In recent years, the recession and the concurrent rise of VOD streaming services have already torpedoed the midbudget movie. Suddenly, in order to be financially viable, a project has to cost less than $2 million or more than $200 million. Anything in between is dead in the water. Many of the country’s most vital filmmakers, unwilling to accept that their next movie would have to be either shot on an iPhone or connected to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, have begun to abandon ship. Steven Soderbergh “retired.” Spike Lee turned to Kickstarter. Steven Spielberg publicly predicted the implosion of the film industry, which is sort of like God telling you to brace for rain.
Meanwhile, A24 has already been building an ark. At a time when young people are increasingly going to the movies only for blockbuster spectacle, A24 has established itself as the film industry’s most forward-thinking company by releasing the kind of midsized, stylish, quality films that seemed on the verge of going extinct, transforming them into a collective theatrical experience, and aiming them squarely at a demographic that would rather watch movies on their phones. It’s not remarkable that A24 had set such a goal—it’s remarkable that the company is accomplishing it. By surgically inserting each release into the zeitgeist, it has paved a new road for provocative, modestly sized cinema, bridging the gap between microbudget indies and monolithic studio products in much the same way Italy’s Autostrada A24 connects Rome to Teramo. As Korine told Rolling Stone: “I want to do the most radical work, but put it out in the most commercial way.” A24 just took him up on it.
Other similarly sized outfits tend to flood the flooded marketplace with a steady barrage of quality independent and foreign fare in a way that can feel indiscriminate: Send the DCPs to Film Forum and let God sort ’em out. IFC earned a raft of Oscar nominations when it decided to put its muscle behind Boyhood and transform it into a phenomenon, but dumping all of its eggs into one beautifully textured basket helped to underline the paucity of love that most indies receive from their distributors, who ferry them from festivals to home video with all the solemn purpose of Charon taking passengers across the river Styx. Other indie labels, like Megan Ellison’s Annapurna Pictures (which co-produced Spring Breakers), tend to go in the other direction, releasing a minuscule handful of movies into the currents of Oscar season in the hopes that the waters will carry them toward a crowd. (Joy, Annapurna’s only 2015 title, arrives in theaters on Christmas Day.)
But A24 has the money to acquire a steady slate of releases, the model to support them, and the chutzpah to make nearly each one into a mini-phenomenon. In the last 18 months alone, along with Room and The End of the Tour, it has pioneered the abortion comedy with Obvious Child, scored a commercial hit with the seductive thriller Ex Machina, released one of the most daring science fiction films this side of 2001 in Under the Skin, and driven the most lucrative documentary in years with Asif Kapadia’s Amy Winehouse portrait, Amy. Next year they’ll re-team with While We’re Young director Noah Baumbach on his brilliant doc about Brian De Palma, distribute one of the best horror films since The Shining, and release the first of the films they’ve financed themselves. The company has laid the groundwork to evolve from just another upstart distribution label into a multiheaded ministudio capable of developing its own content—and so far they’ve done it by releasing movies that tend to earn more cultural cachet than they do money.