With Sofia Coppola’s On the Rocks hitting cinemas and Apple TV+, and Zendaya announced to star in their upcoming Ronnie Spector biopic, we take a look back at the brief, brilliant history of the tastemaking label.
If you’re a dedicated film fan, odds are good that a surprisingly large number of your recent faves all came from the same wellspring. Moonlight? The Witch? Ex Machina? Green Room? Swiss Army Man? Uncut Gems? All distributed or produced by A24.
Since being founded by Daniel Katz, David Fenkel, and John Hodges in 2012, the New York City-based company has enjoyed a meteoric rise, and that trajectory doesn’t seem to be changing any time soon. Flying in the face of the received wisdom that dictates the production strategies of the big studios like Disney, Universal, and Sony, A24’s achievements stem not from the now-orthodox strategy of franchising and remaking existing properties. Rather, their approach harkens back to the ideals that fed the indie boom of the ‘90s and, before that, the ‘70s: find interesting, unique films from talented, idiosyncratic directors and back them to the hilt.
It all started without much fanfare. A24’s first distributed film, Roman Coppola’s A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III, didn’t exactly set the world on fire, but 2013 also saw the release of Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring, James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now, Sally Potter’s Ginger & Rosa and, crucially, Spring Breakers by the gleefully iconoclastic Harmony Korine. Korine’s film was audacious, controversial, and profitable – a win across the board for A24.
However, it was the 2015 success of Alex Garland’s A.I. thriller Ex Machina that stands as the best example of A24’s model, not just in terms of the film itself but the smart marketing that put it on the map at SXSW. Looking for an out-of-the-box way to raise the movie’s profile, A24 hit upon the idea of sticking a bot up on Tinder using star Alicia Vikander’s image. The bot would engage matches in a bit of back and forth before eventually revealing its artificial nature – a smart bit of business when the film you’re selling is a cerebral, moody meditation on the nature of consciousness. It worked a treat; news of the marketing tactic went global, giving Ex Machina a life well beyond what it might have conservatively expected on release.
More than that, though, the entire affair is emblematic of the A24 approach as a whole: a thoughtful, dense, genre film marketed to a savvy, young audience who are down with the intricacies of social media [in youth comedy drama Spontaneous, characters play a game in which they compare their personality to an A24 film).
A24’s fans are, well, fanatic. The company has over 200,000 Facebook followers, which feels about right, but the core fan group, A24 Film Group, boasts 46,000 members who swap memes and argue the merits of Room, A Ghost Story, and Midsommar with serious fervor.
But it wasn’t just film fans that were (and are) enamoured; A24’s output is arguably the most critically acclaimed production slate in recent years, peaking (for now) with Brie Larson’s Best Actress Oscar for Room in 2015, and Moonlight’s Best Picture win in 2016. While no one gets a hundred percent hit rate – there’s not much love for Gus Van Sant’s Sea of Trees, which A24 released in 2016 – the overall quality of the indie’s films is remarkable.
The formula? An aversion to formula. A24’s slate spans genres, from rite of passage dramedies like Lady Bird and Eighth Grade, “elevated” horror such as Hereditary and The Witch, and challenging auteur-driven dramas like Paul Schrader’s scourging First Reformed.
Really, what Fenkel, Katz, and Hodges are engaged in is the ancient art of cool hunting, sifting through the thousands of emerging and independent filmmakers and projects that arise every year, looking for the odd, strikingly idiosyncratic art or artist that might resonate with a discerning cinema audience. In the 21st century that is no easy task; the rise of social media has seen subcultures fragment into geographically diverse but culturally congruent tribes, while mainstream audiences save their cinemagoing dollars for the spectacle of big budget blockbusters. Boiled down to the essentials, the only real tools in A24’s box are taste and enthusiasm, but that’s been enough to carry such filmic oddities as The Lighthouse, The Farewell, and Climax to considerable success. To some degree, A24 cultivates an air of hipster mystique; their films are oblique, challenging, not for the culturally timid, and that hint of exclusivity lends them a certain cultural cache. Elitist? Perhaps, but it’s earned them a loyal following.
This following will no doubt ensure that their upcoming releases find their place in cinematic firmament. Like everyone else, A24’s 2020 plans have been wildly disrupted, with only On the Rocks getting a local release in Australia so far (First Cow and Boys State both got US releases but have yet to see release here). But we do have David Lowery’s mystical fantasy The Green Knight to look forward to, and horror festival favourite Saint Maud, plus the sci-fi drama After Yang, playwright Stephen Karam’s feature debut The Humans, and more.
Auguring the future of the film industry is difficult at the best of times, and nigh-impossible in our current situation, but it’s a safe bet that A24 will be defining the avant garde for some time to come.