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Neon Lights Up Sundance With Big Money, Big Acquisitions

Sundance 2018: In a move that not many people saw coming, the film distributor quickly became one of the hottest players at this year’s festival

Film distributor Neon has rocked an otherwise sleepy Sundance Film Festival, leading with four acquisitions so far, including a headline-grabbing $10 million sale for tech thriller “Assassination Nation.”

That splashy sale turns out to be only about half from Neon, but the point is the same. Indie buyers faced an aggressively changing marketplace as they headed to the festival, making many unsure as to who would buy and how much they would spend. Neon has been shining brightest in acquisitions so far.

Neon’s game plan seems to be building a slate from scratch with as many purchases as possible, one individual with knowledge of the market told TheWrap, chasing a similar business model as Oscar-winning indie darling A24. That studio spent two years ramping up its slate until finding success with Alicia Vikander’s “Ex Machina” and Brie Larson’s “Room,” before branching into original production with 2017 Best Picture winner “Moonlight.” 

That’s not a shabby blueprint for Neon, founded last year by Tim League and Tom Quinn. Of course, a blank check combined with League’s experience is dynamite for Neon — he’s one of the best-known exhibitors in the country, having co-founded Alamo Drafthouse theater chains and toying with his own distribution label, Drafthouse Films.

Quinn has displayed creative taste and intuition for commercial appeal throughout his career, at Magnolia Pictures then running TWC-Radius with Jason Janego. He was also an early experimenter with day-and-date releasing.

“Tom Quinn is one of the best,” The Weinstein Company President David Glasser said of the executive, who used to run TWC’s successful hybrid label Radius. “He’s great at management, and very smart about distribution and creative. When you get a guy like that, he’s a force to be reckoned with.”

Another major factor in Neon’s success is the interest and now partnership of 30WEST, the newly-founded media investment and advisory firm from former CAA agent Micah Green and entrepreneur Dan Friedken.

30WEST bought out Neon’s initial backer SR Media and invested on top of that.

A24 adheres to traditional acquisition models — in the past, the company headed to Sundance and other film festivals to buy films. Last year, A24 bought Casey Affleck’s “A Ghost Story.” And now, Neon is doing exactly that.

“They target films that brand themselves,” the second insider said.

Neon also bought Reinaldo Marcus Green’s “Monsters and Men,” Tim Wardle’s “Three Identical Strangers” and Coralie Fargeat’s “Revenge.”

A24 is also highly successful with horror films and thrillers — “The Witch” is one of the company’s highest-grossing films to date, which could have served as inspiration for Neon to buy “Assassination Nation” and potentially some others screenings in the Midnight section.

What’s interesting about Neon is that they aren’t buying films in a specific niche — “Assassination Nation” is a tech thriller,” while “Monsters and Men” is a police brutality drama and “Three Identical Strangers” is a documentary about three triplets separated at birth reuniting years later.

Neon has quickly become one of the bigger players in Hollywood. The company is hot off their success with “I, Tonya,” which just scored three Oscar nominations including one for Allison Janney and Margot Robbie. And it’s not a surprise that “I, Tonya” changed the game for the indie company. The Academy Award-nominated figure skater biopic sold out of September’s Toronto International Film Festival. Netflix offered just under $10 million at the time, a couple million over a bid from Megan Ellison’s Annapurna. Neon won out.

“The difference now is that people believe,”  said one top dealmaker who spoke to TheWrap on the condition of anonymity.

“With ‘I, Tonya,’ Neon did what A24 did with ‘Spring Breakers,'” the individual said. “Except ‘Tonya’ is going to smash ‘Spring Breakers’ in lifetime box office.”

A spokesperson for Neon did not respond to TheWrap’s request for comment. TheWrap has also reached out to Netflix and Annapurna for comment.