2014: The Rise of A24 and Drafthouse Films Two Indie Distributors That Are Changing How We Watch Movies

We celebrate the end of the year the only way we know how: through lists, essays, and mixes. Join us as we explore the music and films that helped define the year. More from this series

“Look at my sheeyit,” yells Alien (James Franco) in Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, a film that blows past convention and expectation, and dives straight into the dark side of the booze-fueled phenomenon known as spring break. Brilliantly capturing the culture of YOLO, capitalism, materialism, and pure excess run rampant, the film was a small epic that was not only critically celebrated (and comically misunderstood by some audiences expecting an actual spring break movie filled with nudity and sex), but also a financial boon for its young distributor, A24 Films.

Just a week after Spring Breakers hit theaters, a surreal comedy featuring Jack Plotnick as a suburban man trapped in a web of the surreal and mysterious — the centerpiece of which is the search for his missing dog — was released to a handful of theaters. Directed by Quentin Dupieux (a.k.a. musician Mr. Oizo), Wrong was as strange as any film released in 2013. It didn’t set any financial or attendance records, but it added a new flavor to the previous eight films that the then-fledgling Drafthouse Films had acquired and distributed.

On paper, the two movies seem light years apart: Spring Breakers penetrated the mainstream with a big marketing campaign and celebrity actors and actresses; Wrong, on the other hand, represented a director few had heard of and a narrative (or occasionally lack thereof) quirky enough to keep even the most jaded moviegoer on their toes. But what they shared was backing from two film distributors — A24 and Drafthouse — that have largely defined how we’ve been watching films in 2014.

Creating a Cinematic Brand: A24

A24’s future was far from certain after its first release, 2013’s A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III. Despite having a Coppola attached to the film (director Roman Coppola), a tabloid star (Charlie Sheen), and a cast that would make other filmmakers cry with envy (Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, Katheryn Winnick, and Patricia Arquette), the film struggled critically and financially. But after Sally Potter’s coming-of-age tale Ginger and Rosa (starring Elle Fanning and Alice Englert as the titular characters), A24 launched its defining successes, Spring Breakers and The Bling Ring, films that raked in more than double what it cost to make them, thereby providing the financial wiggle room for its next round of releases. Now, what started out as a pebble in 2013 has become a boulder in 2014, encapsulating a number of genres and styles, with titles like Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin and Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child being released almost every month. Three releases this fall saw dark comedy (Kevin Smith’s Tusk); a quarter-life crisis (because 30 is the new age for a crisis in America) starring Chloë Grace Moretz, Keira Knightley, and Sam Rockwell (Laggies); and a Martin Scorsese-produced crime drama (Revenge of the Green Dragons). The releases scheduled for the rest of 2014 (Atom Egoyan’s The Captive and J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year) also showcase A24’s varied, multi-faceted reach.

But the minds behind A24 are almost as eclectic as its films. Formed in 2012, A24 was the brainchild of three industry veterans: John Hodges, Daniel Katz, and David Fenkel. Hodges came from Big Beach Films (think Little Miss Sunshine) and had previously worked at Focus Features. Katz arrived from Guggenheim Partners, the company involved in financing Zombieland and The Social Network. Fenkel was the former president of Oscilloscope Laboratories. In other words, these are three people involved in the financing, production, and distribution of the full spectrum of independent films. If anyone could strike a balance between finding a wide audience and tapping into the wild, dark, and absurd side of independent cinema — the exciting feeling of watching something new and undiscovered — it would be this pioneering trio. But to release a film as a young, unproven company, one needs an audience.

Enter A24 Marketing 101. A24 promotes its films with trailers, advertisements, and many of the standard methods that have become the staple of film advertising. But it’s also digitally savvy to a degree few companies can claim to be. It uses websites (for example, “Touched Someone,” part of the promotion for Under the Skin) that at first glance don’t seem to have anything to do with a movie, but ultimately relate back to a core theme or message from one of its films. A24’s marketing style is not about casting messages off into a void, hoping someone will read them; it’s dynamic, clever, engaging. It actually makes you think.

This includes A24’s approach to social media. The key to understanding how A24 works and why it is successful can be found in its Twitter feed. Sure, it exists to promote films. Sure, it retweets the best messages from fans enjoying its movies. These are things that every big studio and boring Twitter account does. What’s different about A24 is not just that it has an understanding about who its audience is and where to reach them, but it actually engages them in a way that’s memorable, wacky, and unpredictable, sometimes downright funny. From politics, celebrities, and dancing stick men, to calling out Burger King for lazy promotional tweets, nothing is off limits. And every one of its 17,000 (and growing) followers sees them, enjoys them, and remembers them. The offbeat and the bizarre are part of its brand.

A24’s movies reflect this, too: in an era when the otherwise flavors of choice at most theaters is the bland taste of the mainstream flick, the sequel, and the rehash, A24 brings the aura of the wild, dark, and absurd to the big screen.

Finding Diamonds in the Rough: Drafthouse Films

It was September in Toronto, and the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) had just begun flickering to life on screens across the city. Black SUVs darted from back alleys carrying stars from venue to venue, past the screaming masses desperate to catch a glimpse of someone they had watched on screens big and small. A few blocks away from this chaos — a chaos that could be described as cinematic in its own right — industry types swarmed and buzzed around the corner of Richmond and John streets. It was here where a small group of people stood huddled around, staring at their phones and tablets. To the pedestrians, visitors, and even to many in the throng of industry pouring out from the theater, the group — perhaps a tourist group, perhaps industry types — may not have seemed important, but it was actually composed of people who, like A24, are helping to change how we watch movies, people blazing trails in an industry that has been content with the status quo for so long, but is now entering an era where everything seems up for grabs. In the center of this group was a man named Tim League.

League is a legend of sorts in film circles. He co-founded both Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse Cinema (and is CEO of its growing nationwide franchise operations) and Fantastic Fest, and he now sits firmly at the head of Drafthouse Films. A person involved in this many facets of the industry, especially on the festival-distribution-exhibition side of things, is rare. And while others pontificate about the democratization of filmmaking and distribution, League is open and honest about what a crazy place this new era of cinema really is. Indiewire recently summarized his talk at the Film Independent Forum conference, where League not only laid out what Drafthouse generally spends to acquire films ($0 - $500,000), but also what it takes for filmmakers to even get to that acquisition stage.

Still from Alex van Warmerdam’s “Borgman” (Drafthouse)

Like A24, Drafthouse understands a few things about movies and movie fans that elude many companies trying to broadly market films. Moviegoing should emphasize quality, not quantity, and Drafthouse’s handpicked catalog reflects this. But there is always a degree of comparison, a slight competition that happens every time the words “have you seen [insert any film ever made here]” are uttered between two moviegoers. This holds true whether it is a cult film whispered about and passed down through word of mouth (Drafthouse’s eighth film, Wake in Fright) or a buzzed-about Sundance winner (the 25th Drafthouse release, the not-quite-a-Nick-Cave-documentary, 20,000 Days on Earth). Hell, half the reason film festivals are still thriving is because of this. There are legitimate business reasons for industry folks to watch films before the general public, but we’d be fooling ourselves if we believed every single one of the thousands of people attending a festival like TIFF as industry are doing so purely for business reasons. The people waiting in line for every potential star-studded Oscar film — despite the fact they are surrounded by gems waiting to be discovered behind countless other doors — is a reminder that people, including cinephiles, value being “first.” This holds true for films post-theatrical run, too. Having a movie delivered to your doorstep with the knowledge that you and only a handful of others are able to watch the movie early lends the experience an atmosphere of exclusivity, a dose of VIP in your own home.

We celebrate the end of the year the only way we know how: through lists, essays, and mixes. Join us as we explore the music and films that helped define the year. More from this series

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