From Moonlight to Zola — the rise and rise of indie film studio A24

How much more zeitgeist-tapping can you get than a movie adapted from a viral Twitter thread? Not least one that begins: “Y’all wanna hear a story about why me & this bitch here fell out?”

Zola, a lurid fairy tale/nightmare tale of two strippers on a bizarre weekend trip to Florida, is the kind of movie on which US independent cinema thrives: distinctive, up-to-the-minute, outlandish yet sophisticated, comical yet serious. Its nearest comparisons would be Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, Sean Baker’s The Florida Project and Andrea Arnold’s American Honey. Aside from the fact that they reveal something previously unseen about modern American life, what links all of these films, and many more besides, is the label releasing them.

In less than a decade, A24’s retro black-and-white logo has become a seal of quality for smart, challenging, fresh US cinema — to the extent it could be the sector’s last hope. As well as state-of-the-nation indies such as Zola, A24 has released a succession of awards-friendly dramas: Oscar-winner Moonlight, Lady Bird, Threaten, Room, Eighth Grade, Uncut Gems.

It has also cornered the market in literate, envelope-pushing horror movies such as Hereditary, The Witch, It Comes at Night and A Ghost Story. A24’s next release will continue this lineage: The Green Knight, an earthy, mystical Arthurian fantasia starring Dev Patel.

Toni Collette in ‘Hereditary’ (2018), A24’s most profitable film to date © Alamy

In the process, A24 has nurtured an exciting new generation of American film-makers, many of whom have remained loyal to the brand. Ari Aster, director of Midsummer and Hereditary (the company’s biggest hit: $80m worldwide on a budget of $10m), has two more movies in the A24 pipeline, while The Green Knight is director David Lowery’s third.

These film-makers know and support each other, and they know their cinema. In conversation on A24’s podcast in 2019, Aster and Robert Eggers (The Witch, The Lighthouse) discussed their mutual love of Ingmar Bergman and their favourite aspect ratios. As such, A24 could be seen as a bastion against the pincer movement of big-budget franchise movies and well-resourced streaming platforms that is rapidly swallowing up the industry’s middle ground. It is a strangely contradictory position: cool and cutting-edge but also traditional.

“I think their whole thing’s a bit punk rock,” says Zola director Janicza Bravo. “And I hope it stays that way. My favourite period in film is what came out of the States in the Seventies. I have a romantic idea of what I think was happening then . . . From this vantage point it looks and smells like freedom. A24 feels synonymous with this kind of spirit.”

The company is often compared to Miramax, the dominant label of the 1990s, which had a similar knack for acquiring era-defining indie movies. But there are key differences. For a start, A24 is not run by Harvey Weinstein.

https%3A%2F%2Fd1e00ek4ebabms.cloudfront.net%2Fproduction%2F4a3b6db9 d3c5 47ec b134 3dccf556a178

Director Janicza Bravo with Riley Keough and Taylour Paige on the set of ‘Zola’ © Anna Kooris/A24 Films

https%3A%2F%2Fd1e00ek4ebabms.cloudfront.net%2Fproduction%2F64b4325c 8035 485e 8e52 282a8e4c107a

A24 founders David Fenkel and Daniel Katz © John Sciulli/Getty Images

The company was founded in 2012 by Daniel Katz, David Fenkel and John Hodges (who left in 2018), three friends in New York with backgrounds in film production. Katz led the film finance arm at Guggenheim Partners, which provided a few million dollars in seed money. Named after an Italian motorway, A24 now has more than 100 employees in offices in New York and Los Angeles.

“They’re passionate about film but they’re also incredibly good business people,” says one insider, who suggests their non-Hollywood perspective is an asset. “They saw a way of doing things differently, and decided it was easier to build something from scratch than try to change what was already there.”

Miramax was notorious for its aggressive awards-season campaigning, which generated Oscar hits such as Shakespeare in Love and The English Patient; A24 has taken an altogether smarter approach to marketing.

To promote The Green Knight, for example, the company created a Dungeons & Dragons-style board game, complete with parody TV advertisement. For Zola, it has produced a cloth-bound hardback book of A’Ziah King’s original Twitter thread, with a foreword by Bad Feminist writer Roxane Gay. To promote 2014’s sci-fi Ex Machina it created a fake Tinder profile for the story’s android star, Ava, played by Alicia Vikander. Those who swiped on her were redirected to the movie’s Instagram page.

https%3A%2F%2Fd1e00ek4ebabms.cloudfront.net%2Fproduction%2F321f6383 7065 4acb a7c4 7a867631d19b

Brooklynn Prince and Bria Vinaite in Sean Baker’s ‘The Florida Project’ (2017) © Freestyle Picture Company/Alamy

https%3A%2F%2Fd1e00ek4ebabms.cloudfront.net%2Fproduction%2F6dbda9bc 2407 4b3b a625 818208d6a56b

Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson in Robert Eggers’ ‘The Lighthouse’ (2019) © A24/Alamy

“A lot of people are pretty jealous of them,” a film publicist tells me. “These gimmicks get their movies talked about and get shared on social media, so then they don’t have to spend as much money on advertising.”

Having established itself as a significant player, the question now is how long A24 can keep it up. The pandemic has only exacerbated the parlous situation for cinema. The Green Knight’s release was delayed for more than a year, and its UK release was recently cancelled. Some analysts say box office revenues will take several years to return to pre-Covid levels, if ever.

Meanwhile, streaming platforms are well-resourced and hungry for content. Earlier this month, Variety reported that A24 had been exploring a sale, for a price of $2.5bn to $3bn. The company itself declined to comment but a person close to it insists A24 is not selling. Either way, one anonymous executive asks a pertinent question on any possible sale: “What’s the asset?”

Until recently, A24 was primarily a distributor, which is to say it did not make its own films; it released films produced by others, usually through presale agreements or acquisitions at festivals. In the US it has also distributed foreign-made titles that fit with its brand, such as British horror Saint maud, documentary Amy and Claire Denis’s High Life. As such, it does not fully “own” most of the movies associated with it. Some suggest the company’s real “asset” is its marketing savvy.

Alex Hibbert and Mahershala Ali in Barry Jenkins’ Oscar-winning ‘Moonlight’ (2016) © Alamy

In recent years the company has been transitioning into production. Its first step was a successful one: Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight. Others have followed (Hereditary, Eighth Grade, Uncut Gems), although not everything it touches has turned to gold: an ambitious adaptation of Richard Wright’s novel Native Son received middling reviews and was released in the US only on HBO.

Now A24 produces almost all of its own content, though there are signs it realises it cannot survive either by standing alone or by championing cinema alone. As well as Aster, the company has new movies in the pipeline from the likes of Kelly Reichardt, Darren Aronofsky and Joel Coen — most of them co-productions.

It has also moved into television, producing or co-producing hit series including Euphoria (with HBO) and Framework. And in November 2018, it signed a multiyear deal with Apple to produce content for its streaming platform (the exact terms are unknown). Apple is one of the companies rumoured to be interested in acquiring A24 outright.

Even if the company is not swallowed up whole, its stable of directors might well be picked off by bigger players. The Green Knight director Lowery has already made Pete’s Dragon for Disney and is now working on a reboot of Peter Pan for them.

Whether or not A24 can “save cinema”, the company has shown there is still an appetite for intelligent, edgy movies of the kind Hollywood used to make. It has launched a new generation of film-makers and connected them to a new generation of viewers. But it is probably wise not to get too hung up on the medium in an entertainment landscape where a movie can be consumed on a mobile phone and a Twitter thread can become a movie. The ground is shifting and relatively small players such as A24 will have to shift with it.

‘The Green Knight’ is in US cinemas from July 30, ‘Zola’ is in UK cinemas from August 6

Follow @FTLifeArts on Twitter to find out about our latest stories first

We wish to give thanks to the writer of this post for this outstanding material

From Moonlight to Zola — the rise and rise of indie film studio A24

First Media Marketing