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Film & TV

How A24 are slowly changing Hollywood

A history of how the US indie distributors made their mark with films like Moonlight, Ex Machina and The Disaster Artist

Hollywood is undergoing a major transition. Amidst the golden age of television, cinema has similarly followed suit with the muscular Marvel adopting an episodic approach with each instalment of its Cinematic Universe. The likes of DC and Lucasfilm’s Star Wars have attempted to emulate this with mixed results. Elsewhere, Hollywood is haunted by the downfall of Harvey Weinstein and the litany of sexual misconduct allegations brought against some of the industry’s biggest players. With that in mind, it feels like there’s some space for something a little edgier to claim Weinstein’s place during these turbulent times.

A24 garnered interest early on as they managed to recruit Bill Murray, Patricia Arquette and Charlie Sheen for their debut film in 2013, the Roman Coppola-helmed A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III. The film was panned by critics but the attraction of such established talent for a debut production showed that A24 held more promise than your average indie distributor. A24 learned from their first production, releasing the well received Spring Breakers and The Bling Ring later that year, with the latter directed by Roman Coppola’s younger sister, Sofia of Lost in Translation fame.

“Absurdity is clearly a valuable commodity in the land of A24.”

In the following years, A24 have built a reputation as advocates of refreshing, off-kilter cinema. A24 opened 2014 with Enemy, Under the Skin, and Locke, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Scarlett Johansson and Tom Hardy respectively. The increasing scope of A24’s projects showed an ambition and willingness to grow into new, intriguing corners of cinema whilst others traced over familiar tropes.

Despite a number of critical and moderately commercial successes, 2015 proved to be the distributor’s major breakthrough year. Three of the year’s releases, Amy, Ex Machina, and Room, received seven Academy Award nominations, winning three. 2016 would provide a greater triumph; Moonlight took home three Oscars from eight nominations, including Best Picture. If they hadn’t already, A24 had now graduated to the most dizzying of echelons in mainstream cinema.

As is the case with Moonlight, and so many other of A24’s distributions, there is a strong, distinct flavour that is noticeably different to the arthouse fare that bubbles to the surface of the independent scene. In Swiss Army Man, Daniel Radcliffe portrays a corpse. In The Lobster single people have just 45 days to find a partner before being turned into animals. And in The Disaster Artist, James Franco is given the space and time to transform Tommy Wiseau from a cultish clown into the most humane of cinematic icons. Absurdity is clearly a valuable commodity in the land of A24. The space for filmmakers to expand on the distinct aspects of their stories creates an enduring appeal, especially whilst the bigger production companies continue to constrict those visions and contort them to fit the blander specifications of popular cinema.

“In twenty years time we won’t still be talking about the latest superhero film or throwaway grossout comedy; we’ll be talking about the films with sharp edges and panache, the films that challenge and reshape our definition of good cinema.”

But even as A24 provide a pliable antidote to the paint-by-numbers, bulky budget releases, they have also helped to introduce us to some of the now established and emerging talent in modern cinema. Ex Machina gave Oscar winner and current Lara Croft Alicia Vikander her breakthrough and Lady Bird garnered Greta Gerwig the first female Best Director nomination at the Academy Awards since Kathryn Bigelow won for The Hurt Locker in 2009. And with debutant Ari Aster’s Hereditary already being hailed as this year’s Get Out and Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade wooing critics, A24 looks to have introduced us to yet more emerging talent and some early Oscar frontrunners.

I think we’re all partial to the appeals of popcorn cinema, but in twenty years time we won’t still be talking about the latest superhero film or throwaway grossout comedy; we’ll be talking about the films with sharp edges and panache, the films that challenge and reshape our definition of good cinema. As is the case with many A24 productions, the desires of the artist are put first. Crucially this allows the studio to play on the weirdness of its concept for its marketing, as it did brilliantly with Ex Machina‘s Tinder trolling and Swiss Army Man‘s Daniel Radcliffe ‘body double’.

But as blockbuster cinema continues to flourish and streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video asphyxiate arthouse theatres, A24’s promising future may not be as solid as it looks. But as fellow indie stalwarts Blumhouse and Annapurna show, the market, for now, is still thriving. Blumhouse, the production team behind Get Out and Whiplash, posted an income over $700 million last year whilst Annapurna have managed to win major awards for films such as Her, Zero Dark Thirty and Phantom Thread whilst simultaneously posting nine-figure gross incomes for a number of its projects. A24 is at a crossroads where it can either fade in with the rest or continue deploying its unique guerrilla tactics. As trends continue to fluctuate randomly it might be tempting to merge into bigger production studios in order to stay afloat but for the sake of its values, one hopes that they continue to battle against the crest of the wave no matter how all-consuming it may seem.

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