The Distributor as Auteur

Can the scrappy company behind Room, Spring Breakers, and The End of the Tour save the film industry?

Michael Fassbender in Slow West, Brie Larson in Room, Selena Gomez and James Franco in Spring Breakers, Jason Segel in The End of the Tour, Emma Watson in The Bling Ring, Alicia Vikander in Ex Machina.

Animated photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Logo by GrandArmy Photos via A24.

Consider this sh*t

When historians of the future try to pinpoint the precise moment that the film industry crawled out of its deathbed and back onto its feet, there’s a good chance they’ll land somewhere in March 2013, when a fledgling distribution company called A24 Films transformed a Harmony Korine movie starring a cornrowed James Franco into a genuine cultural event.

The movie was Spring Breakers, it played like a Kesha music video as directed by Terrence Malick on MDMA, and it debuted to the highest per-screen average of any film released that year to date. By the end of its opening weekend, it had raked in more money than all of Korine’s other films combined. Sure, we’re talking about an aggressively uncommercial director whose previous feature was called Trash Humpers, but the success of Spring Breakers—and how it was achieved—demonstrated that there’s still an audience for the kind of challenging and essential medium-budget movies that most in the business left for dead.

This fall A24 enters the awards race in a serious way for the first time, with two movies: the accessible David Foster Wallace biopic The End of the Tour, and the Brie Larson­–starring literary adaptation Room, which recently won the coveted People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival. It’s coveted because six of the past seven winners were nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, and the harrowing, emotional Room looks poised to follow in their footsteps after it opens in October. 

Gif excerpt from the film Room via A24 Films

In recent years, the recession and the concurrent rise of VOD streaming services have already torpedoed the midbudget movie. Suddenly, in order to be financially viable, a project has to cost less than $2 million or more than $200 million. Anything in between is dead in the water. Many of the country’s most vital filmmakers, unwilling to accept that their next movie would have to be either shot on an iPhone or connected to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, have begun to abandon ship. Steven Soderbergh “retired.” Spike Lee turned to Kickstarter. Steven Spielberg publicly predicted the implosion of the film industry, which is sort of like God telling you to brace for rain. 

Meanwhile, A24 has already been building an ark. At a time when young people are increasingly going to the movies only for blockbuster spectacle, A24 has established itself as the film industry’s most forward-thinking company by releasing the kind of midsized, stylish, quality films that seemed on the verge of going extinct, transforming them into a collective theatrical experience, and aiming them squarely at a demographic that would rather watch movies on their phones. It’s not remarkable that A24 had set such a goal—it’s remarkable that the company is accomplishing it. By surgically inserting each release into the zeitgeist, it has paved a new road for provocative, modestly sized cinema, bridging the gap between microbudget indies and monolithic studio products in much the same way Italy’s Autostrada A24 connects Rome to Teramo. As Korine told Rolling Stone: “I want to do the most radical work, but put it out in the most commercial way.” A24 just took him up on it.

Other similarly sized outfits tend to flood the flooded marketplace with a steady barrage of quality independent and foreign fare in a way that can feel indiscriminate: Send the DCPs to Film Forum and let God sort ’em out. IFC earned a raft of Oscar nominations when it decided to put its muscle behind Boyhood and transform it into a phenomenon, but dumping all of its eggs into one beautifully textured basket helped to underline the paucity of love that most indies receive from their distributors, who ferry them from festivals to home video with all the solemn purpose of Charon taking passengers across the river Styx. Other indie labels, like Megan Ellison’s Annapurna Pictures (which co-produced Spring Breakers), tend to go in the other direction, releasing a minuscule handful of movies into the currents of Oscar season in the hopes that the waters will carry them toward a crowd. (Joy, Annapurna’s only 2015 title, arrives in theaters on Christmas Day.)

But A24 has the money to acquire a steady slate of releases, the model to support them, and the chutzpah to make nearly each one into a mini-phenomenon. In the last 18 months alone, along with Room and The End of the Tour, it has pioneered the abortion comedy with Obvious Child, scored a commercial hit with the seductive thriller Ex Machina, released one of the most daring science fiction films this side of 2001 in Under the Skin, and driven the most lucrative documentary in years with Asif Kapadia’s Amy Winehouse portrait, Amy. Next year they’ll re-team with While We’re Young director Noah Baumbach on his brilliant doc about Brian De Palma, distribute one of the best horror films since The Shining, and release the first of the films they’ve financed themselves. The company has laid the groundwork to evolve from just another upstart distribution label into a multiheaded ministudio capable of developing its own content—and so far they’ve done it by releasing movies that tend to earn more cultural cachet than they do money.

Gif excerpt from the film Under the Skin via A24 Films

But as A24 initiates the second phase of its existence, a transition that includes financing its own films and branching out into television, the company’s exponential growth may find it becoming part of the problem it had once seemed destined to solve. When your business model is predicated on treating each movie like an event, how do you get bigger without changing who you are?

* * *

When I arrived at A24’s office, in an anonymous building so close to the western lip of lower Manhattan that it can practically taste New Jersey, my fears that the company might be growing too fast weren’t exactly assuaged by learning that within weeks it was moving to an enormous office closer to midtown. At the time of my visit, however, A24 still looked more like a startup than a movie studio, and you could find the country’s fastest-growing film company’s actual HQ only by following the flimsy paper signs that had been taped up along the 17th-floor hallway outside its headquarters. (Make a left out of the elevators, and then a right at the cafeteria workers.)

John Hodges, David Fenkel, Daniel Katz.*

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos courtesy A24, by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images, and Janette Pellegrini/WireImage/Getty Images.

No one in the office is older than 42, including co-founders John Hodges, David Fenkel, and Daniel Katz. The division of labor is clear, but there aren’t any titles for the company’s employees, who all work elbow to elbow in a single room. “When we started, we wanted it to be about the films and filmmakers, not us,” Katz told the Hollywood Reporter at the end of 2013, and that culture remains evident in all aspects of their business. Since the small blast of trade articles that greeted the company’s inception, they’ve remained unusually quiet. And while they invited me into their headquarters to get a feel for the place and chat on background with the core team, they stressed that they’d prefer their movies to speak for themselves. That suits a company whose website’s About page consists of nothing beyond an Eadweard Muybridge plate of a cockatoo flapping its wings. These films speak for themselves.

The exception—and basically the only part of A24 that has any public profile at all—is the company’s social media presence. Its infamously irreverent official Twitter account, run by an employee named Zoe Beyer, is as likely to tweet about the Spice Girls or trash-talk Tom Cruise as it is to tweet about one of the company’s own movies. And even this public face represents the company’s nonhierarchical structure: “That’s only funny,” Beyer once observed, “because you’re not quite sure who’s saying it. It could be the CEO or an intern.”

It’s true that most audiences may not care about who it is that’s releasing the movies they see, but an A24 film demands even casual viewers to consider the source. You don’t watch something like Spring Breakers or Under the Skin without thinking: Where the hell did that come from? And that question is the birth of fandom. Among critics and cinephiles I know, the A24 label is starting to mean something in the way that a 4AD record meant something in 1988, or a Grove Press book meant something in 1955. A24 may not yet inspire the same kind of blind devotion in theatergoers that the Criterion Collection does in home video obsessives, but it’s the only indie distributor that feasibly could.

So what is an A24 film? The outfit is new enough that the same people have been working there from the very beginning, and the consistency of their titles reflects that of their tastes. On the most literal level, an A24 film is budgeted from anywhere between $1 million (Obvious Child) and $20 million (A Most Violent Year). An A24 project is far more likely to be female-driven than a film released by another company, and it is typically directed by a major filmmaker (Sally Potter, Sofia Coppola, Noah Baumbach) or a filmmaker on the cusp of becoming one (J.C. Chandor, James Ponsoldt). According to Ponsoldt, who recently became the company’s first repeat filmmaker: “A24 films run the gamut of genre and style, but they all seem to be incredibly specific, personal visions.”

An A24 film has an affinity for subverting a celebrity’s established persona. The Rover found a mentally deficient Robert Pattinson singing Keri Hilson’s “Pretty Girl Rock” in the deserts of post-apocalyptic Australia. The Bling Ring provoked Emma Watson to cast off the shadow of Hermione Granger and step into the pink Juicy Couture sweatpants of a spoiled teen criminal in contemporary Hollywood. Under the Skin reintroduced Scarlett Johansson as a killer alien from outer space (and, more jarringly, a shockingly brave improv performer). The End of the Tour freed Jason Segel from the succubus of network sitcoms by allowing him to inhabit the image of an iconic American writer.

Gif excerpt from the film The End of the Tour via A24 Films

Most importantly, an A24 film is a happening. 

Good A24 films anticipate the zeitgeist, and the best ones galvanize it. “We’re always cognizant of trying to sell the film by not selling it,” said marketing exec Jesse Patrone-Werdiger, speaking to A24’s rare faculty for promoting around the product it’s trying to push, shifting the tectonic plates of culture in the hopes of giving rise to a mountain. Take its efforts on Spring Breakers, for example. Rather than carpet-bomb the whole country with prohibitively expensive television ads, A24 partnered with a social marketing agency called theAudience in order to more precisely reach its target demographic. Beginning with hedonistic images of Disney starlets gone wild, the campaign consisted of producing Facebook ads that could also function as content—people wanted to share this stuff. Your eyes don’t gloss over James Franco as a trap music Jesus

Of the 174 million impressions that the movie made in the weeks leading up to its debut, 49 percent were organic, meaning that you were just as likely to learn about a new Harmony Korine film from your weird aunt’s personal page as you were from a promoted update in your news feed. (For context, the Spring Breakers Facebook page has 1.1 million likes, while that for Fox Searchlight’s Best Picture-winning Birdman has only 289,000.) How do you know when an ad campaign is working? When your audience does the work for you.

Some dissatisfied customers later accused the marketing campaign of misrepresenting the movie as a fun adolescent romp. (Blindsided teens, many of whom had been intrigued at the thought of seeing former Disney star Selena Gomez in a more mature performance, assailed the Internet with complaints that they had paid to see the Worst Movie Ever Made.) But A24, it became clear when I spoke to the company’s employees, saw Spring Breakers as a Trojan horse for progressive cinema—the company less concerned about the nine kids who found the film too weird than they were the one kid who went home and rented Gummo.

Filmmakers—often the toughest audiences for their own films’ marketing campaigns—recognize the company’s real excitement for their films. That’s the chief message of an A24 campaign, really, from elegant design to sharp social media to clever co-branding choices: This is a company that gets it. For Ponsoldt’s latest, A24’s marketing efforts followed the film’s example of approaching a highbrow topic with a low bar for entry, partnering with for a project called “Just Words,” for which writers, artists, and other intellectual types collectively celebrated the life and work of David Foster Wallace. Contrast that with its embrace of every grimy detail of demented dubstep nightmare Spring Breakers, for which the company went so far as to mount a sincere “consider this sh*t” awards campaign for James Franco. (He won the Los Angeles Film Critics Association award for Best Supporting Actor). Said Korine: “They saw that marketing was a creative act that could be entertaining in and of itself. They were thinking in a different way, trying something newer and maybe more radical with their approach. That broke the film out.”

Image via A24

For Room director Lenny Abrahamson, working with A24 on his film’s campaign has been a dramatic change. “Quite often you finish a film,” he told me, “you’ve had no contact with the distributor, you hand it to them, you get a quick look at the poster. And suddenly it’s all over, and you think, ‘Of all people, I knew the most about my film, so why was I was on the periphery of its release?’ ” But working closely with A24 throughout Room’s pre-release has altered his philosophy on film marketing: I used to think that the publicity process was both morally questionable and smoke and mirrors, that it was one of those invented jobs. I still think that its morally questionable, but now I realize that the publicity people do stuff, and that stuff is real.”

Thus far, A24 hasn’t made any of the movies it’s released, but it’s made all of them A24 movies. But in a shift from its typical way of doing business, A24 acquired Room based on its script, before shooting had even begun. “That didn’t come with any veto rights or cut rights,” Abrahamson told me. “But we liked them. We allowed them to come on set to see what was happening, and they in turn were sharing their release plans and their marketing materials, and we were commenting on that.” That shift points to a greater move afoot at A24, as the company begins to develop its own projects from within. The first: Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, which chronicles a gay man’s coming of age across three stages of his life in war on drugs–era Miami. Heading into production nearly a decade after the premiere of Jenkins’ only other feature (the excellent Medicine for Melancholy), the film has been waiting a long time for a company with the confidence required to finance it. When an A24 acquisitions exec pitched the story to me, excitedly laying out the plot in broad but heartbreaking strokes, he asked if it sounded like an A24 film. The things about it that didn’t were what made me most excited, both for Moonlight and the future of a company that’s confident enough in its sense of self to stretch toward something new.

* * *

The question with any company that lavishes attention and resources upon a modest amount of product is, of course, where does the money come from? A24’s initial funding came via an infusion of capital from Guggenheim Partners, the investment firm at which Katz previously oversaw film financing. But its present success and continued survival are dependent on a massive deal that seems to directly contradict everything that’s made the company so special. In September 2013, A24 struck a partnership valued up to $40 million with satellite television provider DirecTV. The deal, intended to grant A24 the capital it needed to grow and DirecTV some much-needed cultural cachet, stipulated that the two companies would jointly acquire new titles, and that those titles would be eligible to premiere on DirecTV’s on-demand platform 30 days prior to a theatrical release. A24 typically pays a bit more for these movies than it does the ones the it buys itself, and—like most VOD content providers—it doesn’t make its grosses public.

The initial agreement covered 12 films, the first of which was Denis Villeneuve’s jaundiced doppelgänger freakout, Enemy, starring Jake Gyllenhaal. A vital piece of work far too delicately perverse to have sustained a theatrical run, it was the ideal choice to launch the program. The second title was Life After Beth, the domestic theatrical haul of which was a paltry $88,273. Beth was also the first A24 movie since its inaugural release, the Charlie Sheen-starring A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III, not to receive a “fresh” score on Rotten Tomatoes. Subsequent DirectTV titles haven’t fared much better (in fact, most have fared much worse), and it soon became clear that these early acquisitions were the unloved stepchildren of the A24 family.

Gif excerpt from the film Slow West via A24 Films

Buying and burying not-great movies isn’t necessarily a problem if it grows the business without harming the brand. But what happens when the titles involved in this deal get better—a lot better? Take the fate of John Maclean’s Slow West, one of the year’s best films, a neo-Western starring Michael Fassbender as a bounty hunter. It premiered at Sundance in January, where it deservedly won the World Cinema Dramatic Competition. Its DirecTV/A24 release grossed $229,094 and never played on more than 54 screens.

When I saw Robert Eggers’ The Witch at that same festival, I stumbled out of the 9 a.m. press screening convinced that I had just seen a masterpiece. I was thrilled when the news broke that A24 had acquired the domestic rights, and then gutted to learn that it was part of the DirecTV pact. Genre hounds stoked by the Sundance hype would surely seek it out, but Eggers’ extraordinary debut—about a family of early American pilgrims who get banished to the wrong forest—would never be given the opportunity to meaningfully connect with its audience and worm its way into the culture. For a truly great film like this, being excluded from the conversation into which A24 works so hard to insinuate its main slate can feel like a fate worse than Harvey Weinstein.

The optimistic way to view this situation is that A24 is getting much better at buying good movies for its DirecTV deal, rather than filler like Barely Lethal. But if it is, a monastic degree of focus will be required to recognize which A24 titles might fare better on VOD. The bottom line is that there were 677 new releases in 2013, and that number is only getting bigger. For a medium-size film to succeed without a marketing blitz twice the size of its production budget, it’s not enough for it to be good—it has to have a hook. A24 has only managed to turn each of its main-slate films into an event because the company’s been ruthless and visionary when it comes to determining the difference.

A24 knew that Slow West was great well before it premiered to rave reviews, but the company also recognized that it was an odd duck, neither broad enough to be a prestige picture nor strange enough to galvanize a legion of fans. Likewise, A24 loves Sundance acquisition Mississippi Grind, a tremendously appealing riff on Robert Altman’s California Split that co-stars Ryan Reynolds and Ben Mendelsohn as compulsive gamblers on a road trip to nowhere. It would cost too much to buy Mississippi Grind a fighting chance in theaters, so the film is making its way into the world through 20 million smaller screens rather than a few dozen large ones, and more viewers will have a chance to appreciate it as the sublime hangout movie that it is. The film’s backers will be made whole, its makers will get another chance at bat, and its distributors will continue to enjoy the financial solvency provided by the DirecTV deal—not to mention the $50 million line of credit the company secured last fall. If the cost of helping great movies find their theatrical audiences and lure them into theaters is to release other great movies that audiences have to find for themselves, that’s probably a price most of us are willing to pay.

“You want to have a grown-up conversation about the best way to get your work to the people who would spend money to see it,” Abrahamson concludes. “A24 thinks hard about the landscape of distribution, and they think hard about the models, and the models are changing. I think theatrical will always be there, but most of my biggest experiences of cinema have been in front of a TV—no one was screening Fellini films in Ireland when I was 19 or 20.” 

Whatever lingering reservations I had about the VOD side of A24’s business were dismantled by the recent rumblings of a demonically possessed goat: The DirecTV logo may still be lurking toward the bottom of The Witch’s teaser poster (which accurately identifies and champions Black Phillip as the movie’s breakout star), but at some point along the way it was decided that this crowd-pleasing, pants-ruining work of art has the makings of a communal sensation, and A24 pivoted. When the film comes out in early 2016, it will arrive exclusively in theaters, and its trial by fire will be exclusively in theaters. Judging by the fact that the trailer racked up more than 3 million views in its first week online, the crowds are ready with their pitchforks.

Gif excerpt from the film Ex Machina via A24 Films

When Ex Machina director Alex Garland was asked what he liked about working with A24, he compared the major studios to ocean liners: “To change direction it takes them two days to even start to make that turn. The indies can be liquid and fluid.” A24 may be growing fast, but no one has displayed greater agility in navigating the waters of a business that constantly seems to be changing course. If the company’s success continues apace, it might not be long before a profitable mid-budget movie no longer seems like a unicorn, and it might not be much longer until being an A24 film is the only hook a film needs.

Earlier this year I was drinking in a hotel bar with the head of another distribution company at a film festival. I asked him what he wants his company to be. “I want to be A24,” he said. “Everybody wants to be A24. God bless ’em.” If theaters are to remain something more than a repository for superhero movies, everybody might have to be. 

Correction, Sept. 30, 2015: This article originally contained a photo of John Hodges, a film producer, rather than John Hodges, co-founder of A24. The photo has been replaced.