Unless you work in Hollywood, it’s unlikely you give much thought to which production studio produces the movies you most enjoy, and if I asked you to name a handful of them, chances are your answers would be limited to the big guys: Universal, Paramount, Sony, et al. If I asked you to name an independent studio, however, things get a little more difficult. Maybe you’d say Blumhouse, but while they certainly started as an independent studio, the level of their success ever since Paranormal Activity became a runaway hit the likes of which hadn’t been since The Blair Witch Project, makes it difficult to think of them as anything other than a major player now.
Which brings us to A24, who, much like Blumhouse, started out rather small and in a ridiculously short stretch of time have grown to become an important and critically lauded studio. However, where Blumhouse has settled into a comfortable minimum budget-maximum return model, A24’s strategy is a bit harder to pin down. One thing that is glaringly apparent from their slate thus far is a complete absence of safety and predictability. And while it’s somewhat typical of a studio head, no matter how big or small, to claim they only make the types of movies they would want to see, that does indeed appear to be the case with A24. You need look no further than the first of their major successes and the movie that put them on the map, Spring Breakers, directed by Harmony Korine, a guy not known for commercially friendly fare, and that’s putting it mildly. It’s hard to fathom then, who thought a foul-mouthed femicentric drug movie directed by a filmmaker arguably better known by the controversy his films incite than the films themselves, was a good bet. And yet, not only is the film the director’s most accessible, it was also well-received and a modest hit at the box office. I liked Spring Breakers just fine, but when I look back on the studio’s filmography, what astonishes me is just how many movies of theirs I saw and enjoyed even more that same year: Enemy, Under the Skin, Locke, and The Rover, the first and last of which I consider classics in their genres (neo-noir and western noir, respectively). And if there’s something all those films have in common, it’s that they’re the type of small, intimate stories no big studio would touch with a bargepole.
While 2014’s lineup wasn’t quite as dazzling, it is notable for what is arguably one of A24’s best films, Ex Machina. But regardless of how many hits the studio had in a given year, it was becoming clear that they were not afraid to take risks. The studio’s name was starting to stick. People were talking. Ex Machina would go on to win an Oscar for Best Visual Effects, and Alicia Vikander should have won one for Best Actress. This was the year I first came to recognize the studio and their output. I started watching for them. Trailers flashing that simple geometric logo at the beginning immediately piqued my interest.
Then, in 2015, A24 released Room, and with it, any doubt as to the studio’s place in the hierarchy of independent cinema went right out the window. To date, Room is the studio’s best film, the combination of all elements coming together perfectly. Perhaps a major studio might have taken a chance on the film and made it just as well, but they didn’t, and A24 reaped the rewards, which by now has become something of an identifier for the outfit. More often than not, their most dangerous choices have proved to be the smartest ones. Brie Larsen earned a well-deserved Oscar for her performance. Young Jacob Tremblay didn’t, though he deserved one just as much. Room was a major success, and surely for a still-growing company, one success a year would have been enough. But A24 were far from done. Next came The Witch (stylized as The VVitch), an exceptionally well-told and unnerving supernatural folk-tale that blew audiences away and became an unexpected hit. It was followed by Green Room, celebrated indie auteur Jeremy Saulnier’s follow-up to the terrific Blue Ruin. And while this grim story of a punk rock band’s ill-fated encounter with a group of neo-Nazis was not a big hit and was overshadowed by beloved young actor Anton Yelchin’s tragic and untimely death, critics adored it.
A24 ended the year with a trio of curiosities: The Lobster, a bizarre love story centered around a group of single people who have 45 days to find a partner or be turned into animals; De Palma, an excellent candid documentary about the titular director, which immediately leaves one with the desire to revisit his entire oeuvre; and the strangely wonderful Swiss Army Man, starring Daniel Radcliffe as a corpse who washes up on a beach just in time to give a suicidal man pause. It would be hyperbole to claim that only A24 can put out these kinds of movies. That’s simply not the case. It doesn’t, however, alter the fact that right now, they are the only studio who is releasing them, and they’re doing so in a way that the average person on the street doesn’t have to seek them out in an arthouse theater.
In 2016, as has become customary by now, several of the studio’s films flew under the radar, a fact ameliorated by the Oscar buzz for the exceptional love story, Moonlight, and the wonderful Annette Benning fronted 20th Century Women. These contenders aside, one of the films that impressed me the most, and received little attention, was The Monster, which bore a career-best turn from Zoe Kazan as an alcoholic mother forced to protect her estranged daughter from something in the woods.
Which brings us to this year, and it should come as no surprise to anyone that a number of the films on A24’s slate already have fierce festival buzz around them. Which is not to say that every one of them will be a hit, or the next Room or The Witch. And there’s no guarantee that all of these films will work. That’s not, after all, how the fortunes of any studio works. What I do know just from reading the reviews of films like A Ghost Story, is that whatever A24 has for us this year and going forward as they gain traction, not just in the film world, but in television too, is that at the very least, the results will not be easy to ignore.
They may not always be an indicator of perfection, but they certainly corner the market on daring, and that’s something the discerning filmgoer should celebrate.
Kealan Patrick Burke is the Bram Stoker Award-winning author of The Turtle Boy, Kin, and Sour Candy. A number of his stories have been optioned for film. Visit him on the web at www.kealanpatrickburke.com