The Secret Lives of Movies, According to the Guys Who Changed How We Watch Them

The Secret Lives of Movies, According to the Guys Who Changed How We Watch Them

Sep 18, 2013

You may not know the names Tom Quinn and Jason Janego, but the pair of them have had an irreversible impact on the way people watch movies in America. When they were executives at Magnolia Pictures, they pioneered what we now know as day-and-date releasing (when a film hits Video On Demand the same day as it does theaters). They led the charge into this sector despite resistance from theaters and other distributors, and their business model of delivering fantastic independent and international films directly to consumers across the country has resulted in premium VOD releases becoming not just common practice, but very lucrative.

Two years ago Quinn and Janego were lured away from Magnolia by Harvey Weinstein to start Radius-TWC, The Weinstein Company's new multi-platform release label. They're about to bring four films to Fantastic Fest (All the Boys Love Mandy Lane, Blue Ruin, The Unknown Known and Man of Tai Chi), giving us the perfect opportunity to share an interview did with Quinn and Janego earlier this summer on the eve of the release of Only God Forgives.

If you've ever been interested in the business side of show business, or wondered how movies get picked up off the festival circuit, what bidding wars are actually like, and what the future of cinema consumption is going to look like, these two are the guys to listen to. Do you guys ever test-screen movies after you've acquired them?

Tom Quinn: I'd never done it in my entire career until I came to the Weinstein Company. If it weren't for the people who have refined that process, and the people we work with, I probably would not be interested. But it is such a valuable and helpful process for us to either clarify what we already know or just find new information for what really is such a subjective process. It's like a f***ing political campaign. People who are projected to win lose all the time, so it's not an exact science. But I enjoy the process.

The other part of it is also to get out in different parts of the country. Screening at a couple theaters in New York, versus right outside of New York, versus Kansas City versus Portland versus L.A. versus Encino-- they're all very different, and if you have a movie you expect to play across the entire country, it's really interesting to find out how it's perceived differently. We're not Iceland. It's not six prints and we're at full penetration. We either need to be on a footprint of 85 million households on VOD or 2,000-plus prints, and that's a huge demo and I don't claim to understand all of that.

At least I know that everyone is different. How a movie plays here is so vastly different to the way it plays uptown New York, and the more knowledge you can have about that can really help inform how you launch the film and where you take a film to be unveiled. How big is the Only God Forgives launch?

Quinn: It's a robust day-and-date model. There are multiple films over the last five years that have had great success doing that, the largest being, I think, Arbitrage. It's under 200 screens, 40-market launch with a simultaneous VOD launch. It's making a really hybrid specialized/commercial release function theatrically, and I think the audience, like yourself, that truly understands this film are going to love it. But there's a much larger audience which Drive found, and I think Nicolas' other films also deserve that wider audience. I'm not saying they didn't do well - BronsonValhalla RisingPusher - but they deserve that wider audience regardless of how you reach them, VOD etc. This is an additional entry into that whole catalog and all these films I've worked on, except for Valhalla, so I'm curious to see what happens in the wake of this film, too. You saw a little bit of it in Drive, and after this the focus really is on his entire career. Drive really is his, "Hey, I'm at the party." but I was here all night just standing in the corner. I've been a fan of his for such a long time.

Back to the testing thing, long story short, the first completed film we bought was Bachelorette. We'd been on it for awhile. We tried to buy it before Sundance because we loved the script and felt the director had an interesting new voice, and we'd seen some footage. Then we saw the movie at Sundance and immediately felt, "Oh, I think they rushed to get to Sundance." A lot of the movie didn't feel ready. There were bits and pieces there, but if they had more time I think she could have fleshed out a lot more of the original heart and motive of the script.

It was a scary proposition for us because we'd never recut a film ever and had no interest in doing it, frankly. But if we could truly help Leslye execute her vision and the film would be more successful because of it, f**k yeah, why not? And we tested it multiple places in service of being able to set up a barometer of where we were going to take it to, and that process highlighted things that people had issue with. And it highlighted that things we thought were the absolute genius parts of the movie were things people resisted, frankly. But then you have the moment where you have to say, "Well, that's why I bought the movie."

You can't buy the rights to Gone with the Wind and then decide you want to update it to Vietnam. So that was a really fascinating process and without the testing it would not have given us a matrix to see what we could do. And then hiring a fantastic editor and redoing the music and letting Leslye define the movie she wanted to make... at the end of the day it was a lot more faithful to the original script. The movie we ended up with... I was really proud.

I was talking to Scott Weinberg late one night and I was saying, "I think you should see this. I'm going to go out on a limb and say you you're going to like it. She's an interesting, incredible voice who is doing something you don't see. I mean, how often do you see a movie with two women on the poster? Two dudes, any day of the week. Two women? Three women? Four women! Wow, Jesus Christ, you really tilted the scales here. These are real women, you're going to like it." And he did! And without the testing, I don't think that process would have come together. Do you guys often get involved at the script stage or is it usually completed films only?

Quinn: Well, I would prefer to only buy completed films. The magical thing there is you know exactly what you're getting, but there are certain directors – and Nic's one of them, Errol Morris is another – that make us want to take a leap and take an early risk. And then there are other projects that come our way by happenstance. If I like the project, even if it doesn't check all the boxes we require to reinvent our brand, it's like let's just take a risk and see. Some of them have worked out, some of them haven't. Eighty percent are completed movies, though some of what we do is getting scripts and seeing a few scenes.

We also work at a very large company, the Weinstein Company, and they have a very large staff who does an incredible job, Specifically Dan Guando and Jennifer Malloy. These guys are amazing and they scout the entire world over. If it flickers, they know about it, and the intel that's going around in the film world, and for us internally, makes for an incredible menu of choices. But we only do about 18 movies a year, and we want to make the most of those and still have an eclectic slate. It's not unlike what we did at Magnolia, but hopefully we're trying to do it better and doing it on a larger scale with bigger budgets. How does a movie typically end up at Radius?

Quinn: Festival. The major festivals, screening everywhere from Cannes to Fantastic Fest to SXSW to Sundance to the New York Film Festival. And then markets like AFM. And then cold submissions. I haven't bought a cold submission at Radius yet, but several came through the doors at my previous position at Magnolia. You take cold submissions?

Quinn: Yeah, completed films all the time. All the time. And my staff hates me for it because they're like, "Why are we taking this?" Kiltro was a cold submission for me, as was Diary of a Tired Black Man. As a cold submission, I'm not reinventing the world of what's possible, but these were both exceptionally profitable movies. So even if you only have one gem in that haystack, you better go find it. We try to be somewhat selective at festivals, and sales reps around the world do a lot of the filtering, but we do get propositioned directly a lot. You often hear about bidding wars breaking out after a hot screening. How do those actually play out for you?

Quinn: There's only a bidding war after if you don't know what you're doing. I try to do it five minutes into the screening. I'm notorious for sending offers right away. Let the Right One In, I was trying to close before the movie ended. I bought a movie at Sundance, Cutie and the Boxer, literally 10 minutes in I said, "If you don't want to do the deal, great, but I'm pulling the offer at the end of the movie."

I really love to avoid a bidding war, especially when it drags out. We probably spent seven days straight until about four or five in the morning trying to buy Spring Breakers before it was completed. Literally on a napkin, last day there after we'd been working through every point, we were 5% away from getting it done and we couldn't make it work. There was just one point we couldn't make work, and that sucks.

I think the arrogant thing is I really hate losing movies and I'm just not used to it. We pride ourselves on really trying to do the best job we can, but sometimes it's just unrealistic. Losing Kill List here many years ago, it was like my wife had left me.

Jason Janego: That Spring Breakers story would be a lot better if we'd have gotten the movie.

Quinn: I know, right? I don't know why I'm telling you this story. It's a terrible story.

Janego: But if we had gotten the movie after going through all that, it would have been a serious war story.

Quinn: I'm sure our good friends at A24 are like, "That's right, you got schooled!" They're relatively new, too.

Quinn: And they're on a great run, which we like. Listen, there's a nice new generation of peers that are coming up in the industry and it's been a long time coming that the kids get the shot at the adults table.

Janego: You're the adult now.

Quinn: I am. I'm an old f****ing man. I've got grey hair now! Do you ever feel that way? When you approach making a deal, do you just say, "Look, we invented this game, so you should probably just sign the deal"?

Quinn: No, no. We really want to walk people through the process and we'll put in all the work it takes. Part of it is just an education process, especially for a new filmmaker. Even an old filmmaker may not understand all the possibilities within distribution and VOD and how it's different. We'll sit there explaining to the biggest stars how our new platform can connect them to their fans in a way that frankly we're just there to help it along, and this is just something we want to encourage.

Janego: The biggest help at the Magnet/Magnolia years was that he built up these incredible relationships and a reputation amongst agents and sales agents and producers and filmmakers, so they know when he says something in a pitch meeting he means it. That's our biggest asset.

Quinn: And if you don't take that seriously, it means nothing. Stuff like that's overrated, but I really believe it. Say what you mean and then do it, and if you f**k up, admit it. How do you see movies being distributed in five years?

Quinn: Well, here's the irony: very much the same way they're being distributed today. There's a model that's been hugely successful for a very long time. That's not going away. I just think certain people in the industry fail to realize that not every movie should be released that way, and because of these new incredible tools that we have access to, that don't hurt the quality of watching the movie, you should take them seriously. By the same token, everyone who is in the multi-platform place, even exclusively... not every movie should be released that way, either. So we're in a space where we're trying to tailor each film we release. Part of that is maximizing profit, but maximizing profit means making your audience as happy as can be.

We just launched our first traditional release, 20 Feet From Stardom, and it's doing very well. We've only just had an opening weekend, but opening weekend in New York and L.A. went really well. We'll see where we end up two months from now. [Editor's note: it ended up with a very impressive $4.5 million theatrically] But for that movie it absolutely makes sense.

Janego: Do you think in five years the difference will be in the theaters themselves? I was at Slaughter Lane for the first time last night, and it's such a beautiful theater, and the people there were really treating it like a night out. These big exhibitors need to realize it needs to be a positive experience for people, but too often the sound is messed up or there's people talking.

Quinn: And the irony is that's such an old-fangled idea, to treat it like a palace-- the movie palace! Now, the quality of food, the experience, the interstitials, how you feel like you're with like-minded folk at the Alamo Drafthouse, that's new, I love that. But the idea that this is a sacred temple and you should treat it as such is old.

Janego: And I don't want to marginalize what Tim has done, because it really is remarkable, but you're talking about a theater experience we should all have, whether it's in a mall or in downtown New York or wherever it is. That's what I personally think will be a little different in five years from now.

Quinn: This is a terrible analogy, but I live in New York. My wife is a great cook. We can afford to buy decent groceries. We eat out almost every night. There are certain cities in this country where I prefer to do this. I prefer to go out to the movies when I'm in Austin. In the dead of winter in New York? I prefer to stay home on a cold, Saturday night.

How much will it change? I guess I'm more interested in the sort of dissolving boundaries between feature content and serial content. It's all starting to be viewed on the same apparatus, so how do you differentiate, and should you, frankly? What are the restrictions on running time to call it a feature? And what are the restrictions on calling it a serial. Those things to me seem rather silly. And filmmakers and content creators can do whatever they want and it's up to us to figure out how to launch it and monetize it.

Janego: This is also probably a silly anecdote, but when we talk about the multi-platform and VOD space and what our competition is... when the NFL decided to go to 17 weeks of Thursday night football instead of eight or whatever, that's nine extra Thursdays that people who might have been looking to rent a movie on VOD are now going to be watching football. And we realized on that platform that we're competing not only with other multi-platform titles, but you're competing with whatever else is on.

Quinn: The flip side of that is where are the opportunities when looking at that competitive schedule. The Olympics. Wow, that really sucked a hole out of everyone's entertainment schedule. But that also means no one is really willing to jump into it. Why don't we throw Bachelorette in right at the end and see what we can do? Our VOD date was very specifically targeted to be the first out of the gate post-Olympics and it worked really, really well. And these are organic things. Pay attention to your own consumer habits, listen to people, and don't ignore the data you've accumulated for years. And talk to the providers, they have anecdotal information that I think can really help what we do. Now to get even more hypothetical, how do you see things changing in 10 years?

Quinn: Ten years? Jesus, my daughter will be so old. You know, I really don't know. We're only as successful as the quality of our content. That's it. Keep chasing the stuff you're passionate about, and if it's the stuff nobody else is passionate about, you'll know it's time to walk away. Honestly, that's the only thing I know.

Janego: The one thing – and this is so speculative – but seeing where trends are going, people, for whatever reason, are comfortable with this idea of subscriptions to things, whether it's Netflix or Spotify. That's the one thing I think in 10 years, the idea of everything being transactional. So studios having their own subscription channels?

Janego: I'm not talking about just that. I'm talking about everything. I'm talking about coffee, or whatever it'll be. I just signed up for this service where every Thursday they go to Green Market in New York and they pick up the best produce and they just deliver it every Thursday. It's stuff like that. There will be more and more and more.

Quinn: Tim League is already doing that with the Drafthouse Alliance.

Janego: I guess it goes back to curating and whether or not you trust the curator.

Quinn: I'm not a huge believer in brands, but by the same token I am a huge believer in cumulative good work... that after a certain number of good movies someone will go, "Oh, who are these guys? They did this and that? I'll try it."

Janego: These services, and I think Amazon was the originator, have gotten people comfortable with the idea that you can give them your credit card and they're not going to screw you over and you're going to have access to whatever you want. If consumers see it become that easy, that's the kind of thing that will be a big change, and I think already has been in the music sector.

Quinn: To that point, the direct-to-consumer model is a little more interesting. How that model works, of only being to own a catalog electronically, it's... There is appeal once something becomes cheap enough that you don't mind not having a physical copy.

Quinn: Well hopefully you still buy that physical copy. Maybe this generation goes through a phase in high school where they think they can pirate any movie or any show because it's easy and they don't care. But once they grow up and get a job and understand how content is created, then they'll go out of their way to actually pay for something they appreciate.

Quinn: So do you think that under-25 generation will actually evolve? I've never actually thought that. At some point you realize it's not cool. Piracy in the PC game community has been absolutely rampant, but once developers and publishers acknowledged it and figured out how to address it with pricing, the tide began to turn. It's kind of surprising to see members of online communities shame people now for pirating something that only costs $5. Once it is as convenient to buy something as it is to steal it, people will evolve.

Quinn: That also goes back to the subscription thing, because that money comes right out of your wallet. You don't actually feel it. You only feel it cumulatively once you reach that $160-a-month entertainment budget spread across iTunes and VOD and Netflix, that's the only time someone goes, "Wait a minute, this is getting too expensive. I need to cut the cord or something."

The parallel is that the health of the providers is dependent upon the commitment of the very large mainstream. So the minute the mainstream cuts themselves off, it will have an effect on the quality of the content. The two have to be symbiotic. They're not mutually exclusive. You can't steal this without ultimately affecting your own consumption.




Categories: Features, Interviews, Indie, At Home
blog comments powered by Disqus

Facebook on