Neon CEO Tom Quinn on the Oscar Prospects for ‘Palm Springs’ and ‘Cinema Starting in the Theater’

Oscar voting is wrapping on Wednesday, but it ain’t over ’til it’s over. Film distributor Neon, the reigning champion at the Academy Awards for best picture with “Parasite,” has another stack of contenders this year, all unique in awards discussions. CEO and co-founder Tom Quinn has always pushed the boundaries of cinema, and deeply believes in cultural representation in front and behind the camera, and the way consumers and Academy voters accept the film medium.

“Neon’s entire mission is built around the power of cinema,” Quinn says. “Cinema for us starts in the theater, a collective body of strangers coming together to see a director’s vision — unedited, uninterrupted — and with that comes great power.”

In this bonus episode of the “Variety Awards Circuit Podcast,” Quinn talks about Neon’s robust slate, which includes the comedy “Palm Springs,” international features like “Night of the Kings,” and docs like “Gunda” and “The Painter and the Thief.” The distributor’s head talks about watching movies in this pandemic year, the dream of getting a documentary in best picture and what’s ahead for the studio in 2021. Listen to the podcast below:

For features, they’re walking onto the Oscar ballot with Max Barbakow’s time-loop comedy “Palm Springs” with Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti, fresh off its surprising win for best comedy at the Critics Choice Awards. The comedy genre is always a hurdle with academy members and has often struggled to find notoriety in a major way. In discussions with academy voters, the film has come up in conversations as the “feel-good” movie from a trying year. There does seem to be a brewing conversation among members about taking time to watch movies that aren’t “too serious” and wanting a “happy and entertaining film” to indulge. “Palm Springs” could be it. Screenwriter Andy Siara has been a dark horse for an original screenplay nomination, proven by his inclusion by the Writers Guild of America.

Neon and Quinn still have faith in their other projects from the year. For narrative feature, Francis Lee’s lesbian drama “Ammonite,” starring Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan, could surprise with love from the acting branch, as the two share 11 Oscar nominations between them. It could pop up in some of the artisan races, particularly production or costume design, the latter of which was nominated for a BAFTA Award. The film is also shortlisted for original score, with former nominated composers Dustin O’Halloran and Volker Bertelmann (“Lion”). Other considerations also include Jacqueline Decker’s “Shirley” with Elisabeth Moss and Michael Stuhlbarg.

Those movies aren’t the distributor’s only Oscar play for best picture. Quinn is a fervent believer in documentary features and hopes to have the first one nominated in the category, either this year or in the coming ones.

“Totally Under Control,” from Oscar winner Alex Gibney (2007’s “Taxi to the Dark Side”), Ophelia Harutyunyan and Suzanne Hillinger, isn’t out of the running, despite failing to make the Oscar shortlist, as far as Quinn is concerned. “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.”

The doc 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 proficient way to socially distance while shooting and editing. While likely an uphill battle, the studio remains hopeful.

Success for the studio may come in the documentary and international feature categories. In the former, “Gunda,” “Notturno” and “The Painter and the Thief” are looking for inclusion among the five available slots, while Neon is also behind the foreign language contenders such as “Dear Comrades!” from Russia and “Night of the Kings” from Ivory Coast.

“Variety’s Awards Circuit Podcast,” hosted by Clayton Davis, Jenelle Riley, Jazz Tangcay and Michael Schneider (who produces), is your one-stop listen for lively conversations about the best in film and television. Each week “Awards Circuit” features interviews with top film and TV talent and creatives; discussions and debates about awards races and industry headlines; and much, much more. Subscribe via Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify or anywhere you download podcasts. New episodes post every Thursday.

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