Behind-the-scenes of an upstart distributor's strategy to make waves through awards season.
Participating In a Case Study at the Australian Screen Forum in New York City last week, Neon CEO Tom Quinn discussed how his company brought I, Tonya to the big screen. According to Quinn, the film industry is "so competitive [and] expensive, unless you're going to build something that has a point of view and that stands for something. I didn't really feel the need to launch a company. The world does not need another film distributor."
With the company's acquisition of I, Tonya at last year's TIFF, Quinn felt that they had an awards contender, but first, they had to acquire the movie. Coming into the festival, I, Tonya was the hottest property around, and there was already an offer on the table from CBS.
Video is no longer available: www.youtube.com/watch?v=iZbTLdDHRvs
"[Tonya]" Quinn said, "does that incredible thing, where the moment you laugh, you feel guilty about it," and he was knocked out at the screening, especially by Margot Robbie's portrayal of Tonya Harding.
Quinn feels that part of the reason Neon won out is that the company understood the film: "We came into the movie with our own point-of-view," and "really believed the film was an awards movie." Another reason was that he thought Robbie "felt that the company was sensitive to issues in the film, but we also have the confidence and ability to have fun with it."
Quinn thought the movie was a definite awards contender, and so before the deal was even signed, "[we were] heading into our first team meeting the next day. You have to construct the entire Academy campaign over the course of...twelve hours." This involved getting the film into other important festivals, as well as signing up consultants before they were snapped up by other films.
"The world does not need another film distributor."
TIFF and the acquisition happened in September, which left Neon little time to get ready for a December release in New York and L.A., where most Academy voters are located. "My attitude was...let's treat this as a big, commercial movie."
Even though the film tackles timely issues, including domestic abuse, "bullying, trolling, and the disparate sects in our country," Quinn was adamant that "if we sold ourselves as being 'the most important movie of the year' I don't think we would have had a real dialogue about how amazingly effective the movie is."
Neon elected to "lean into some of the salacious aspects of the film...the guilty pleasure aspects," launching with a redband trailer in November of last year. Their first aim was the Golden Globe awards, where he believed that Robbie was a strong contender for the Best Actress in a Comedy category, which would springboard them into the Academy race, as well help the film's expansion, in general.
"We were a very small release," admitted Quinn, "but I was buying time on TV in L.A., as if we were a big release. So, if you're an Academy voter in L.A., and you didn't look at the box office, the film looks like a big hit."
From a marketing standpoint, they realized that the story the film was telling, (in 1993, Harding's abusive husband Jeff Gillooly engineered a plan to injure her top competitor for the Olympics, Nancy Kerrigan) would be a tough sell, in terms of being an event people remembered.
"The way that the calendar is set up, we could invest as we succeeded."
According to Quinn, "Anyone under 32 [was] going to be a really tough slog." As it turns out, though, their social media campaign didn't have to rely on people's familiarity with the story. Instead, it relied on "figure skating, scrunchies [and] Gillooly's mustache, and we had a lot of fun with that. Our core audience was 25-32 year-old women, and our social media footprint was larger than any other movie in the Oscar race."
"The one thing that did matter was that the movie didn't cross over beyond the top 50 markets. It was still very much treated as a very big hit that didn't cross over into the middle of the country," as opposed to Darkest Hour, which did." Still, though, the film grossed over 30 million dollars.
"We were clearly operating within the mainstream," but the theaters where the film did well were very much crossover commercial art houses, which was something Quinn hadn't been anticipating, given that he felt that Harding herself "represents those individuals who've been overlooked, whether they're conservative voters or the disenfranchised."
"The minimum spent was two million dollars for a lead actor campaign."
"The minimum spent was two million dollars for a lead actor campaign. Everything we did outside of trade advertising, though, was consumer-facing. It had an ability to sell the movie to actual ticket goers. Ultimately for me, consumer-facing is more impactful to Academy voters than navel-gazing trade advertising." Quinn observed that "[With] the way the [awards] calendar is set up, we could invest as we succeeded."
In the end, I, Tonya got nominations for Allison Janney and Margot Robbie at the Golden Globes and Oscars, and Janney won awards for Best Supporting Actress at the Globes and the Academy Awards. The film has continued to do well on iTunes, and the gross is over 50 million dollars worldwide.
"It's definitely a Cinderella story," said Quinn. "I've been doing this for twenty years, and this is the highest grossing movie I've worked on, 100%."
Video is no longer available: www.youtube.com/watch?v=fApriHzUG9g&ab_channel=ABCTelevisionNetwork
Quinn also spoke about the state of the film industry today, in an increasingly streaming world. "For me, in building our business plan, film is dependent on the transactional value, in order to succeed,"
Quinn mentioned Moonlight, and wondered out loud what would have become of that movie had it sold at Sundance and then gone to Netflix. "I don't believe that movie would have become what it ultimately became....How long would a majority of people who saw that film give it...as opposed to getting up and going to your local theater and committing yourself?"
In the case of Okja, the Bong Jon-Hoo movie which was a Netflix release, Quinn noted that he had watched it with his daughter on an iPad, "but I don't think that's how that movie was meant to be seen....I think if that movie launched as a cross-over wide release, it would have built momentum, it would have been part of the cultural fabric. And it's very hard to determine where that even starts, within the world of Netflix."