Distributive Properties: Tom Quinn
After 14 years of distributing films for Samuel Goldwyn and Magnolia Pictures, Tom Quinn's newest venture is shaking up how and when films are released.
Tom Quinn originally planned on making his career in front of the camera, but after moving to Los Angeles, he quickly shifted to the other side. Landing an entry-level publicity job with the distributor Samuel Goldwyn Films, Quinn got a taste for the field by working on ‘90s movies like I Shot Andy Warhol. He moved over to the film public relations firm Dennis Davidson Associates, where he worked on the 1996 Palme d’Or winner, Secrets and Lies, and the Academy Award-nominated Lars Von Trier film, Breaking the Waves. While at Dennis Davidson Associates, Quinn kept playing for the Samuel Goldwyn company softball team, a choice that paid off after leaving his publicity gig.
“Sam’s bookkeeper was the manager and she loved the way I hustled on the [softball] field,” Quinn says. “She brought me in to become Sam’s assistant.”
Quinn spent the next seven years moving up the corporate ladder to become vice president of acquisitions. He then did another seven-year stint at Magnolia Pictures before getting hired by the Weinstein brothers to start a new company, a boutique distribution firm that would create custom-tailored online, video on demand, and theatrical distribution strategies for independent films. Since launching RadiUs-TWC two years ago, Quinn and RadiUs co-president Jason Janego have released 15 films, including Bachelorette, the documentary Twenty Feet From Stardom, and Only God Forgives.
TQ: It’s unique in that it’s a strategy tailored specifically to that film, whether it’s ultra VOD [pre-theatrical video on demand release], day and date [simultaneous VOD and theatrical launch], or some form of accelerated VOD window and a traditional theatrical window. A lot of companies are not that flexible, even within the multi-platform space. They stick to one model and that’s how they release every film. We like to do it all and then on top of that, we also are traditional distributors. We have some films this year that all have traditional windows, the theatrical window being first and then the home entertainment window, the TV window following.
TQ: It’s not an exact science, obviously. It is uncharted territory for the most part. I would say me and my business partner [RadiUs co-founder Jason Janego] have probably more experience in this space by virtue of having done more films than anyone else. We draw upon that experience to [first] run models, financial models. Assuming that we’ve spent this much and we move this window up two weeks, we move this window back two weeks, we went this wide instead of going on this limited scale theatrically, how did that change the model? For the film that we’re considering, does that in fact improve our bottom line? It’s a lot of numbers crunching, but to me it’s fascinating because it’s approaching distribution in service of what makes the most sense for that film and, frankly, not bullshitting ourselves into some premeditated idea of what distribution should be. I think that’s a dangerous thing that a lot of distributors find themselves [in]. It’s a pattern that I think is a dangerous one. You have to stay ahead of the curve.
TQ: In a first window, which for a theatrical window is anywhere from 90 to 120 days, sometimes longer, we approach the VOD platform the same way. That first 90 to 120 days, what are we going to do to promote this film and how are we going to promote it differently across each individual platform? Because, you know, they’re all different. Cable is different from digital. Digital is different from satellite. They each have different consumers and so we take all of that into account. Then there’s a second VOD window, which launches in the traditional home entertainment window when DVDs stream. What are we going to do in that window to rebrand the film, reintroduce it, and possibly improve on some of the things that we either failed to do or optimize in the first window?
TQ: It’s based on our experiences in the last five years combined with some traditional numbers in each of these platforms. You don’t truly understand until you’ve spent a little time consuming yourself across each of these platforms. What’s it like to buy a movie on this cable platform versus that digital platform? What are the top films on each of those platforms? There is data out there, it just takes a little bit more time to assemble a sort of blueprint for what you think works going forward.
TQ: One because of title, two because of genre, three because of cast, and four because of the quality of the film, I felt that it was immediately valuable across all VOD platforms. Purely through social media and a small screening program and some of the awareness that had been built from when it premiered and when we launched it, I felt that we could turn this film into a number one VOD proposition very quickly and that’s what happened.
[The early VOD release] was a way to maximize, I think, that film’s audience. Now we’re moving deep into the home entertainment window and it’s still generating huge units. That’s a testament to, I think, our success in the first four weeks of its launch. The theatrical release for the film, I would have liked to have hit somewhere between $750,000 and $1 million bucks and we hit just over a half-million, which is still a great number for that movie. Theatrically in a very traditional window, it wouldn’t have gone much past $1 million. I think in this platform, we maximized it’s audience and we still had a really nice significant theatrical release behind it. It was definitively the right plan for the film and sometimes it works out that way.
TQ: I think that, weirdly enough, the more options, the more versatility consumers have, the more difficult it is to wade through some of the smaller offerings, some of the niche offerings, to truly find that piece of content that’s special to you. I think the flip side of that is in a consumer-friendly universe; those films that have some success will wind up having far more success. Those films that sort of move through the noise and become items of note, I think, are going to do far more business than expected and I think films that have niche appeal are possibly going to do less business. So it’s up to us as distributors and it’s up to consumers to make sure that they’re able to wade through the noise to find that special piece of content. It’s an interesting place for curators. Curators in the digital space, on one hand they might be distributors, but on another hand, they might be critics. It’s going to be very interesting who [curators] are because I think they’re going to be vastly different, some purely journalists and some distributors. That’s interesting and exciting.
By the same token, I’ve been doing this for 15 years and not much has changed. We can speak to the evolving technology of these platforms that enable us to reach a wider audience more quickly, and in some ways enable us to do what we really want to do, ensuring the specialized film distribution part of the business is an actual business. It’s not based on perception. It’s not a Ponzi scheme. That’s exciting, but I will say that these films feel very similar to what I was working on 15 years ago. Maybe in the future of distribution, in many ways, not only will the arbiters of taste and the curators converge, but also converging the idea of what a film is combined with what’s a marathon series. I don’t know.
TQ: The first step is going to a film festival, obviously, and making sure that you are networking with the festival. First and foremost, finding out who the distributors are that are going and two, who are the other filmmakers that are going, because you’ll learn a lot from other filmmakers about distribution. At a festival, you’ve got to make the most of it. Absolutely reach out to everyone who’s there, meet them. I know this is networking 101, but distributors want to find young talent and the really good ones know that the person I’m meeting today may, ten years from now, be making an Oscar-worthy documentary. The responsibility lies with you as that filmmaker to go out and start to build your pool of professionals within the industry that you will be networking with. It’s a very small industry and if you think about it that way, these are people that you will be networking with for what could be a 40-year career.
TQ: One is distribute your own movie. You’ll learn very quickly. Two is move to New York or LA. My preference is obviously New York. And three, pick up the trades. Read Screen International. Read Indiewire. Read Variety. Read The Hollywood Reporter. Read Deadline and start to cobble together an idea of who the distributors are, what are the films that you like, and who’s distributing those? Reach out to those individuals and beg and beg and beg and scrape your way into an internship. Most of the independents hire from within at some point and most of these companies have pretty vibrant internship programs. That would be my recommendation.
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