agree that there is room for more nominees, but I would say that the number of accredited films participating on the non-fiction side is too large. The qualification guidelines that the Academy signed off on this year for non-fiction features are a little too broad, and it should be fine-tuned.”

In June 2020, the Academy began assigning documentary branch members “required viewing lists,” a list of 15% of the eligibility pool, or 36 films, each branch member would watch before preliminary voting that took place on Feb. 1. This would ensure each film is seen for voting, but it does rest on an honor system.

Documentaries are typically just recognized in their own category and have found recognition outside of it, only 13 times in the 93-year history of the Oscars. Seven of those nominations have been in the best original song category, with Melissa Etheridge’s “I Need to Wake Up” from the Oscar-winning doc “An Inconvenient Truth” being the only winner. The other six were in the now discontinued best unique and artistic picture (1927’s “Chang”), cinematography (1930’s “With Byrd at the South Pole” that won), editing (1970’s “Woodstock” and 1994’s “Hoop Dreams”) and international feature (2008’s “Waltz with Bashir” and 2019’s “Honeyland”).

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Courtesy of Neon

While the Oscars conversation for Neon films has remained in their conventional categories, the others that failed to make the shortlist such as “Totally Under Control” from Oscar winner Alex Gibney (2007’s “Taxi to the Dark Side”), Ophelia Harutyunyan and Suzanne Hillinger, aren’t out of the awards discussion as far as Quinn is concerned. The film that takes an in-depth look at the Trump Administration’s failed response to the COVID-19 pandemic went into production in March and was released in October, instituting a technically proficient way to socially distance while shooting and editing. “For me, 2020 does not exist for me cinematically without the impact of ‘Totally Under Control.’ For those reasons and so many others, it should be considered as the best picture nominee.”

Expanding not just the conversation for documentaries, Quinn shares that Max Barbakow’s “Palm Springs” with Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti is another film that got him through the pandemic. “It reminded me that everything’s going to be okay, and there is something worth holding onto.”

So what’s next for Neon and Quinn? They purchased Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s “Flee” at the Sundance Film Festival, an animated documentary and non-English feature that tells the story of a man who reveals his past secrets. “I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but I will say that those discussions about ‘Flee,’ a documentary, that’s animated and in a foreign language — I wouldn’t be above predicting that it’s possible to even extend beyond another category, but I want to lay down the gauntlet.” Could “Flee” be another historical milestone for Neon at Oscars 2022? Quinn is determined to break some more barriers in this industry.