A24: The Makings of an Independent Film Empire
In May 2017, GQ wrote an extensive article detailing the meteoric rise of the film distribution company A24. The very first quote, by Robert Pattinson, summed up how far A24 had come in its first six years of existence:
“It’s crazy that there is an article about a distribution company. That’s completely nuts.”
And yet it makes perfect sense.
Since Fall 2015, I have been attending Florida State University. Within FSU lies one of the most popular college campus movie theaters in America, the Student Life Cinema (SLC), a second-run theater whose programming consists mainly of four types of movies: blockbusters, classics, midnights, and alternatives. As a former blockbuster programming chair, I have been a key witness to the amount of times A24 weaves its way into our theater as alternative selections. In fact, since Fall 2015, a dozen different movies distributed by A24 have played at the SLC: Ex Machina, Amy, Room, The Witch, Green Room, The Lobster, Swiss Army Man, Moonlight, It Comes at Night, The Florida Project, Lady Bird, and an advance screening of The Disaster Artist.
This is a very roundabout way of saying that A24 is on top of their shit.
With Hereditary recently being selected as the latest A24 film to play at the SLC, and with Eighth Grade now in limited release, I thought it would be necessary to recount the five most significant events in the company’s very young lifespan, as told through some of their movies. Granted, this is not a ranking of their five best movies, but rather, a way of looking back on the five biggest reasons A24 became the superstars of the American indie film circuit over the past six years.
5. Finding the Joy in the Flop (A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III)
The very first film released by A24 is also arguably its most overlooked. That’s probably more of an indication of the quality of the film than anything else, given how on Rotten Tomatoes it has a 15% critics score and a 26% audience score. It also somehow made almost $135,000 in Russia alone and about a third of that in the U.S. But the circumstances surrounding the film would certainly gain it more attention had it been released today, as it boasted a rather impressive cast (including Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, Patricia Arquette, and Aubrey Plaza), the directorial efforts of a Coppola family member (even if it’s only Roman), and an attempted career renaissance for the attention-grabbing Charlie Sheen. When being interviewed by GQ, co-founder John Hodges noted that Sheen “believed in [us].” The film might have failed as a project, but it was a perfect building block for A24 to get their feet in the door and build positive connections in the process.
4. Knowing When to Open Wide (The Witch)
Fun fact: only three A24 films have opened in more than 2,000 theaters, and all of them have been horror films, released over each of the past three years. It Comes at Night delivered a somewhat underwhelming performance at the box office, and while Hereditary will certainly turn a major profit when its time at the box office is done, Robert Eggers’ 2016 horror film The Witch marked new territory for a distribution company known for always starting small. Releasing it in theaters more than a year after the film’s premiere at Sundance, A24 relied on the positive word of mouth from film festivals and other advance screenings to push a film that, while different in its own right, could be marketed as a serious, mainstream horror alternative to the silly romp of Deadpool. This resulted in a global $40 million gross for the $4-million-budgeted film and a heightened awareness of the artistry and subversion that came with an A24 film.
3. Putting Your Name on Something Buzzworthy (Spring Breakers)
The crime drama story within Spring Breakers might not be all that original, but the circumstances surrounding it made it highly sought after for its distribution after its premiere at the Venice Film Festival in September 2012. So when A24 released it just a month after the disappointment of Charles Swan III, they were able to tap into a market that thrived on seeing their childhood stars becoming adult. Charlie Sheen trying to reinvent himself after all the drugs and “tiger blood,” probably wasn’t as captivating as seeing Disney Channel superstars Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens drink in public, rob innocent restaurant-goers, or mow down other criminals with machine guns. Or as subservice as seeing former Spider-Man star James Franco do his best Riff Raff impression, complete with dreadlocks and gold teeth. It’s surface-level attributes were enough to make Spring Breakers the studio’s first big financial success, while its unique style and vision from director Harmony Korine drew in most cinephiles to see what else the studio had in store going forward.
2. Marketing in a Really Unique Way (Ex Machina)
Possibly the most recognizable quality of an A24 film is its phenomenal marketing campaigns. From misleading audiences with the official trailer of Hereditary to promoting Good Time though freaking Robert Pattinson pizza boxes, they’ve never been afraid to use unorthodox methods to showcase their movies. The most unorthodox marketing method from them yet, however, came at the SXSW Film Festival in 2015 in their promotion of Ex Machina. According to AdWeek, in a genius realization of interactive social media technology, A24 created a fake Tinder profile of Ava, the main robot of the film, that was visible to users in Austin. They used two pictures of actress Alicia Vikander to lure Tinder users into swiping right, which would then prompt a conversation that used dialogue from the film and ended with a link to Vikander’s Instagram. Known as the “Ex Machina Tinder Turing Test,” it brought marketing into the next generation by being both tech-savvy and undeniably clever.
1. Going All In (Moonlight)
As important for the image of A24 films as it was significant for independent and queer cinema, Moonlight represented the culmination of every beautiful thing the studio had been developing up to that point. It all started with a story from the perspective of a gay black man in Miami: a fresh and necessary POV in cinema if there ever was one. Maybe that’s why, for the first time in their existence, A24 decided to not just distribute the film globally, but to finance its production as well. They financed a production with interesting behind-the-scenes stories, including Naomie Harris filming for three days without rehearsals, the three actors playing Chiron not meeting each other until after filming, and Barry Jenkins shooting in the projects of Miami where he grew up as a kid. Marketing in post-production was simple but effective, with a well-edited trailer and a compelling poster that split three main actors’ faces into the one face of the one character they all play. After the greatest financial success A24 had ever seen, it racked up awards throughout the 2016 award season, including Oscars for Best Supporting Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, and an infamously botched-announcement switcheroo of a Best Picture win.
Moonlight is the film that made A24 an empire of independent cinema, and as they’re set to release seven more films this calendar year, including Bo Burnham’s already critically acclaimed Eighth Grade, expect the empire to only grow larger. And we’ll be all the better for it.