A24 has a lot to sell: In a three-day period in August, my inbox includes an invitation to see “Bodies Bodies Bodies” a few days before its release; a New York and Los Angeles invitation to “A24’s Rural Gothic, Astute Psychological Drama ‘God’s Creatures’,” releasing this fall; an announcement to “rent or own” Alex Garland’s “Men” and a separate announcement for the soundtrack of “Men”; a listen to the “Bodies Bodies Bodies” original score by Disasterpeace; and under the header “1 down, A24 across,” the publication of “99 Movie Crosswords,” a book of ninety-nine crossword puzzles inspired by the movies, with contributions from David Lowery, Jenny Slate, Lulu Wang, Tim Heidecker, Emile Mosseri, Stephanie Hsu, Elsie Fisher, Megan Amram and Ashley Clark.
The spiral-bound product, like most of the notions and knickknacks promoted by the label alongside its increasing volume of movie releases, comes at a whistle-worthy tariff: $34. Lushly illustrated screenplays weigh in at a cool $60, including past successes like “The Lobster,” “Lady Bird,” “Under The Skin,” “Hereditary,” “Moonlight,” “Ex Machina,” “The Witch” and “20th Century Women.” The set of books that accompany the first season of A24’s HBO series, “Euphoria,” is a serial epic: it comes in eight volumes in a slipcase for $98.
Similar premiums are asked for socks, hats, T-shirts, beanies, fleeces and hoodies. A boutique distributor or a distribution boutique? Why not literally both? This is the public face of the notably taciturn company. Is this the kind of attention that begets not just cachet, but cash?
A24 just turned ten; it was founded in August 2012 by David Fenkel, Daniel Katz and John Hodges to release the kind of independent features that were cool yet commonplace at the turn of the century. The plan was to move beyond the mistakes that crashed earlier distributors they worked with. And they have made a mark in the past decade, at festivals and in theaters. This year’s theatrical releases so far include “After Yang,” “X,” “Men,” “Marcel The Shell With Shoes On,” “Bodies Bodies Bodies” and the colossal and unexpected returns on the uplifting Michelle Yeoh-starring, tax-averse metaverse hallucination “Everything Everywhere All At Once.” Their website lists ten upcoming pictures, including Claire Denis’ “Stars at Noon” and the New York Film Festival’s closing-night offering, “The Inspection.” There are five upcoming television shows to add to a roster that includes “Euphoria”‘s second season and Olivier Assayas’ sweetly melancholy “Irma Vep.”
But it’s not just the wave of movies and television or the proffering of cool wares propelling A24: it’s also the crackling iceberg of distribution realities below the surface. Economics grow more daunting at scale, and a lot of the tricks of the trade no longer apply, including studios keeping movies in theaters for ninety days. (Forty-five days is now a standard.)
Since the return of theatrical releases A24, like everyone in the industry, including NEON, another of the smaller breakout distributors, pulls away from traditional layers of releasing, on a week-by-week basis. The simplest example would be A24 making a movie stream-to-rent for a single night on their website for twenty bucks, during the film’s release or right before an extended digital-rental-download window, or a simultaneous release with Showtime, or via a streaming service like Prime Video.
Streaming, where up until Netflix reported a bleeding loss of subscribers in mid-July and, suddenly, STREAMING IS THE FUTURE!, would trade its exclamation point for a question mark. Streaming? Streaming, where a few weeks ago, Disney surpassed Netflix in number of subscribers (while still far behind in monetizing those subscribers), is also pinioned between its own form of chaos and catastrophe. Sheer numbers, for some, turned into sheer panic after the quarterly reports of mid-August.
Rather than the canny dealmaking and publicity stratagems of upstart distributors, we’re talking about tens of millions of dollars of investment going away, not limited to the $90 million or so the freshly constituted Warner Bros. Discovery entity tossed away by permanently shelving the uncompleted “Batgirl,” sunk as a tax loss on a greater balance sheet.
But does that make an actual moviegoer, rather than an internet pest, say, I won’t go to any more Warner Bros. movies? Or, “I’m gonna cancel my HBO Max”?
After seeing “Top Gun: Maverick” for a second or fourth time, does anyone say, “Hey, I want to see what Paramount’s got in store next.”? Or, recognizing that many of the episodes of the conservative oater-soaper success “Yellowstone” is on Peacock (while it’s produced by Paramount, which would dearly love to have it on its own services after four successful seasons), would they want to add Peacock for Paramount-branded content, adding one more service to their monthly bill? Brands can be shape-shifters; it’s not as simple as a little Netflix here, a little Hulu there, then “A24 and chill.”
The last indie brand name like a runaway train made its mark in the 1990s, when the Weinstein brothers, before and after a huge deal with Disney, made an art-house brand out of the names of their parents, Miriam and Max. Huge advertisements and cunning stunts were the meat of the public Weinstein juggernaut: we’re going to make you cry, we’re going to make you laugh, you are going to give us Oscars! WE ARE MIRAMAX, DAMMIT!
In Ken Auletta’s alternately fixating and horrifying “Hollywood Ending: Harvey Weinstein and the Culture Of Silence,” published this summer, there are telegraphed glimpses of the twinned showmanship and paranoia that fueled the perception of high-toned connoisseurship for the label. Miramax movies barely made their costs back; Bob’s Dimension Films, with low-rent, lower-budget horror and comedy entries, including “Scream,” covered the costs of the mad indulgences, in the press, fiscally and in the real world, as well as the burgeoning costs of Harvey’s sexual crimes.
“Disney recognized that Miramax had what Disney lacked: ‘Disney was in a different kind of business,’ then-CEO Michael Eisner said years later, looking back on what would prove to be an exceptionally stormy relationship,” writes Auletta. “’We were in the event movie business, the expensive movie business. We had a very tiny library, no real live-action library. I thought their volume, their quality, their international appeal, would be good for Disney.’ Miramax stood for something. ‘The Miramax name may be the only brand in the movie business other than the Disney brand.'”
Auletta has his doubts about movies aligning with their producers in general, writing, “One of the facts of the film business is that the studios producing hit films get no real branding credit for the movie. The film that edged out ‘The Crying Game’ for Best Picture was Clint Eastwood’s ‘Unforgiven,’ and it’s safe to say that the general public that flocked to theaters came to see a Clint Eastwood movie, not a Warner Brothers movie. But Eisner believed the public was aware that ‘The Crying Game,’ or ‘Sex, Lies, and Videotape,’ or ‘Reservoir Dogs,’ was a Miramax movie, just as they were aware Snow White was a Disney movie. And more to the point, the creative community knew it.”
A24 is, happily, both bold in its reach and influence and in its currying of provocative filmmakers from around the globe: other producers and filmmakers are influenced by what they’ve done. The eddying effects of a series like “Euphoria” on HBO informs form and content alike. Drama and style and music cues are going to wash over the culture today more than any movie in theatrical release that grosses five or six million dollars, or even in the once-in-a-super-moon breakout case of “Everything Everywhere All At Once,” with its hundred million dollars in the United States and thirty million in international interest so far.
A24 lets its films speak for themselves. Mostly. While offering its giddy range of leisurewear and collectibles to further awareness of what it does, A24 assiduously avoids publicity for the company itself or its workings. (Job titles were eschewed, at least at one point.) The only article I’ve read is an oral history that ran in GQ over five years ago, in May 2017. Among the wisdom is distribution executive Nicolette Aizenberg saying, “It is very cyclical. Miramax, they were a huge deal, and also Fox Searchlight. They came on strong in the late 90s, really. So that was like their heyday. Not heyday. I don’t mean it that way. But more independent existed then. And then, in ’08, the bubble burst, and the economic downturn probably had a little bit of impact. And then it was consolidation. And yeah, I just think that it takes—it doesn’t happen that often that a new studio starts.” (In the five years between that article and now, a number of upstarts have detonated, most notably the honorably art-driven and millions-flushing Annapurna Pictures.)
Another distribution figure at the company told GQ, “Especially the first two years, we fell in love with every movie. When I was explaining to people what I was doing, it felt like a political campaign. Like, you believe in something, you fall in love with it, and then you work for three months on trying to make it work.” That sounds like a good thing…
But how does that work now? There’s lovely lore about how Sony Pictures Classics, and before that, the same team when it was at Orion Classics, had relationships with every theater owner and knew the limitations of every screen, both physical and fiscal, and would hand-sell pictures to what sounds like wholly niche audiences. SPC was formed the year before Ismail Merchant’s 1993 “In Custody,” the story of a poet told in Urdu. How to sell that beyond posters, a trailer, maybe spots on non-English-speaking radio stations? “In Custody” was papered in restaurants and other locations where Indian and Pakistani workers—taxi drivers, mostly—would gather. And so another twentieth-century story of breaking even on costs was brought into the world. That’s heart, but on a watchmaker’s scale.
“Hollywood is run by accountants at this point. And so anytime you speak with someone who’s not a pure accountant, is not a pencil pusher? It’s exciting. They had heart to them,” Harmony Korine told GQ after the opening of “Spring Breakers.” At that time, Harvey Weinstein had not yet been disgraced, convicted and imprisoned, and offered, “A24 is cool and I know they say great things about Miramax, which makes me feel proud and old at the same time. [Founder] David Fenkel and I have had some great conversations about film, the whole A24 team have a great and deep love for cinema.” (See the old school at last gasp: in offering an air-kiss to an upstart competitor, mention yourself obsequiously, commend yourself on your great taste without shame.)
In March, A24’s financiers sold a minority stake of the company to Stripes, a private equity firm, for $225 million, the first funds it took on since the 2012 founding. “A24’s founders and employees will maintain a significant majority of the studio’s equity,” reported Deadline. A24 intends to use the cash to increase production and expand worldwide distribution, as well as “develop high-quality initiatives beyond the screen.” (Beyond more beach towels and tube socks, presumably.)
Here’s the biggest of big pictures of how branding has paid off for A24, from Deadline’s reporting: Stripes co-founder Ken Fox recognizes the company for its multifarious identity with its coat of cool: “A24 is a world-class brand and an extraordinary business. We’ve built a relationship with the A24 team over many years and have been amazed by the breadth and impact of their iconic storytelling globally. A24 is synonymous with incredible content, and it is a prime example of Stripes’ belief in partnering with founders who are building amazing products.”
NEON is reportedly seeking a similar play, a fair notion after winning a Best Picture Oscar for a movie in the Korean language (“Parasite”) and distributing three successive Cannes Palme d’Or winners (“Parasite,” “Titane” and “Triangle of Sadness,” opening soon).
Are the beanies a distraction, a diversion, sleight-of-hand, well-heeled loungewear, amusing comic relief? The core of the business is financing or acquiring work from filmmakers like Alex Garland, the Safdies, Sofia Coppola, Ari Aster and Joanna Hogg, Mike Mills, Claire Denis, David Lowery and Yorgos Lanthimos, and discoveries yet to surface.
There’s a post-pandemic factor that’s helped A24 and other smaller concerns. The drought of films coming from companies like Sony, Warner and Universal, which is expected to persist for the next couple of months, means that theater owners will book odder goodies from NEON, A24 and such small companies because the movie-craving audience will check into a wild oddity like “Everywhere…” if the studios aren’t filling the screens. You can release it almost… anywhere.
A lot of directors are readily daubed as “visionary filmmakers,” but the label of “visionary distributor,” especially if earned, is rare. A24 is named for Autostrada A24, an Italian motorway that jags across that country just below Rome; appropriate as big money (investment) and little money (returns from releases) are in an infernal circular chase when you’re talking this game.
The back-office work—the equivalent of the handbills in Urdu—is today’s dark art, never to rise to public view. It’s this way with conglomerates and their cash flow. If you’re a company as huge as Disney, how many workers do you have calculating cash flow and foreign-currency exchange by the microsecond? How much of the profit of huge corporations comes with sloshing that cash flow around? (Lots. Boatloads.)
From the perspective of informed observers—outsiders, yes—A24 may be one of the most nimble of up-and-coming distributors (including its transfers of movies, sometimes abruptly, to debuts on streaming, not limited to Netflix, Prime Video and Hulu). There used to be a lag of months between a movie’s apparition at its debut at Sundance or Berlin or Cannes or Venice or Toronto and its time on movie screens in America: a good example of the collapsed windows this year was David Cronenberg’s tender yet acidulous “Crimes Of The Future,” which debuted at Cannes on May 23 and was in U.S. theaters the first weekend of June. It grossed $3.5 million theatrically, but the digital stream began, almost with advance notice, a $20 video-on-demand release on June 21. We won’t see it quite that obviously in every case, but every distributor has a succession of triggers they’re waiting to pull. (The latest release variation by the studio was an online premiere of first-time director Owen Kline’s debut film, “Funny Pages,” a coming-of-age story of a teenage cartoonist, which was available to stream for one day only in the A24 Screening Room, the night before its August 26 theatrical opening.)
There are smaller distributors, which include Variance Films, the key partner behind the distribution of Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Oscar-winning “Drive My Car” (a Sideshow release in association with Janus Films, grossing $2.3 million) and S. S. Rajamouli’s crazily dynamic Indian action epic of revolutionary zeal, “RRR” (over $11 million in the U. S. of its international $100 million take).
“Nobody knows anything” is the bromide from ace screenwriter William Goldman that gets applied to just about any element of the film industry, and it could be tweaked to “nobody knows anything about what that other company’s bright middle-aged things have figured out.”
I like to imagine a war room that’s just white boards after white boards, with intermittent Post-its: a smaller rendition of a vast wall of physics equations from a Coen brothers movie (X +$$$ + WHY NOT = oh-oh, digital 4 weeks early).
So many whiteboards, so many little movies waiting to shine, and distributors with plans to make dimes toward accruing dollars, and perhaps after a few years or a decade of work, finding a life’s reward beyond the love of bright, headstrong movies.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His multimedia history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” will be published soon. Previews of the project are on Twitter and on Instagram as Ghost Signs Chicago. More photography on Instagram.