A24 cemented its perception as the new-model indie distributor when Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight” won three Oscars, including that dramatic best-picture win. So what does the upstart indie, hailed for holding the skeleton key that unlocks the precious millennial demo, do for an encore?
The Tribeca Film Festival showcased two upcoming A24 releases, all of which seem oddly retro. World War II costume drama “The Exception,” starring Oscar-winner Christopher Plummer as Kaiser Wilhelm II, and “The Lovers,” starring Debra Winger and Tracy Letts as an unhappy older married couple. They also dropped the trailer for Yiddish-language Hasidic family drama “Menashe” and suddenly, the new boss looks a lot like the old one.
What gives? This older-demo arthouse trio could easily carry the signature blue-and-white logo of venerable specialty distributor Sony Pictures Classics. But don’t be deceived by appearances. A24 is a far cry from older-generation studio indies like SPC and Fox Searchlight, which tend to follow an established playbook. Launched in 2012 with seed funding from Guggenheim Partners, A24 boasts advantages that established companies do not. Younger, hungrier, more entrepreneurial, and innovative, and not hemmed in by studio constraints, A24 is making its own rules — as it has been all along.
1. Grab the thrill of a new marketing hook.
Since Daniel Katz, David Fenkel, and John Hodges founded A24 five years ago, the prevailing view has been that they somehow upended specialty film strategy by chasing a younger, hipper demo via great taste and superb marketing targeted to less-expensive social media. However, A24 didn’t just pick strong directors they liked: Their $25-million-plus performers include Oscar-winners Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight” and Alex Garland’s “Ex Machina” as well as Robert Eggers’ smart horror flick “The Witch.” They also chose to back unusual, original, or edgy stories that could pop in the marketplace.
With “The Lovers,” A24 sought to be in business with director Azazel Jacobs (“Momma’s Man”), but they also recognized a fresh high-concept they could sell: Long-married partners (Letts and Winger), who are both having affairs, reignite their own romantic flame and leave everyone around them — from their lovers to their visiting son — in disarray.
A24 acquired their first foreign-language film, “Menashe” (July 28), at Sundance in part because it was utterly unlike anything else. Documentarian Joshua Z. Weinstein embedded himself inside the Brooklyn Hasidic community in Borough Park, fictionalizing the story of a rebellious Jewish widower (non-pro Menashe Lustig) who wants to be able to live alone — without a new wife — and care for his son. It’s a fascinating, never-before-seen glimpse of a hidden world.
Theater director David Leveaux’s World War II thriller “The Exception” (June 2) follows a crafty Jewess (Lily James) who outsmarts a young Nazi soldier (Jai Courtney). The story could be another old-school anti-Nazi movie, but here the young woman is the smartest player in the room. And they’re betting on a hot theater director’s first outing with a sexy cast up against the wily Christopher Plummer in Oscar-supporting mode as Kaiser Wilhelm II.
Of course, sometimes betting on cool directors can yield cool box office, as A24 recently discovered with Ben Wheatley pickup “Free Fire,” starring Oscar-winning “Room” star Brie Larson. Still, it’s not just a question of skewing younger or older. It’s knowing how to market to a given demo, and when there’s an awards push, stay nimble about where the zeitgeist is going. Lionsgate didn’t shift their “La La Land” Oscar campaign after Trump’s election, while “Moonlight” rode the political surge all the way to a surprise Best Picture win.
“They are low-key, organic, humble, small, not flashy, honest, and earnest,” said Oscar campaigner Peggy Siegal. “They are nice people who really love films. They don’t have the arrogance. People are rooting for them. They have challenging projects. ‘Room,’ who in their right mind would go to see ‘Room?'”
2. Crunch the numbers.
A24 doesn’t overspend on acquiring, producing (which they’re doing more of), or releasing. “Moonlight” famously cost $1.5 million; so did “The Lovers.” That way, they can chase prestige festival exposure with movies such as David Lowery’s “A Ghost Story” (Sundance), starring Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara at a fraction of their usual price, and four Cannes titles: Yorgos Lanthimos’ “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” starring Nicole Kidman and Colin Farrell, the Safdie brothers’ “Good Time,” starring Robert Pattinson, John Cameron Mitchell’s raunchy midnight ensemble “How to Talk to Girls at Parties,” and Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire’s “A Prayer Before Dawn.”
While Cannes perennials Weinstein Co. (“Wind River”), Fox Searchlight (“Patti Cake$”), SPC (“Happy End” and “Brigsby Bear”) and Focus Features (“The Beguiled”) are all screening films in Cannes, only A24 has four. They’re currently the go-to distributor with Oscar heat. Their task: keep the momentum going. And stay hungry.
3. Stay flexible about multi-platform release.
Thanks to deals with DirectTV Cinema and Amazon Prime, A24 can send movies straight to VOD with minimal theatrical exposure (and cost). Thus low-profile pickups “Life Before Beth,” “Dark Places,” “The Adderall Diaries,” and “The Monster,” as well as star vehicles “The Sea of Trees” (Matthew McConaughey), “Slow West,” and “Trespass against Us” (Michael Fassbender), “Mississippi Grind” (Ben Mendelsohn and Ryan Reynolds), “Into the Forest” (Ellen Page and Evan Rachel Wood) and just-released “Free Fire” could reach many more online eyeballs.
Flexibility while staying small, even as they grow, is an A24 asset — along with a lack of fear. “They’re not afraid to take on those films other companies wouldn’t see as totally obvious,” said Film Society of Lincoln Center digital director Eugene Hernandez. “They’re coming from a different place. They see this part of the independent film world differently.”