A24 - How a Small Indie Studio Gave Us Award-Winning Movies
What started off as a small independent film distribution studio, went on to give us films like…
Everything Everywhere All At Once and
Lady Bird and
Ex Machina and
Okay, I think you get the idea. A24 is a name that has been making rounds in the indie film circuits for years now but has recently been a regular in the Oscars lists and film festivals.
But why are we talking about a film distribution studio? The success of a film rarely falls upon the studio distributing the film and more-so on the directors or the actors associated with it. But that’s where A24 makes an interesting difference. Carving out a niche for itself, the company took the biggest risks investing in movies with boldly obscure plots, ambitious filmmakers, new on-screen faces and most importantly, movies that would make you go WTF?
But there’s more to it. And in this blog, we look at how A-24, a small indie New York company, gave us some of the best films of our generation.
How A24 was Founded
Founded in 2012, A24 was formed by a group of three friends - David Fenkel, Daniel Katz and John Hodges all of whom worked in the industry and came together to start a new distribution studio in New York. The trio were ardent art-film lovers who not only knew films, but lived them.
They recognised a void in the kind of films that were being made in the early 2010s, and wanted to fill it with a renewed energy where filmmakers could be filmmakers without the domineering influence of big name studios. Film distribution companies essentially buy films by investing in them, and then acquire rights to it including any edits, its promotion and screening in theaters. Some popular studios would include Paramount Pictures, 20th Century Studios and Searchlight Pictures — which, given their hierarchical and corporate structure tend to suck out of creativity to appease the box office.
“No one had a voice. I felt like there was a huge opportunity to create something where the talented people could be talented.” - Daniel Katz
It was Katz who was struck with the epiphany while driving in Rome on the Autostrade 24 highway when he had the “it’s time to go do this” moment, and the rest is history.
What A24 Actually Does
A lot of what makes A24 ‘A24’, is their perception of what is cool, what is weird and what is going to work. They seek films which are ostensibly creative and to bag those films, they need to be creative as well. Back in 2012, being a new company, they had failed to acquire films like Frances Ha and The Place Beyond the Pines but nevertheless, were determined to get Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers.
To give more context about the film, Spring Breakers is a comedy-crime drama where four college girls resort to robbing a diner to fund their spring break. Bikinis, booze, drugs, and partying (lots of it) - sum up this movie. To pitch to one of the movie producers, instead of taking a cliche gift basket, the team DIY-ed a basket with glass gun bongs and munchies packaged in a cardboard box with duct tape. Going that extra mile by making their pitch so personalized clearly showed that they understood the film, the story, the characters. And of course, they got the film.
Spring Breakers (2013)
Looking at the A24 filmography, each film is unique in its own way, and one can hardly point out any similarities except one - that they’re all very cool. “That’s why everyone says, ‘I know what an A24 film is, but no A24 film is like any other.” - Barry Jenkins, Director of Moonlight. What they do is pick films (and now also produce them) that are considerably high-brow, they cater to a niche audience who has a certain taste for cinema. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t cater to the masses, some of A24’s highest grossing films like Lady Bird and recent hit Everything Everywhere All At Once have been crowd favorites.
From unnerving horror comedies to feel-good coming-of-age films,
A24 roster has some of the best films across genres
But how do they decide which films they want to green light in the first place? Leaning into the originality of the script, they consider stories that are unique and eclectic along with also investing in the filmmakers. The perfect example of this is Daniels' 2016 film ‘Swiss Army Man’— an absurdist comedy about a man who befriends a farting corpse he finds lying by the beach shore. This already ticks off the A24’s inclination to weird plots. Further, the film even flopped at film festivals with instances of audiences walking out of the screenings leaving Daniels (Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert) with no buyers except a low-ball offer from Netflix. Then entered A24, Noah Sacco, the head of acquisition who jokingly threatened to jump out of the window if they didn’t go with them. That’s the passion, the crazy obsessive faith that A24 has for movies that they believe in.
Reinventing Film Marketing
A huge part of the film distribution process is marketing the film to the right audience, on the right communication channels to ensure tickets do sell when the movie releases. A24's weird creativity extends in their approach of marketing their films and like all good ideas, they stick. Here are some examples of how A24 reinvented movie marketing:
1. Swiss Army Man: How do you promote a movie about a corpse? Well you make a Tumblr account for him. ‘Manny Sexts’ is a Tumblr page where people could respond to Daniel Radcliffe’s character explaining what sex is like, as well as send a text to the character. The responses are humorous - creating a well rounded engaging social media campaign which is just as absurd as the movie.
Credits: VICE & A24
2. Spring Breakers: Released back in 2012, Spring Breakers’ movie promotion was ahead of its time. Besides the glass-gun bongs, A24 also leveraged social media to create buzz amongst its target audience back when social media was just starting out. Zoe Beyer, the then social media strategist and now a Creative Director at A24, took the social-first approach by posting a picture of the entire Spring Breakers cast in the Da Vinci’s ‘Last Supper’ which got over 600,000+ likes - an example of how A24 benefitted from being early adopters of social media.
3. Ex Machina: Creativity demands taking risks, and if there’s anything we know that A24 is exceptionally good at, that’s taking risks. Their guerilla marketing tactics tread ever-so lightly on taking it “too far” and while promoting their film, Ex Machina at the SXSW Festival, they did invite some legal trouble. They used the lead, Alicia Vikander’s picture to catfish people on Tinder, making them believe they were talking to someone named Ava (her character’s name) and after back-and-forth conversations with the ‘fake’ Ava, they would be redirected to an Instagram page promoting the film. It ended up upsetting both Tinder and Alicia Vikander, but it was worth it and as Zoe Beyer shares, they operated on a “Don’t ask for permission. Ask for forgiveness” principle.
4. A Ghost Story: Experiential marketing is a route A24 explored for promoting the supernatural-drama ‘Ghost Story’. The team created pop-up stories all across New York where people could enter the ‘Ghost Store’ and transcend themselves into spirits by draping sheets over them just like the one in the movie. Inside the store, the guests would be asked deep questions about their ‘deepest curiosity’ or their ‘distant memory’ to reflect upon in a room full of mirrors and ethereal music playing in the background. The curatorial-immersive experience highlights how A24’s creativity is just as inspiring as it is spooky.
The A24 Merchandise: Perhaps the coolest way A24 builds its branding is through its exclusive merchandise. The A24 store has a wide variety of merch - where you can shop everything from A24 branded sweatshirts to the exclusive A24 movies collectibles - the Auditor of the Month Candle from EEAAO, the Minari screenplay book, the ‘Call Me Ladybird’ name tag and so much more. Expanding into merchandising is a great way to promote the film long after its release, and simultaneously build a branding for A24.
The A24 Recipe for Successful Films
With the growing A24 fanbase, it’s not uncommon for people to watch a movie simply because it's produced by A24. Gaining a reputation for films that are cool, weird, original - the A24 logo in the opening credits serves as the stamp of approval of a good film.
But what makes A24 films so special? What is that A24 vibe that audiences love?
Something you’ve never seen before
One stand out characteristic would definitely be the outlandish stories and original voice each movie has. While the genre could itself be overdone, A24 movies find a way to subvert them, pushing the boundaries of what is expected. A movie like Hereditary is not your typical horror film, Florida Project isn’t like every coming-of-age film and The Disaster Artist is more than just a comedy – with over 120 films under their name, every time audiences go for an A24 film, they know they’ll find something new to watch.
Every shot of an A24 film is visually stunning, period. They don’t look like the typical commercialized films, but more like visual poetry with meaning, movement and metaphors spilled over every frame. The production design, the locations, the color grading - every production and post-production element upholds a certain standard worthy of hype.
A24 puts in a lot of faith in a film’s director and it definitely shows with the creative liberties the filmmakers retain throughout. Moreover, they particularly scout for movies to acquire at film festivals where upcoming, fresh new voices showcase their work. Being auteur-driven, A24 supports independent filmmakers and independent cinema by believing in them and giving them a platform to be seen by the world. Some filmmakers A24 has successfully given a break to include - Robert Eggers, Daniels, Ari Aster, David Lowery and many others.
You can also check out our blog on Upcoming Filmmakers to Watch Out For.
Popular Faces like You’ve Never Seen before
Perhaps one of my favorite things about A24 is how they take popular actors and put them in the most unexpected roles. Sometimes they’re actors like Charlie Sheen making a comeback, or popular actors like Robert Pattison choosing a different genre than he usually does. Daniel Radcliffe plays a corpse (Swiss Army Man), James Franco a drug dealer (Spring Breakers), Adam Sandler a jeweler with gambling addiction (Uncut Gems) and Wilhem Dafoe as both a psychopathic lighthouse keeper (The Lighthouse) and a loving, wholesome hotel manager (The Florida Project). But it’s not just popular actors, being an independent studio A24, also casts new actors and non-actors in their films, Anya-Taylor Joy in The Witch, Janelle Monáe in Moonlight, Saoirse Ronan in Ladybird are few examples of actors who got their big break through A24 films.
The Lighthouse (2019) The Florida Project (2017)
Good Time (2017) The Lighthouse (2019)
The Ultimate A24 Watch List
If A24 was not in your radar until now, I’m sure after reading this blog you’re intrigued to see what the hype is all about. With 120+ films under A24, here's a list of our top 10 A24 recommendations (from different genres, filmmakers and actors) that you ought to watch:
Everything Everywhere All At Once - Directed by Daniels | Genre - Comedy, Action
Midsommar - Directed by Ari Aster | Genre - Horror
Moonlight - Directed by Barry Jenkins | Genre - Drama
The Florida Project - Directed by Sean Baker | Genre - Coming-of-Age Drama
Ex Machina - Directed by Alex Garland | Genre - Sci-fi Thriller
Minari - Directed by Lee Isaac Chung | Genre - Asian American Drama
20th Century Women - Directed by Mike Mills | Genre - Comedy-Drama
The Humans - Directed by Stephen Karam| Genre - Mumblecore
The Tragedy of Macbeth - Directed by Joel Coen | Genre - Historical Thriller
The Disaster Artist - Directed by James Franco | Genre - Biography
A24 started as a small company that loved movies and even with all the Oscar wins and ever-growing fanbase, it has retained that authenticity and genuine love for cinema, blessing us with stories that move us, inspire us and open our minds to a different world.