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Highway to Film Coolness: A24's Roadmap to Art House Domination

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The New York-based film distribution and production company A24 is celebrating its 11th anniversary with a Hollywood milestone: sweeping the Academy Awards. Everything Everywhere All At Once (The Daniels, 2022) won seven Oscars out of eleven nominations, including Best Picture. It got its first Best Picture Oscar years ago with Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, 2017), but EEAAO has a larger pop culture footprint. Add another statuette to the tally, with Brendan Fraser taking Best Actor in a Lead Role for The Whale (Darren Aronofsky, 2022). Not too shabby for a small outlet that prides itself in concentrating on cutting-edge, low-budget cinema.  

The comeback kid: Fraser brought A24 the Best Actor in a Leading Role Oscar for "The Whale". / Photo courtesy of A24.

The comeback kid: Fraser brought A24 the Best Actor in a Leading Role Oscar for "The Whale". / Photo courtesy of A24.

It All Began On The Road

Legend has it - OK, their Wikipedia page tells it - cofounder Daniel Katz baptized the company while driving over an Italian highway called Autostrada A24. Their first release came in 2012: A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charlie Swan III, a Roman Coppola comedy with Charlie Sheen, Jason Schwartzman, Patricia Arquette, and Audrey Plaza. It hardly made a dent, but it fits the formula they would drive to notoriety: idiosyncratic movies for the cool kids.

The lukewarm reception to their first movie worked in their favor, proving they were not afraid to take risks to support talent. Coppola was hardly a neophyte. Son of Francis Ford and brother of Sofia, he had a long list of credits directing music videos, commercials, TV series episodes, and a feature film debut, CQ (2001). The behind-the-scenes comedy contemplated a young director (Jeremy Davis) having a romantic meltdown while shooting a cheesy sci-fi movie in 60s Paris. It does sound like an A24 production years before such a thing was possible.

Indie Darlings Beckon The Movie Buffs

Public and critical recognition came soon enough, with the one-two punch of The Bling Ring (Sofia Coppola, 2013) opening up at the Cannes Film Festival and Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine, 2013) at the Venice Film Festival. The movies did not ignite the box office but gathered good reviews and a cult following. Breakers also gave Selena Gomez a chance to gain credibility in adult roles ten years before the success of Hulu's Only Murders in The Building.

Since then, over 130 films have been released under the A24 label in pursuit of the best indie movies ever. Movie buffs of a certain age will get flashbacks to the early '90s when Miramax set the blueprint for indie cool and marked the trajectory A24 would follow: to distribute and produce fare the overcautious studios would not touch with a pole. They bought Sex Lies and Videotapes (Steven Soderbergh, 1989) at Sundance and pushed Quentin Tarantino to an Oscar with Pulp Fiction (1994).

Alas, Harvey and Bob Weinstein were suckers for recognition by the status quo and eventually gravitated to product conversant with older, conservative audiences. Think The English Patient (Anthony Minghella, 1996) and Shakespeare in Love (John Madden, 1998), which, sure enough, struck gold at the Oscars and pleased stodgier audiences. Here is where A24 parts with the Miramax playbook. Their British period piece is The Green Knight (David Lowery, 2021), a nightmarish take on Arthurian legend featuring handjobs and murderous specters. EEAAO is their Pulp Fiction, a mind-bending critical box-office success that taps into the cultural moment. If the old guard wants to get on board, they must know there will not be any concession to their sensibilities.

Dev Patel plays Gawain in "The Green Knight", an Arthurian legend that would give old-timers the vapors. / Photo courtesy of A24.

Dev Patel plays Gawain in "The Green Knight", an Arthurian legend that would give old-timers the vapors. / Photo courtesy of A24.

Miramax jumpstarted a gold rush, with new companies popping up like mushrooms in the wild. Eventually, big studios got into the game, founding their outlets or buying fashionable labels, killing their mystique. It is easy to point fingers at big corporations, but this is a process that Weinstein himself set out for his company. In 1993, Disney bought Miramax for 60 million dollars, covering debts of $40 million. The Weinsteins remained at the helm, but things were not the same. Disney blackballed riskier fare, like Kids (Larry Clark, 1995). Weinstein had to create Shining Excalibur Films, a new company whose sole purpose was to release the film.

The Post-Miramax Era

By 2010, the revolution was dead. Disney sold out Miramax to an investment group. Its film library was more valuable than any new movie it could come up with. Since then, the label has changed hands and whiter away, an empty shell of its former self. The big studios downsized or downright closed their indie arms as Marvel grew and took up all the air in the room - and the screens at the theaters. There was a vacuum that A24 came up to fill. In the same orbit, we now find Annapurna and Neon.

Will the indie revolution be co-opted once again? It is hard to say. So far, A24 has evaded the sirens' calls that drove Miramax to perdition. They won their Best Picture Oscars with modestly budgeted movies that did not pander to the most conservative members of the Academy. This year, they will release their most expensive film, Beau is Afraid, with a budget reported at 55 million dollars. The talent involved points to a hit: director Ari Aster is well-established as a horror auteur after Hereditary (2018) and Midsommar (2019), branching out into Charlie Kaufman-esque comedy. Oscar-winner Joaquin Phoenix will bring in the swells. Young audiences come through savvy social media campaigning. They know how to play that game: their Twitter feed has 1.8 million followers; Instagram clocks in at 1.7 million.

They are also more conservative at expanding their brand. In its heyday, Miramax went into publishing, putting out Talk magazine (1998 - 2002), a glossy Vanity Fair wanna-be. A24's outreach is less risky, fashioning itself as a lifestyle brand. Its online store features the usual paraphernalia related to its films: script books, soundtracks, and home video releases sold at premium prices. There is also apparel, housewares, and packing tape. Yes, packing tape. Other non-movie-related items include a hipster travel guide about Florida. As branching out goes, this is very conservative.

Lifestyle of The Rich & Indie Famous

If you go looking for chinks in the armor, take a look at the prices. It is not very cool to shell out 40 bucks for a candle that claims to smell like film noir. Then again, it seems to be working. If you want a reproduction of the butt plug trophy featured in EEAAO, you are out of luck. It is sold out, even at a listed price of $60. You can humor yourself by buying a pair of Hot Dog fingers gloves for 36 dollars. If anybody is going to sell out the revolution, it will be the revolutionaries themselves. Miramax missed out by not peddling Gimp leather masks or Fruit Brute cereal.

Reports of behind-the-scenes misbehavior are more troubling. The third season production of Euphoria, their Emmy-winning series, is marred by reports of a chaotic set and complaints from female actors about explicit sex scenes. This is far from Harvey Weinstein's serial sexual depredation. Still, in the Me Too" era, with increased concern for safe working conditions for artists and technicians, companies need to be more proactive at protecting their staff. It can turn into a problem that tarnishes the brand.

Bad romance: Joe Alwyn and Margaret Qualley get down in "The Stars at Noon". / Photo courtesy of A24.

Bad romance: Joe Alwyn and Margaret Qualley get down in "The Stars at Noon". / Photo courtesy of A24.

Talent may pause their release strategies. In February 2022, A24 signed for US distribution rights of Claire Denis’ The Stars at Noon. It won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival two months later. A long-time critical darling, Denis had a signature year. She also premiered Both Sides of the Blade, a scorching romantic drama with Juliette Binoche and Vincent Lindon. Sight & Sound marked her Beau Trail (1999) at number seven in the 2022 Greatest Film of All Time poll.

If you want to add some star power, the movie features a career-best performance from Margaret Qualley. Alas, come the release date, it got unceremoniously dumped in a limited theatrical run before hitting streaming services. At moments like this, one remembers that for all its cachet, A24 is a business enterprise, not just a promoter of cinema. This is no way to treat a Claire Denis movie! I take it personally for a very good reason. 

But then again, that is true of every studio and distributor. Now excuse me while I stream Tindersticks' lovely Stars at Noon soundtrack. A24 - nor anybody else, for that matter - bothered to edit a CD, a vinyl, or even a tape of it. That is so uncool.

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