To all the painfully expensive Venice Blvd. Dwayne Johnson HOBBES AND SHAW billboards inundating helpless drivers caught in traffic on their way home hopelessly lost in an urban sea of shallow material obsession forcing said drivers to look not up to the sky but down at their cellphones only to result in rear-end collisions driving up insurance rates and adding to the misery of driving in Los Angeles, take notes.
Thanks to Netflix and the subsequent endless onslaught and validation of streaming media, the traditional American box office is at a crossroads. On paper as a simple bottom line, both the American and international box offices are more profitable than ever before. However, though 2018 brought in the most ticket sales revenue in film history, there are several factors inflating this figure that hide the dire economic conditions of the theatrical film market. This is due to the number of films and average ticket price having increased, while the individual average film gross has steadily decreased in the past five years. At play is a consumer reluctance to go to theaters, leading to a huge disparity and disconnect between massive budget blockbusters and low-mid budget films now relegated to the indie film circuit. The unavoidable truth for film studios and distributors is that viewers now would rather simply stay home to watch content provided by a few gargantuan media monoliths (cough, Disney). Hope for the independent feature wholly funded and produced for the sake of artistic expression seems slim. And amidst all this chaos and change is one relatively small-but-mighty independent distributor quietly finding their own way to survive.
A24 began as a bank loan-funded venture of former studio and independent film executives Daniel Katz, David Fenkel, and John Hughes. Each had years of experience seeing film distribution done the traditional way, with lots of micromanagement and compromise to varying results. They set out to make film possible using different methods, with the common mantra of “there’s gotta be a better way” (Baron). The company sprung up hot on the independent film scene in 2013, as three of their five inaugural releases (Spring Breakers, The Bling Ring, and The Spectacular Now) more than doubled their budgets back at the box office. Before jumping into the A24 model and why they have managed to keep consumer interest in today’s divided media climate where many other independent film distributors have failed to adjust, the context of the industry must be laid out. A24 is the product of a cavern separating the “art” from the “entertainment” in American film, a gap traditional major studios are too tied up in old ways and too caught up with sacred Intellectual Property to mitigate. Decades of changes in the film industry and in media consumption habits serve as the crux of why a company like A24 is necessary.
The economics of filmmaking have undoubtedly changed by the ever-rising star of the blockbuster. From 1975’s Jaws to 2019’s Avengers: Endgame, the primary sell for studios is creating a piece of Intellectual Property that sticks and can drive several avenues for profit just on name brand alone. What this has led to is a shift away from the musicals and melodramas of the 1950s that drew large crowds for their star-talent and songs, towards behemoth franchises with huge stakes, astronomical budgets, and massive icons leading the cast. There’s more money to be made on a box-office smash than ever before today, proven this year as Avengers: Endgame set the new record for highest box office gross (dethroning the seemingly untouchable ten-year king Avatar). Unfortunately, average individual film ticket sales have decreased from $15 million in 2015 to $12 million in 2019. Adding the pessimism surrounding this figure is the fact that ticket prices have only increased year over year, incentivizing more critical consumer selection in choosing what film to go see. To dive into the psychology behind this, I talked with my internship supervisor at Creative Artists Agency.
What he laid out was basically that on both sides of the deal, it’s so much harder for the independent low-mid budget feature to survive in theaters. Studios have far less incentive to release films with unestablished talent or unfamiliar material that may not justify the cost of producing and marketing than if they can release IP based material that markets the concept on its own. The exception to this for studios is Oscar season films, which are released at the end of the year so as to grab the eyes of Academy members before they vote, all in the hopes that the filmmakers and studio will gain further clout and profit from the increased public awareness. This creates a tension between any film that doesn’t fit into an easily packaged box. Adding to the difficulty of getting an indie released and seen in theaters is that the box office faces more competition today than ever before. This brings us to the problem on the consumer side of the deal. There are simply far more options for watching movies, television, short-form videos and social media clips than can be named. Film studios are now not only in competition with their counterparts, but also with every source of media a consumer comes across on a daily basis that keeps eyeballs on a laptop or cell phone instead of a movie screen. The common thought is, why go out to a theater and pay $20 for one movie when you can watch whatever you want whenever you want from the comfort of your couch? Additionally, why take the risk of spending so much on an indie movie you know little about when you could see something whose entertainment value is assured in the form of a superhero/action franchise sequel?
Not helping the plight of the indie film at theaters is the fact that corporate media giants have entered the bidding space alongside independent film distributors. Indie films are most often produced off of the financing of small production companies and are sold at film festivals to the most ideal bidder in terms of price, brand, and opportunity. Festivals like Sundance, Telluride, and Cannes have become platforms for the independent filmmakers to get their art out to the world. Traditionally, distribution companies like Miramax (now defunct essentially), The Weinstein Company (good riddance), Fox Searchlight (now under Disney), and Focus Features (under NBCUniversal) propose fairly similar prices for films that perform well at these festivals. Today however, massively bankrolled companies like Netflix and Amazon come to the table and offer prices independent film distribution companies cannot compete with, which sends these projects to streaming services and away from theaters. So, is there any love out there for a lonely independent feature trying to survive in theaters?
(Courtesy of The New York Times, photo of A24 Founders)
Enter A24. Seemingly the only independent film distributor with its head above water as 2019 comes to a close. And they are doing so without any franchises or high profile historical Oscar-bait pictures to their name. Forgive my simplifications, but instead of going familiar and often unintelligent, A24 bets on the complex and unique. So what separates A24 from the major risk-averse studios and big-betting streamers? What gives you the right to say they’re superior to Dwayne Johnson and his beautiful billboards?
Yes, it would be pretentious and foolish to assume that independent film is objectively superior to major studio produced content. However, what A24 in particular does offer is a diverse set of films made by a diverse set of talented individuals, utilizing the attention economy to hit their target demographic better than any of the studios would with the same films. They don’t even buy low to sell high. They buy low, and sell…different. Instead of playing to indie film’s pretentious reputation, they listen and understand their audience, mostly consisting of 18-35 year olds in major cities. And most importantly, they’ve bet on good taste and creative vision (box office results below courtesy of the-numbers.com)
There’s no clean way to categorize what an A24 film in terms of content beyond that it will be something you most likely haven’t seen before. Several profile pieces in GQ, The New York Times, The Economist, and many other publications have detailed how this studio went from virtually unknown at the beginning of 2013 to indie film royalty in 2019. As mentioned at the top of this piece, the founders of A24 saw the way film distributors took away from the end result of a film by meddling too much. They seek out strong and talented creative voices, buys the distribution rights for often less than $5 million, and in an exercise of trust allows the creators to make and keep the film how they deem best. At the same time, A24 uses data analytics softwares like Operam and “web-focused marketing agencies” to better determine who they should be marketing the movie towards.
A24’s aesthetic quality and distinct designs have built their brand recognition up considerably. They are known for strikingly artistic and subdued posters and color schemes, while they maintain freedom as a genreless studio. They use social media, trailers projected during music festivals, and guerilla campaigns to market their films instead of 50 massive eyesore billboards and ridiculously expensive ads during primetime football. They know their target audience isn’t paying attention to those traditional sources, and they trust that there are smarter and more effective ways to reach them utilizing social media and phones in everyone’s pockets (examples of which below). An example of this would be for their film Ex Machina, A24 started a rogue Tinder profile at the SXSW festival in Austin for one of the film’s characters that slyly drove matches towards the film’s instagram page (Barnes).
(Courtesy of Breakfast at Cinemark’s Blog)
A24’s strength and advantage over other independent film studios is in not trying to play the studio game. They give their audience what no other studio is willing to with individualized content and a direct line to the artists uninterrupted by meddling corporate hands (A24 started their own podcast series where their filmmakers talk craft with each other). In terms of competition, A24’s closest rival was Annapurna Pictures. However, Annapurna played less smart financially and tried to nab prestige by spending large amounts of money on film budgets upwards of $20 million and on releasing films on weekends directly competing with huge blockbusters to show they can compete. Unsurprisingly, Annapurna recently announced that they face bankruptcy or bailout (Sharf).
A24 takes risks creatively, but not so much so financially. Their budgets range from $1-12 million, and they cut down on unnecessary and inefficient marketing costs (especially for indie films) by using social media and guerilla campaigns like the Tinder page rather than billboards and primetime TV advertisements. They know their target demographic likely isn’t watching traditional TV and is more likely to be found on the web. It remains to be seen whether A24 will stay successful in the coming years, as more and more independent films flock to Netflix to survive the thinning of theater audiences. However, they’ve built a solid track record of quality films while allowing the rare opportunity for filmmakers to make what they want how they want (Barnes).
Despite the fact that the company did not exist seven years ago, they already have 25 Academy Award nominations, 6 Academy Award wins (including Best Picture for 2016’s Moonlight), and release nearly as many films a year as each major studio. They have cornered the indie film market, and sneakily found other avenues of profit without appearing as more a corporation than film financier. Their website also functions as a considerable merchandising operation, as they make indie cassette tapes, candles, trinkets, and various other hipster products based off their films (as seen below).
A24 has branched out into comedy specials and television in the past three years to strong results. They remain incredibly tight lipped on their internal workings and financial breakdown apart from box office, so the future of this truly unique brand in the theatrical film market seems entirely in their hands. To deal with consumer desire for streaming media access, A24 struck a profitable deal with Showtime Networks to put their films on Showtime’s streaming service. It seems at each angle, as long as they keep trusting that consumers want unique content, they can continue their model and quietly rewrite the rules of film marketing and what it means to get the incredibly distracted consumer of 2019 into a theater for two hours to experience something new.