Indie studio breaks the rules of Hollywood
 
INDIE STUDIO: Actors and films from A24: Alex Hibbert, left, and Mahershala Ali in "Moonlight," clockwise from top left; Millie Shapiro in "Hereditary"; Florence Pugh and Jack Reynor in "Midsomma"; and Diana Lin and Awkwafina in "The Farewell."  David Bornfriend, A24, Gabor Kotschy

Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, known collectively as the Daniels, made a movie about a farting corpse. In it, the body washes ashore an island, deserted but for a lone, desperate man. He befriends the corpse, whose flatulence allows the man to ride the cadaver like a Jet Ski. The writer-directors called their peculiar picture "Swiss Army Man."

It premiered at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival to quizzical reactions and tweeted reports that "everyone was leaving our movie," Kwan recalled over the phone. The Daniels wound up with a "lowball" distribution offer from Netflix, Kwan said, while other distributors didn't even bother. Then came A24, the New York-based company whose head of acquisitions and production, Noah Sacco, "just believed in the movie."

Scheinert chimed in: "What did Noah say? He said he would jump out of a window if we didn't go with them. We were like, that's too much, this guy is almost scary. He seems too excited."

It's with this "almost scary" level of passion that A24 – which was founded seven years ago this month by industry veterans Daniel Katz, David Fenkel and John Hodges – is willing to take risks, according to filmmakers who have worked with the indie entertainment company. It made waves in Hollywood distributing Harmony Korine's raunchy "Spring Breakers" in 2013, but really carved out a place for itself four years later with Barry Jenkins's surprise Oscar winner "Moonlight." In a rather short period, A24 films became some of the trendiest players in an industry increasingly smothered by media conglomerates.

For a business as flashy as this one, distributors can be quite invisible, and yet the production logo for A24, a relatively tiny company, carries cultural weight; one filmmaker describes it as a stamp of approval. The logo precedes all sorts of projects: coming-of-age tales such as "Lady Bird," "Eighth Grade" and "American Honey"; horror-thrillers such as "The Witch," "Hereditary" and "The Killing of a Sacred Deer"; and grief-stricken character studies such as "A Ghost Story," "First Reformed" and "Room." Last month, Ari Aster's folksy nail-biter "Midsommar" and Lulu Wang's family drama "The Farewell" joined the club.

A24's catalogue varies in genre and style, yet its films share an elusive unifying quality.

"The biggest thing that stood out to me – and why I was so ready to make 'Moonlight' – was that I always felt you could feel the filmmakers' voices in their films," Jenkins said. "That's why everyone says, 'I know what an A24 film is, but no A24 film is like any other."

"Moonlight" was the first movie A24 financed on its own, marking the company's transition from indie distributor to full-fledged art house studio. Jenkins is not clear on why it chose him to helm its first in-house production, or how it got ahold of his script in the first place – "they're like ninjas, man, they just read everything" – but he knew it was important to find a backer that would allow him to stay true to the story, which drew from his upbringing and from a semi-autobiographical play by Tarell Alvin McCraney.

"If I told you I was opening a Hollywood studio and the first film I was going to put my money into was going to be a triptych film about a gay black boy whose mom was addicted to drugs, made by a filmmaker who's only made one film for $15,000, would you say, 'Yes, that sounds like an awesome idea?' Probably not," Jenkins said. "But these people did."

The final product – set in Liberty City, the majority-black neighborhood of Miami where Jenkins and McCraney both grew up – compromises on little. The director remembers feeling apprehensive before showing A24 executives a cut of the opening sequence, in which Boris Gardiner's song "Every N----- is a Star" fades into a naturalistic conversation between drug dealers. The scene cuts to the young protagonist running away from bullies who pelt him with homophobic slurs, a stark contrast from the dealers' relaxed tones.

Part of the reason Jenkins began the film this way was to ensure audiences understood the language and dynamics of the setting, but he worried the execs would find it to be "too much." Instead, he said, "They were like, 'Alright, cool, go with God.'"

The studio affords filmmakers a certain level of autonomy, added David Lowery, who directed the A24 release "A Ghost Story" fresh off working with Disney on 2016's "Pete's Dragon." The industry behemoth is known for having a tight grip on projects – consider Lucasfilm, a Disney subsidiary, firing Phil Lord and Christopher Miller over "creative differences" for 2018's "Solo: A Star Wars Story" – and, while he had a great experience, Lowery admits to constantly worrying what 7-year-olds, their parents and Disney shareholders would think.

The director is working with A24 on the fantasy epic "Green Knight," a film based on a 14th-century poem he read in college that he "didn't think anyone in a million years would finance because of its weirdness." A24 did, however, earning Lowery a spot in the two-timers club, of which Ari Aster is also a member.

Aster first met Sacco, A24's head of acquisitions and production, several years ago, when Sacco told him the company would be interested in working with him in the future, but that it wasn't financing projects just yet.

Struggling filmmakers know not to make too much of vague promises, Aster said, but in this case, "it turned out to be true."

Critics have described his thrillers, which were both produced and distributed by A24, as tormenting and deranged, but enthralling all the while. Each one begins with unspeakable tragedy – a child's visceral death in "Hereditary," a mentally ill teenager's murder-suicide in "Midsommar" – and culminates in a disturbing, fiery end. The folks at the studio are happy to provide feedback, Aster explained, but they don't "mess with the DNA of a film."

The A24 house style is that there is no house style. These movies are designed to push buttons and/or boundaries as each filmmaker sees fit, resulting in projects that are sometimes outwardly risky and at other times deceptively so. For Aster, this meant leaning into his "strange and dark and weird" ideas. For Lowery, it meant telling a tale of love and loss featuring a recently deceased man wandering under a bedsheet for most of the film, and a five-minute take of the man's bereft widow scarfing down an entire chocolate pie.

"Every movie they make has a very acute and at times ferocious sense of perspective," Lowery said of the studio. "They have not put out a movie that feels anonymous."

It made perfect sense that Bo Burnham made the authentically cringey "Eighth Grade," which he describes as an "R-rated movie about an eighth-grader." While a generation older than the protagonist, Burnham, a comedian who found fame on YouTube, can relate to the anxiety symptomatic of growing up in the digital era.

Going into the project, Burnham had a "secret hope in the back of my mind that some production infrastructure would be dropped in my lap from A24 that just churned out a good movie," he said. But a "big part of what they did was (remain) very hands-off. You realize, 'Oh, they're giving you the rope to either tie a ladder or make a noose for yourself.'"

It took Lulu Wang a few years to find financiers who would bend to her vision for "The Farewell," an intimate autobiographical film about saying goodbye to her terminally ill grandmother in China. When it premiered at Sundance earlier this year, distributors approached Wang right away, including a streaming service with a rather hefty offer.

After mulling it over, Wang and her fellow producers chose A24, even though it offered a fraction of the money. The team didn't promise the world, Wang said, but recognized the grass-roots campaigning films by lesser-known directors tend to require.

"They can create community and a brand around that filmmaker, and they're one of the only companies that can do that," Wang said. "So many other companies, particularly streaming companies, are wonderful in terms of the access they have. But when you put a small fish like this film, like me, into this wide ocean of content, we get lost, you know?"

Augustine Frizzell, whose debut feature "Never Goin' Back" was acquired after Sundance last year, said landing an A24 deal for her female-driven romp was a "dream come true." (She also directed the first episode of HBO's "Euphoria," one of the studio's forays into television.)

"They definitely invest in filmmakers," Frizzell said. "There's something about them collaborating with new filmmakers that does both parties a service. For me, having A24 back me was like a stamp of approval, and that's a huge thing to give to someone just starting out. ... For them, they get to be a part of the team that brings these filmmakers up. They're responsible for so many, and it wins them a certain level of credibility."

Like any young company, A24 has made missteps. For example, it somewhat bungled the release of David Robert Mitchell's experimental "Under the Silver Lake" by delaying the theatrical date twice and, in the end, unceremoniously dumping it onto video-on-demand. But the studio's overall brand, bolstered by its evocative films and the unusual ways in which many of them are promoted, has made enough of a cultural impact to set it apart from competitors such as Annapurna Pictures or Fox Searchlight.

To promote Alex Garland's sci-fi thriller "Ex Machina," for instance, A24 created a Tinder profile for the humanoid robot character that captured the film's central theme of technological terror. For "A Ghost Story," it created an immersive space in New York where visitors could try on a bedsheet like the deceased main character's. Lowery said the space seemed silly at first, but it wound up a "transcendental" experience - much like how it feels to watch the movie itself.

With "Hereditary," even the trailer became part of the viewing experience. Aster and A24's marketing team agreed to push it as a "creepy kid movie" by making the daughter, who dies early on, seem like a central character so viewers would enter the theater with little knowledge of how the movie would almost immediately fall out from under their feet.

"If they were not on the same page with me about that, 'Hereditary' would have been a completely different film," Aster said. "I feel the way they pushed that film really set it up to play as successfully as possible with audiences, and to really do its thing."

A24 executives declined to be interviewed for this story; they have increasingly preferred to let their films and marketing campaigns speak for them – a strategy that seems to be quite successful. Perhaps thanks to its playful social media tactics, A24 has a presence in the wackiest corners of the Internet, an unusual feat for companies of its kind. How many studios can you name that have been memefied? (A popular tweet that spurred others once joked that Lucas Hedges and Timothée Chalamet, "Lady Bird" co-stars who have each appeared in multiple A24 projects, were locked in the company's basement.)

Kwan, of the Daniels, notes that A24 gravitates toward movies that make sense for the personality-driven digital age, filling a gap left by what he considers to be more risk-averse indie studios from the 2000s into the early 2010s: "The Internet was getting weird," he said of that time. "Things were getting weirder, but the films weren't reflecting that."

Films like "Midsommar" surely do, which A24 promoted in part by creating a '90s-esque commercial for a "Bear in a Cage" toy, which is remarkably twisted if you've seen the film. The distributor's online store (which, yes, exists) sells other products, too – zines, movie-themed clothing, genre-scented candles – that, according to Jenkins, the "Moonlight" director, capture the essence of the idiosyncratic brand without making "any damn sense." These sweatshirts and candles aren't designed to drive commerce, he explained. Much like the produced and acquired films, they're instead driven by the enthusiasm of A24 employees.

It's an odd venture for an indie studio, but that's how things are done around these parts.

"I could see them getting out of the film business entirely and just opening a bunch of cinema cafes," Jenkins said. "Which would be the most random thing in the world, but they are a random ass company. That's for the better."

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