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Upstart Distributor A24 Is Making Indie Films Exciting Again

A24, the studio behind Room, Ex Machina, and Amy, isn’t afraid of taking creative risks.

Upstart Distributor A24 Is Making Indie Films Exciting Again
[Illustration: Komboh]

Ava was beautiful and enjoyed tentative conversations about life and love. When curious brogrammers ran across her Tinder profile at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin last year, they swiped right with gusto. “What makes you human?” she would text, before instructing her suitor to click through to her Instagram feed, which included a video hyping Ex Machina, a chic and heady science-fiction thriller directed by Alex Garland, along with convenient details about the movie’s American debut, at the festival later that weekend.

The men had been catfished. Ava was a bot, designed by Ex Machina’s New York–based distributor, A24, using a photo of the film’s lead, Alicia Vikander. The guerrilla campaign, which took just a month to plan, barely dented the film’s marketing budget but garnered global headlines. After an enthusiastic reception in Austin, Ex Machina opened in limited release and ultimately took in more than $25 million domestically—not bad for a $15 million production with no bankable stars.

In an industry where creative courage is increasingly rare, A24 has made this sort of boldness a hallmark. Taking on about 18 to 20 films annually, the four-year-old indie distributor has earned a reputation for putting out unconventional fare that appeals to literate and artistically adventurous people in their twenties and thirties, whom major studios generally ignore, and employing savvy digital marketing and shrewd release strategies to reach them.

Founders Daniel Katz, David Fenkel, and John Hodges launched A24 in 2012 with a belief that people will pay to see movies with a distinct point of view. Katz had been leading the film finance group at Guggenheim Partners (which provided seed money for A24); Fenkel was running the distributor Oscilloscope Laboratories with the late Beastie Boy Adam Yauch; and Hodges was handling development for Big Beach Films. What they shared was an offbeat sensibility and a willingness to part with Hollywood orthodoxy. “Films didn’t seem as exciting to us as when we started our careers,” Katz says. “And that signaled an opportunity.”

The firm first made waves in 2013 with Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, starring James Franco, which established A24’s playbook. A stylized crime romp about a rowdy vacation that turns sour, the film was essentially a horror flick dressed up as a boozy comedy—not an easy sell. The week of the film’s national release, A24 began a Facebook blitz with a simple post inspired by da Vinci’s Last Supper. There was Franco, in braids and a Hawaiian shirt, flanked by bikini-clad women and goofballs in tanks. A caption—“On Friday, be good. We’re saving you a seat”—sat unobtrusively near the bottom, with a link to purchase tickets. It was an ad that felt nothing like one; the meme went viral, accumulating 20,000 likes. The film, which set per-screen attendance records, ultimately took in $31 million worldwide.

Since then, A24 has scored an indie hit with the abortion comedy Obvious Child and critical acclaim with the writerly road movie The End of the Tour. It has partnered with auteurist directors such as Sofia Coppola and Noah Baumbach. It has purchased quirky scripts attached to A-list stars, including Scarlett Johansson and Jake Gyllenhaal. And to each, A24 has brought an experimental approach to promotion. In the run-up to 2014’s A Most Violent Year, a throwback crime drama, the company won a Webby for its stand-alone blog NYC, 1981, which included archival photos, interviews, and essays about the era to help contextualize the film.

A24 is also canny about how to bring its films to the public, demonstrating a restraint that other mid-level distributors have shed prematurely. For Room, the wrenching story of a captive mother and son, the company rolled out the film across the country slowly, ensuring that word-of-mouth buzz preceded its entrance into a market. “I think a lot of distributors, when they look at these sorts of films, they ask questions,” says Daniel Loria, managing editor of trade publication BoxOffice Media. “A24 starts making decisions.”

Recently the young staff of 40 settled into a new, open-plan loft in New York’s Nomad neighborhood to accommodate the company’s increasing size. And after securing a reported $40 million partnership with DirecTV, A24 has ambitious growth plans. A nascent brand business is helping corporate clients, such as Pepsi, connect with A24’s key constituency. Last fall, NBC aired A24’s first foray into television, The Carmichael Show, a clever multicam sitcom in the Norman Lear tradition. A24 executives are even now speculating when and where they might find their Ocean’s Eleven, a nod to the turnstyle-busting multiplex franchise.

Managing these ambitions may prove the biggest challenge for the young distributor, especially without a studio or corporate conglomerate helping to offset the occasional flop. But A24 has a knack for embracing such challenges. Asif Kapadia, whose Amy was the country’s second-highest-grossing documentary of 2015 at $8 million, can’t wait to work with A24 again: “They chose the right date, they put it on the right screens, they chose the right platform,” he says. “They had an instinct, they followed it, and they were right.”