The surprise Best Picture win for Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight” on Sunday represents a victory for independent cinema; a triumph for queer stories broaching the mainstream; a needed rebuttal to the #OscarsSoWhite controversy that plagued the Academy for two years running; a hell of a surprise to cap off an otherwise predictable show.
For industry heads, it also signaled the arrival of the four-year-old New York-based indie distributor A24.
After all, this is the upstart distribution label popular among the art house crowd for quirky, eccentric features like Harmony Korine’s oddball teen caper “Spring Breakers” — a 2013 release that grossed $14.1 million and became the company’s first big hit.
Last year, A24 scored several major box office successes. “The Witch,” Robert Eggers’ critically acclaimed period horror film, earning over $40 million worldwide on a shoestring budget of $3 million. “The Lobster,” Yorgos Lanthimos’ Cannes favorite, also made back its budget and netted an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay.
But the success of “Moonlight,” the first film the company has financed itself, shocked industry watchers. After all, Jenkins hadn’t directed a film since 2008’s little-seen indie “Medicine for Melancholy,” and the cast was fronted by mostly unknowns, save for “House of Cards” star Mahershala Ali and music superstar Janelle Monae.
Despite a unique three-part structure a focus on the coming-of-age of a young gay African-American man, Jenkins’ $1.6 million film has grossed $22 million to date.
Thanks to its three Oscar victories, the movie expands to 1,500 screens this weekend — a major number for an independent film.
That’s quite an accomplishment for A24, which was founded in August 2012 by Daniel Katz, John Hodges and David Fenkel and has nurtured its cool-kid status by not playing by the books. (Executives for the company declined to comment for this story.)
The company first established itself with “Spring Breakers,” titillating audiences with a provocative ad campaign that toyed with Selena Gomez’s (at the time) good-girl reputation.
Most importantly, the film also resonated with critics, with James Franco’s supporting performance as a drug dealer getting buzz as a potential awards player. That never materialized, but the groundwork was set.
By sticking to unconventional fare geared towards a left-leaning market under-served by mainstream movies, A24 seemed poised to stand out — much in the same way Miramax did in the ’90s with “Pulp Fiction,” “The Crying Game” and “Trainspotting.”
The films that have followed in its wake all fall within the same wheelhouse: often directed by indie auteurs, they’re pitched at a young, intelligent audience, and tell stories Hollywood would rather not tackle.
Standouts included Jonathan Glazer’s heady sci-fi thriller “Under the Skin,” starring a very naked Scarlett Johansson; “A Most Violent Year,” J.C. Chandor’s crime drama, which failed to net any Oscar nominations despite racking up a boatload of awards, including best film at the National Board of Review; and “Swiss Army Man,” the Daniel Radcliffe farting-corpse movie that many distributors were probably too timid to release.
The company’s biggest hit, Alex Garland’s stylish sci-fi thriller “Ex Machina,” earned $25.4 million on a $15 million budget and claimed last year’s visual effects Oscar over pricier studio rivals like “Mad Max: Fury Road,” “The Revenant,” “The Martian” and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”
A24’s output can’t be classified as Oscar bait, a term that plagues art-house distributors like Fox Searchlight and the Weinstein Company, and yet the company broke through in a very big way last year with wins for “Ex Machina,” the documentary feature “Amy” and “Room,” a dark drama that earned four nominations and one win for Best Actress Brie Larson.
The company shows no sign of deviating from its art-house niche with its 2017 slate.
First up in April Ben Wheatley’s British crime thriller “Free Fall, followed by the Debra Winger-Tracy Letts dark romantic comedy “The Lovers,” due in May, then the Joel Edgerton horror film “It Comes at Night” in June.
A24 has high hopes for John Cameron Mitchell’s sci-fi romantic comedy “How to Talk to Girls at Parties,” starring Nicole Kidman and due by year’s end. “The Lobster” helmer Yorgos Lanthimos also reteams with A24 for “The Killing of Sacred Dear,” centering on a sinister teenage boy who befriends a surgeon. And the company also acquired the Sundance film “A Ghost Story,” David Lowery’s eerie love story starring newly minted Oscar winner Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara.