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.

This is where Drafthouse Alliance comes in. It’s a membership program that delivers a boatload of goodies, like “limited-edition film swag,” invitations to special events at the Alamo Drafthouse theaters, and digital copies of the distributor’s next 10 releases — even DVD copies if you spring for the more expensive membership (of the two available). In this way, Drafthouse skips the dealer and delivers its potent dose of cinema directly to an audience already addicted to the drug that is independent film. But the genius of this system — aside from obtaining a veritable treasure trove of marketing data about where its fans reside — is that it creates a guaranteed post-theatrical audience. Sure I can get The Act of Killing on DVD from Amazon months after its release or even pick it up in a store. But we live (for better or for worse) in the age of instant gratification, an age where everything is a click away. Even without being a member of the Drafthouse Alliance, I can buy a digital copy of the film direct from the source, bypassing all the middlemen.

This built-in audience is not only attractive to consumers, but also a boon to filmmakers. Any films that Drafthouse picks up will, at the very least, have a theatrical run on the Alamo Drafthouse screens and then be immediately piped into living rooms around the country. This, especially for independent film, is a powerful thing. Think about a film like Katrin Gebbe’s Nothing Bad Can Happen. The German director’s debut film follows Tore — a member of the Christian punk movement — as his life spirals into darkness at the hands of a dysfunctional family. It’s intense, violent, and a very good film. But few theaters outside of the Alamo franchise screened it. For a film like this to have a built-in audience, to know that more people than perhaps ever before in the so-called digital age will be able familiarize themselves with Gebbe’s work and experience a film that calls into question fundamental ideas about human nature and the institutions we built around ourselves, is pretty incredible. Not everyone can go the Shane Carruth (Primer, Upstream Color) route of self-distribution, so having a company that understands and that can actually reach an audience receptive to their film is especially appealing to filmmakers.

Related is the collectability factor. From the playful, colorful, Michel Gondry-directed, Mood Indigo, to the dark and enigmatic Borgman, Drafthouse’s packaging isn’t just “there” to house the DVD; it stands as a work of art in its own right. This is partly why Criterion continues to succeed in a world where our art forms are increasingly dominated by those of the nonmaterial variety. Even though we can stream movies, some people still favor a beautiful Blu-ray, a booklet with historical context, and special features — “actual” special features, not just deleted scenes and a music video — that can’t be found anywhere else, something you can hold in your hand and proudly display. Film stock has never really been collectible to the general public, but by numbering its films and packaging them in a way that calls out how special a single work of cinema really is — that is, by making the films actually feel collectible — Drafthouse is moving beyond being a company that simply catalogs and sells its films as content. Each release screams and yells out to the viewer: This film is incredible, and it deserves to be on your shelf alongside the 32 other equally incredible Drafthouse releases.

A New Era For Curation

Still from Lynn Shelton’s “Laggies” (A24)

But beyond the savvy marketing, beyond tapping into movie fandom in a way few companies could ever hope to, both A24 and Drafthouse represent a bigger shift in the film landscape, something more substantial in an industry that is now flooded with images. We live in a world where over 100 hours of video is uploaded to YouTube every minute. It’s a moment in history that is both exciting and overwhelming, a moment when a curatorial voice is not only helpful, but also necessary to guide us toward what we consider meaningful and significant in our culture. Sure, algorithms can be handy, making everything in our lives quick, easy, and more efficient. Netflix tells me I want to watch more horror movies because I watched and liked You’re Next last week. But I also want my viewpoint expanded, challenged; I want to see new things. This is just one job of a curator. A human touch feels necessary to capture the elements of the new and the different, that unquantifiable concept of discovery. An algorithm can’t fully explain why a movie is important and how it fits into the broader landscape of a time and a place or why it matters in the historical timeline of cinema, art and storytelling.

The Drafthouse approach to curation primarily uses film festivals. Think of it as multiple layers of curation. The big film festivals — TIFF, Sundance, etc. — are the pools from which Drafthouse pulls its collection, the proving grounds for new cinematic talent to emerge. The programmers at film festivals sort through thousands of submissions to come up what the public ultimately views. A team of people from Drafthouse then pore through the list of over 300 films at a festival like TIFF, assembling a hit list for their army of cinematic assassins looking to capture the best, boldest, and most singular voices that the art form produces every year. The first Drafthouse Films release was 2010’s Four Lions, a hit at Sundance, but one that lingered without a distributor well after the festival until Tim League and team swooped in. Ben Wheatley’s psychedelic trip across a 17th-century battlefield, A Field in England, was picked up after critical acclaim in Toronto. And both of Joshua Oppenheimer’s stellar, gut-wrenching documentaries about the atrocities committed in Indonesia throughout the 1960s — The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence — found homes at Drafthouse following their Toronto debuts. The Drafthouse style of curation also pulls from the past, specifically the cult canon, the primary examples being Wake in Fright (1971), Ms. 45 (1981), and Miami Connection (1987). But this doesn’t dull the impact and relevance of the films. Each holds its own and continues to stand as an example of the possibilities of the cinematic medium, each one being a film that stands apart from countless others — past and present — that try to capture the same essence.

On a slightly different but no less important curatorial path is A24. It is the here and now. It is ripped from the headlines, future headlines, and uses familiar faces. A24 does occasionally use the film festival scene to build its catalog — something like Denis Villeneuve’s Freudian-laced tale Enemy is a perfect example — but it also builds its projects from the ground up, which allows it to produce films that stay true to a formula it’s been perfecting and refining since its first film premiered in early 2013. And that formula is this: ensure the movie has at least one star who has recently made the rounds of pop culture (James Franco, Scarlett Johansson) or, even better, someone who may have been doing great acting in smaller films, but was recently featured as an integral part of the cast in a blockbuster (The Dark Knight’s Tom Hardy, Harry Potter’s Domhnall Gleeson). In other words, build off the media, use the afterglow of bigger budget films, and, most of all, stay in tune with who and what is hot, like by attaching new, up-and-coming directors (Alex Garland, David Michod) or established indie names (Sofia Coppola, Kevin Smith) to the films. Drafthouse reaches across genres and countries to find their movies; A24 focuses primarily on English-language films intended to appeal to a broad US audience. When comparing A24 to Drafthouse, then, A24 may seem like the star-studded MGM of old (whose motto was “more stars than there are in heaven”) instead of a startup production/distribution house. But it is simply a different way and a different approach, and A24 has created a formula that’s working well.

There have always been curatorial aspects of the film industry. The negotiation between art and business causes this to happen naturally. But it has never been more important than at this moment in history. Curators are needed to contend with the sheer volume of stories available to choose from. Traditionally, festival programmers passed films to the distributor, or a company produced and distributed a film as a complete process. And this in turn was passed to exhibitors who decided when and what to show (with various strings attached). While this used to be the end of the road, a fork in the road has appeared. Distributors now have a direct line to audiences through direct downloads via their websites, not to mention Netflix and Hulu. Here, the Drafthouse Alliance becomes a curatorial voice. The savvy marketing by A24 becomes a curatorial voice. And exhibitors still continue to be a driving force of curation, not only to those who are free of the mainstream system — those independent theaters willing and able to show films from new distributors — but also by going directly to the film’s sales agent if it doesn’t find distribution in the US.

Essentially, Drafthouse and A24 are experimenting with the best ways to navigate this new landscape of choice. Last year, A24 made a $40 million VOD deal with DirecTV, while Drafthouse opened up five of its titles — A Band Called Death, Wake in Fright, Pieta, Wrong, and Graceland — to Netflix. So far, both have found critical and financial successes to varying degrees. But what’s more important is that others in the industry are beginning to take notice: the defunct distributor Picturehouse was recently revived and released The Guest, a film that targets a similar audience looking for edgy cinema; and Radius-TWC (the more daring, cooler side of The Weinstein Company) just released Horns and The One I Love, both of which would be right at home in A24’s lineup.

With their fresh approach to curation and innovative ways of connecting with audiences, A24 and Drafthouse have not only made 2014 a landmark year for both, but also revived hopes for the film industry’s future. It’ll be interesting to see what happens in 2015 as more follow suit.

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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