Indie Film Studio A24 Bats a Really High Percentage

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I used to have no interest in production credits at the beginning of a film. What difference does it make who produced and distributed it? Just tell me who is directing/writing/starring, a.k.a the people who actually have creative control over the project. 

That’s how I used to think, but recently, whenever I see the logo of A24 Films or Annapurna Pictures at the start of a movie, I inch forward in my chair a bit. Quick anecdote: I was settling into a viewing of Ex Machina a couple weeks ago, still irked with myself for paying an extra $6-7 for the off-brand IMAX experience called RPX at my local theater (not worth it, people), when the “A24 Films” marquee flashed just before the film began. This piqued my interest in Ex Machina even more (and it was already quite piqued, quite), because I had remembered A24 from a couple recent films I had really enjoyed (The Bling Ring, Enemy, Under the Skin) It helped me feel like I was in more secure hands, even though the director, Alex Garland, was a first-timer. 

This is because A24 has excellent taste. Founded way back in 2012, the New York-based distribution and production company has always had an eye on both the indie and mainstream. Their three founders — David Fenkel, Daniel Katz, and John Hodges — are all veterans of film financing, development, and production from various backgrounds. However, A24 didn’t find success immediately.

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Their first effort was A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III in early 2013. It didn’t go well. Universally reviled by critics and audiences alike, the Charlie Sheen-led oddball fell flat from the get-go. Although it wasn’t long before they released a film that garnered them the attention they needed to take off. Indie writer-director Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, starring a Riff Raff-inspired James Franco, as well as former Disney kids Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens, was just the kind of provocative and hot take-generating content A24 had to be aching for. The rest of 2013 kept the momentum going with The Bling Ring and The Spectacular Now, both strong releases in their own right.

A year before A24 even got off the ground, Megan Ellison, daughter of Oracle CEO (and fifth-wealthiest man in the world) Larry Ellison, founded Annapurna Pictures. Since she first started releasing films in 2012, her philosophy seems to have followed this maxim: Find acclaimed directors and give them money to fulfill their bold, original vision that other studios won’t tolerate.

And thank goodness, because since then Annapurna has blessed the viewing public with The Master, Zero Dark Thirty, Her, American Hustle, Foxcatcher, and even more. Those have countless Oscar nominations among them, not to mention how worse off American film would be without their remarkable influence. Although quieter in the last year, Annapurna has films helmed by Richard Linklater and David O. Russell coming out later in 2015.

Ellison’s goodwill upon eager auteurs is wonderful, but it helps that she has the financial backing that she does. A24 doesn’t exactly operate in the same way. Their niche seems to be to seek out strange, dark, modestly-budgeted thrillers and comedies with at least one star attached to the poster. They haven’t been able to afford throwing millions at a difficult, genius director.

Last year was when they really took off, unleashing 11 movies with varying styles and tones in 2014. Enemy, the Jake Gyllenhaal thriller where he stumbles upon a man who looks and speaks exactly like himself, is my favorite of the six or so A24 films I’ve seen. It’s drenched in trippy dread that doesn’t let up from the mysterious beginning through the startling conclusion. Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners) is the director, a French-Canadian who really knows how to build tension. Villeneuve and Gyllenhaal have created the kind of deep and ponderous picture that scratches your itch for filmmaking that is both emotionally and intellectually rich.

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These types of cinematic forces of nature aren’t super common, but A24 seems to be batting an abnormally high percentage. Their next feature was Under the Skin, a critically beloved Scarlett Johansson sci-fi flick, which may have confounded most audiences, but certainly gave A24 another well-respected entry. I absolutely have not seen anything like it, for better or worse.

Then came Locke and The Rover. I’ve seen the former, and its minimalism makes it unique in a landscape of movies trying to look as expensive as possible. Locke is 90 minutes of Tom Hardy highway driving. No, literally. And yet, whether it’s the daring premise or Hardy’s magnetism, somehow it works. Meanwhile, The Rover gripped viewers with a post-apocalyptic Guy Pearce and Robert Pattinson.

You see how these are all very diverse films, yet are all united by a midsize budget, unique premise, and (usually) a single star actor or actress? It’s not a bad strategy, right?

Of course, that isn’t all A24 is doing right. Their social media moves away from the heavily branded, inorganic BS of most studios to embrace something genuinely humorous, spontaneous, and, well, actually fun. You can tell whoever runs their Twitter account a) has a fantastic sense of humor,

and b) really, really loves movies. That’s how it should be.

The best part about that tweet is that Mad Max isn’t even one of their movies. Hopefully, A24 doesn’t get so big that they lose this idiosyncratic and highly accessible social media strategy. It’s another factor that helps them stand apart from competitors.

So what does A24 have on its way for us? 2015 has already been eventful and will continue to be. Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young debuted to mostly positive reviews, while Ex Machina impressed critics and has made over $33 million domestically, over twice as much as its $15 million budget (I thought it was excellent, by the way; one of the best recent sci-fi films I’ve seen). Next up is Slow West, a late-1800s Western starring Michael Fassbender and Ben Mendelsohn that seems more quirky fireworks than quiet Western plains solitude. Then it’s the Gillian Flynn novel Dark Places that gets an adaptation with Charlize Theron in the lead. Neither of these seem groundbreaking, but they should at least continue pushing A24 up the studio mountain toward more respect and bigger budgets. In the fall of 2013, even DirecTV decided they wanted in on A24’s action, inking a deal that allows the satellite operator to offer some of their films on demand before the theatrical release.

So, while they have risen quickly since their inception only a few years ago, can A24 become a name brand, one that everybody who goes to the occasional movie has heard of? That will be the true test. However, if they keep dishing out a high-quality, yet eclectic mix of off-kilter comedies (Obvious Child, Life After Beth) and dark, genre-pushing fare (Enemy, Under the Skin, Ex Machina), they won’t have anything to worry about. Their early career batting percentage has already earned them plenty of leeway.

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