Specialty Distribution: Neon Looks Back on 2019’s Art House Hits

Since its launch in 2017, Neon has emerged as one of the most important and eclectic theatrical distributors in the country. After a particularly strong 2019 that saw the release of Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite expand and reach over $20 million domestically, Neon became a symbol of how the specialty market can thrive at movie theaters—even in a time of big studio tentpoles and competition from streaming services.

Boxoffice Pro spoke with Neon’s head of distribution, Elissa Federoff, ahead of Art House Convergence to get a recap of the company’s impressive 2019 in cinemas.

There have been a lot of questions about the role of theatrical for independent and specialty titles, especially in this streaming era. Your releases in 2019 have managed to stay—and expand—in theaters through successful runs. What importance does theatrical hold for Neon? Can these types of films continue to thrive in cinemas in the coming years?

A movie theater is the best place for cinema. It’s all-encompassing and communal, and there aren’t many other places where that kind of experience exists. We have no distractions from the outside world; it’s just us and the movie. It’s singular and special and not something we take for granted. Films like Parasite and Portrait of a Lady on Fire are spectacular feats of filmmaking. Director Bong’s Parasite unfolds in the most exciting ways, and to hear the thrill of the audience while watching together is part of that magic. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a timeless and singularly provocative love story. Writer/director Céline Sciamma has created something elegant and profound, boundless in both its setting and its appeal across broad audiences. Winning Best Screenplay at Cannes and with a 98 percent Rotten Tomatoes score, Portrait has played in theaters across the country to standing ovations and multiple jury awards. That can’t be duplicated in our living rooms.

Parasite

On a similar note, Neon has had great success with documentaries in theaters—not a particularly easy task. Do you believe today’s audiences are more open to watching documentaries in cinemas?

In the past several years some of the best and most successful specialty releases have been nonfiction, and I know it’s because those films have been exceptional. Audiences want to see unique and cinematic stories told in fresh and exciting ways. For example, Todd Miller’s Apollo 11, a story we all know but the never-before-seen footage and the exhilarating score make it like we’re watching the launch for the very first time. We premiered it out of Sundance and went nationally on Imax screens before playing for the next several months in multiplexes and art theaters around the country. It’s now at $16 million worldwide, and not only is it an extraordinary piece of nonfiction filmmaking, it’s a great movie, period. 

Apollo 11

Walk us through some of your 2019 slate—what was it about those films that originally caught your attention, and can you share with us your approach to their release and marketing? 

Each film on our 2019 slate was handpicked by our team. We love all the films for different reasons, but together they create a body of work for Neon that makes total sense. Each film at Neon gets a tailor-made, bespoke campaign that best suits it. For example, Honeyland opened on two screens in July and held steady for months in a few highly curated theaters as a way to maximize the discovery aspect of the film. Monos is phenomenal and made by an exciting new voice in filmmaking, Alejandro Landes. He did Q&As in cities across the country, because after people fell in love with watching his film in the theater, they all had a great thirst for the details of his process. We finished the year with Clemency, which won the Grand Jury Prize for Dramatic Filmmaking at Sundance. It combines a career-best performance by Alfre Woodard with an eloquent, new voice in film, Chinonye Chukwu. The subject matter is important and will strike much-needed conversation, but the beauty of Chukwu’s filmmaking is what we continually see reviewers and audiences responding to.

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