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‘I, Tonya’ Sells to Neon: Why Tonya Harding’s Story Is Taking Margot Robbie and Allison Janney Into Oscar Season

The '90s are back and heading into Oscar season with one of the biggest sales out of this year's TIFF.

“I, Tonya”

Courtesy of NEON

It’s been a slow year for dealmaking at the Toronto International Film Festival, but one movie that was expected to make waves this year now has a home. “I Tonya,” Craig Gillespie’s tragic-comic portrait of Tonya Harding, sold to new boutique distributor Neon and 30WEST, the new investment outfit launched by Dan Friedkin and former agent Micah Green. The deal is one of the biggest sales to come out of this year’s TIFF. A rep for Neon company confirmed that the company planned to release the film in 2017, putting its key performances, screenplay and director in play for awards season.

The movie entered TIFF with a widely reported $6 million offer from CBS Films already on the table, with some rumors circulating that the company had already closed the sale. The film was previously acquired by Miramax before its completion for the same amount, and CBS reportedly offered that without seeing the film. According to a source with knowledge of the deal, CBS lowered its offer to $2 million after the film’s TIFF premiere, when relative newcomer Neon and 30West outbid it with a $5 million offer. Positive reviews, along with awards buzz for Allison Janney and Margot Robbie, enhanced its clout.

Neon is currently basking in the success of “Ingrid Goes West,” the Aubrey Plaza vehicle that has already grossed $2.7 million in limited release. Like that movie, “I, Tonya” is a dark comedy with a strong female performance — in this case, the notorious rise and fall of figure skater Harding, and the crime-gone-wrong saga surrounding her and her husband’s role in breaking competitor Nancy Kerrigan’s kneecap. The movie unfolds as a mixture of Christopher Guest-style mockumentary and dramatizations. Robbie’s performance as Harding has been praised for its tough, confrontational qualities, but it’s Janney — as Harding’s foul-mouthed, abusive mother — who many believe to be the film’s biggest selling point.

“It’s been a whirlwind couple of days and we’re so thrilled by the overwhelming response ‘I, Tonya’ received since premiering in Toronto,” said sales company LuckyChap Entertainment and Clubhouse Pictures in a statement. “This film means the world to us and we’re really happy to find a distribution partner in Neon, who loves it as much as we do. From the first meeting we had with them, their passion spoke volumes. They completely captured the essence and tone of our film and embraced the spirit of it through their innovative marketing approach.”

In his B+ review of the film, David Ehrlich wrote that the film was “more than the trashy pop time machine that audiences might expect.”

The movie’s potential also suggests another wave of ‘90s nostalgia at the movies, following up on last year’s double-header of the Oscar-winning documentary “OJ: Made in America” and “The People v O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.” On one level, “I, Tonya” echoes both films in that it captures roughly the same era through non-fiction materials (archival footage and real-life interviews transcribed for the screenplay) with dramatizations of a definitive moment in American media history.

Some major buyers at TIFF said they weren’t entirely sold on the movie’s ambitious structure or its use of CGI to recreate major skating sequences, but few could deny the strength of its performances or the sheer crowdpleasing potential of watching Harding’s story unfold in her own words. It remains to be seen if the movie can permeate a crowded best actress field that already includes significant momentum for Saoirse Ronan (“Lady Bird”), Gal Gadot (“Wonder Woman”), Frances McDormand (“Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri”), Annette Bening (“Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool”) and Sally Hawkins (“The Shape of Water”). Janney, however, stands a strong chance of building on the immediate buzz for her performance out of TIFF; she has never been nominated by the Academy before.

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