In the era of the media mega-conglomerate as status quo for the film industry, it is always refreshing to take a step back and consider who is finding success outside of the multi-billion dollar nexus of mergers and acquisitions. Disney and all its subsidiaries may dominate the box office, but in the shadow of near franchise monopoly, there is an exciting league of independent and speciality companies that deliver wonderful content each year. For each Warner Bros. there is a corresponding Blumhouse, and one can rely on A24 to counter program whatever Universal has out in a given week. Yet, none of these companies had quite the 2019 as NEON, who succeeded in riding the Parasite (2019) wave to a Best Picture win less than five years after being founded.
The brainchild of Alamo Drafthouse Cinema CEO Tim League and veteran distributor Tom Quinn, NEON arrived proper on the industry scene in January 2017. It seemed like economic suicide to start a new label in the midst of the franchise-crazed year that saw the raging sucess of Wonder Woman, Logan, Thor: Ragnarok, and Star Wars: The Last Jedi, but Quinn and League came with a plan. In a 2018 interview with Variety, Quinn expressed his goal to reach younger audiences, those looking for something more cinematically edgy than franchise fare, but not quite consigned to stuffier ‘high brow’ releases. “People say that’s the hardest age to reach,” said Quinn, “so I thought that’s where the opportunity lies as well.” Speaking with Indiewire’s Eric Kohn, League expanded on the goal of targeting a fresh audience, saying “it’s so expensive that unless you’re going to build something that has a point of view, that can stand for something, I didn’t really feel the need to launch a company.”
When you take a look at the first handful of movies NEON purchased out of festivals, it’s clear to see how this “point of view” solidified into a brand. Their first Sundance acquisition was Nacho Vigalondo’s bonkers serio-comic Colossal (2016), which stars Anne Hathaway as an alcoholic who realizes she’s linked with a monster terrorizing Seoul. They also walked away from Sundance with Aubrey Plaza vehicle Ingrid Goes West (2017) and Eliza Hittman’s virtuoso Beach Rats (2017). None of the three movies were a financial success, but they all garnered positive reviews and substantial buzz. Beach Rats in particular has gone on to enjoy a second life as an arthouse streaming hit, and with Hittman’s newly-acclaimed release Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020) coming soon, NEON looks even better for being involved with her career as it started to pick up steam.
However, for all of this arthouse cred and positive critical attention, none of those movies launched NEON into the popular consciousness. That distinction belongs to the singular creation that is I, Tonya (2017). The part biopic, part pulp re-telling of Tonya Harding’s rise and flame out of competitive figure skating premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, where NEON picked it up for distribution. Starring Margot Robbie as the titular figure skater, and the incomparable Allison Janney as her abrasive and abusive mother, the movie was tailor-made for awards contention. The minds at NEON saw this and navigated the movie to a plum December release, thick in the midst of ‘Oscar Season,’ and developed a marketing campaign focused on Robbie and Janney’s performances. On the way to securing three Oscar nominations, including an eventual win for Janney, the movie turned into a bona fide indie hit, grossing $53.9 million on an $11 million budget. In hardly a year, Quinn and League successfully turned NEON into an enviable triple threat: auteur supporter, awards getter, and box office prosperer.
Yet, no new project is without setbacks, and 2018 proved to be both formative and challenging year for the burgeoning distributor. NEON gambled on a number of auteur driven movies that, as Quinn put it, appeal to those who “have no aversion to violence, no aversion to foreign language and to non-fiction.” To understand, you need look no further than a trio of 2018 NEON releases: Assasination Nation, Border, and Vox Lux. As the title suggests, Assasination Nation taps into the “violence” Quinn spoke of, and even opens with a sequence of partially tongue-in-cheek trigger warnings about items such as blood, death, toxic masculinity, guns, racism, and fragile male egos. The movie received a middling critical response, and failed outright at the box office. Similarly, the surreal music story Vox Lux starring Natalie Portman only garnered a 67/100 on Metacritic, and grossed back just under 10% of its production budget, not accounting for the costs of an aggressive marketing campaign.
Border is a curious case though, a Swedish language film from Iranian auteur Ali Abbasi that focuses on a seemingly magical customs agent named who discovers her identity is not what she expected. Border was critically well-received stateside, and was a substantial hit in Sweden, where it won a number of major awards. It also secured Abassi the distinction of Un Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival. It may not have been the foreign language stateside hit NEON hoped for, but it did establish them in the mind of foreign filmmakers looking for willing distributors who could see the possibility of worldwide releases. It may seem like a small feature, but this idea becomes central to understanding NEON’s current success, so special recognition to Border for ushering this potential along.
However, the most impactful 2018 release skews to the last part of Quinn’s comment, that being “non-fiction.” Three Identical Strangers (2018) is a documentary about triplets separated at birth, and the truly astounding story of how they discovered the circumstances of their lives apart, and the deeply unsettling reality of how they were studied. The documentary was a box office smash, earning a nearly unheard of $12.3 million in its initial release. It was also a part of a summer of documentaries that included Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018), RBG (2018), and Free Solo (2018), all of which were critical and commercial successes, causing industry watchers the world over to reconsider the viability of documentaries as money-makers. While Three Identical Strangers was left out of the Oscar nominations, it was included on a wide variety of Top Ten lists at the end of the year, and seemingly motivated NEON to take more risks on documentaries. So, while 2018 was a financial stumbling block, the trends that came to define NEON’s year of stunning success in 2019 started in the midst of these financial question marks.
There are three major trends that we can use to explicate the way that NEON completely owned 2019. First is their continued support of respected but lesser-known auteurs looking for someone to bring their work to a broader audience. In this regard, NEON’s 2019 releases included the following movies: The Beach Bum from Harmony Korine, Wild Rose from Tom Harper, Luce from Julius Onah, and Clemency from Chinonye Chukwu. Of the bunch, Korine is best known for his previous movie Spring Breakers (2012), which was a hit in its own right, but other than that, Korine has never broken through to the mainstream. Nonetheless, The Beach Bum features possibly the most Matthew McConnaughey of all Matthew McConnaguhey performances, and was a modest critical and box office success.
From there, critical reaction to the auteur was only better. Luce and Wild Rose were universally beloved, Wild Rose even earning an Oscar nod for Best Original Song. Clemency is the standout though, winning the Sundance Grand Jury Prize, and a 92% approval rate on Rotten Tomatoes. Alfre Woodard’s performance is a powerhouse, and a true head scratcher in terms of why it was left out of the Oscars. Altogether, this batch of movies solidified NEON as a comfortable home for auteurs, and tapped into the initial audience of movie-goers that Quinn and League wanted from the beginning. These movies brought young cinephiles out to the theatres. Maybe not in droves, but enough to build buzz for their larger releases, and bring exciting cinematic voices in house as potential future collaborators.
Secondly, 2019 marked a further dive into non-fiction for NEON, a move that brought the company the combination of box office and awards success that was just out of reach in 2018. In total, NEON distributed four documentaries last year. These titles were The Biggest Little Farm, Apollo 11, Amazing Grace, and Honeyland (I’ll save my thoughts on Honeyland for my third point, but want to make sure it gets a nod here since it was part of the slate). Biggest Little Farm is a charming piece of Americana that grossed an impressive $5 million off a $1 million budget, and the Aretha Franklin concert film Amazing Grace arrived right on the heels of her untimely death, expanding worldwide in 2019 after a limited 2018 release to pull in nearly $6 million. These two releases seem to mark the development of a brand that opts for low-risk titles that will easily make back the investment, one by appealing to the broad popularity of a feel-good American story, and the other by catering to a superstar with an avid fanbase.
Apollo 11, however, fits into the trends that the documentary dominance of 2018 established; people like history lessons packaged in a slick filmmaking bundle. By combining archive footage, engaging talking heads, and tapping into the current boon of space centric fiction stories, NEON positioned Apollo 11 as a cinematic event, one best experienced on as large a screen as possible. In a day and age where spectacle wed with quality is about the best possible outcome you can hope for as a filmgoer, Apollo 11 delivered and became a word of mouth sensation. When all was said and done, the doc grossed $15.3 million in its theatrical run, practically a blockbuster performance from a historical doc, and one that surpassed Three Identical Strangers in terms of NEON box office success stories. It may have been excluded from the Oscar nominees, but Apollo 11 displays how adept NEON has become at betting big on docs, and with smaller ones to help insulate the bigger swings their formula is set up for great continued success.
Nonetheless, it is the third and final major trend that speaks most directly to the meteoric rise that constituted NEON in 2019: bringing international talent to United States audiences. First up is Honeyland, a Macedonian documentary about wild beekeepers in the remote village of Bekirlija. You would not be wrong in thinking that none of those descriptors are exactly buzzwords for success, or even suggest a sub-genre of docs to slot in to. Yet, while it was not a box office success story, Honeyland became a true critical darling, scooping up awards on its march to making history at the 2019 Academy Awards. This it did by becoming the first documentary to be nominated for both the Best Documentary Feature and Best International Film Oscars (more on this category in just a minute). It may not have won either award, but the nominations reveal the fact that NEON knows how to take great filmmaking and find a lane for it to succeed in.
And then, there is the Parasite of it all. Korean director and writer Bong Joon Ho’s masterpiece is the most recent step in an already incredible career that had nonetheless not caught on in the United States. Bong’s first English language film, Snowpiercer (2013), was a critical and financial success worldwide that introduced English-speaking audiences to an auteur who was already an arthouse favorite in the circles of cinephiles who could get over the “one-inch barrier” of subtitles to enjoy movies like Memories of a Murder (2003) and The Host (2006). Nonetheless, Bong had not yet become the kind of global filmmaking superstar his movies suggested he could become, but that changed the moment Parasite burst onto the scene. Hints of the movie’s power started to emerge when it won the coveted Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, the festival’s highest honor, making it the first Korean movie to ever win the award. Reviews and think pieces about the film’s brilliance started pouring out, but you never can be sure that what connects with the cinephilic Cannes community will translate to broader box office success. In recent years alone, winners Winter Sleep (2014), Dheepan (2015), and The Square (2017) were all critically feted but failed to generate any substantial audience response.
NEON came on board to distribute Parasite stateside in the aftermath of the Cannes success and developed a platform release, which basically boils down to starting small and then expanding to larger markets. This was, in a word, perfect for Parasite. Over its October opening weekend, when it premiered only in New York City and L.A., it was sold out everywhere, and garnered the best per-screen revenue since La La Land (2016). Such a rapturous initial release only built speculation, encouraging people to seek out this movie everyone was talking about. NEON could have easily jumped the gun and gone wide right away, but they waited, and so anticipation only built. As Quinn put it months later, “Parasite’ is reaching an audience that has never seen a foreign-language film….parents are seeing it because their children are saying, ‘You’ve got to go see ‘Parasite.’” By the time it went wide over the next few months, it had built a massive fanbase. NEON’s brand building had paid off, the international street cred and choosiness when buying at festivals causing its young followers to bring in those parents and older friends. At publication, the movie has currently amassed a $257.2 million global haul on a $11.3 million budget.
The October release also primed Parasite for an Oscar run, and boy did it follow through. Parasite earned six nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director. These results signaled a leveling up of NEON’s awards strategy, and was the result of months of careful campaigning from Bong and his team in a way that crowned them “the best part of awards season.” Such a slew of nominations alone is impressive, but for those to result in four wins, including Best Original Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Picture, is spectacular. Among many other things, it gave us one of the best awards acceptance speeches in recent memory, crowned Bong as the auteur for the future, and marked a restoration in faith in the Academy being able to do the right thing. What it also revealed is that NEON is the awards behemoth to beat. Netflix may have led the way with 24 nominations with Sony Pictures close behind at 20, but NEON walked away with the biggest prizes. They dominated the awards, and they made money while doing it, something that doesn’t always go hand in hand.
No matter how you approach it, 2019 was the year that NEON ranked up to join the heavyweights. So, how do you follow up your best year by any metric? By sticking with what works, and continuing to innovate as you can. Currently, NEON has French filmmaker Céline Sciamma’s masterful Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) in theaters, and it is a sign of continuing success for small international films in their portfolio (the film was technically first released in 2019, but it has not gone wide until 2020). The film is already a critical darling, and has a box office tally of $9.3 million on a $4.3 million budget. It may not be Parasite numbers, but it is an impressionistic foreign-language film finding success in a market that up until a few years ago had a difficult time accepting anything with subtitles.
Elsewhere on the slate, there is the upcoming Shirley Jackson biopic by way of psychological thriller Shirley (2020) from American auteur Josephine Decker that sparked a bidding war at Sundance this past January and is marked for an April 24 release. The fall will see British-based Ammonite (2020) and another Sundance acquisition, the romantic comedy Palm Springs (2020). It’s an eclectic slate, and we’re still early in the year before so many of the major festivals take place, ushering in the crop of movies in need of distributors that companies like NEON pounce on. It’s hard to say if they will find a slate as dominant as their 2019 one, especially since that success seems difficult to replicate at best, but coming off such a great year they have enough industry goodwill and ticket stubs to court any number of filmmakers. Don’t be surprised if they pick up a handful of buzzy documentaries and a few more international gems along the way.
What is so wondrous about all of this is that NEON consistently bets on movies that most companies would shy away from for fear of financial failure. By building a diverse library of cinematic voices and topics across countries and genres, NEON has successfully built a fan base out of the population that they were aiming for, which is no small feat. Many of their hits have transcended this smaller populace, but when you go through the catalogue, it’s clear that for every broader story there are a handful of modest successes that result in people wanting to see the next movie they have on tap.
Your own personal interests may not skew towards what NEON puts out, but they are a quality stand in for any number of other indie distributors and studios who have built successful slates over the years by starting with a niche before widening. It doesn’t work all the time, and once one company has done it there’s no point in trying to replicate it note by note, but studying these companies allows you to see how industry success works. It doesn’t appear due only through luck or happenstance, but rather comes with time and careful planning. There is no doubt a level of luck involved in some of these movies finding their perfect niche, but the only way to capitalize on luck is to be prepared when it breaks your way. NEON came with an idea, and over their short existence have refined and focused that plan to stay true to their initial goal while also reacting to the constantly shifting standards of a fickle film industry. As we face down more franchise branding and conglomerate streamlining, fingers crossed that more companies can take a note from NEON and find a way to push through and keep serving up quality cinema.