By: Ella Henke
By: Ella Henke
In an age of cinema characterized by the conveyor belt-like releases of sequels, prequels, and re-reboots that reflect Hollywood’s growing unwillingness to stray from proven Intellectual Property, indie film studio A24 reaffirms the value in creating stories for cinemagoers demanding new ideas. So, where does their own story begin?
The year is 2012. Our protagonists? Daniel Katz, David Fenkel, and John Hodges. The trio emerged from long-standing backgrounds in film finance to found A24 with the collective mission to share stories told from a distinctive point of view. They longed for the independent cinema of the 90s they had grown up on. “Films didn’t seem as exciting to us as when we started our careers,” Katz reminisced in one interview, “and that signaled an opportunity.” The founders shared an admiration for companies like Miramax and Fox Searchlight, which Hodges explains “had a real brand and a hold on their audience.” The same of which could be said of A24 today. With Miramax now folded into the distribution arm of Disney, co-head of TV at A24, Ravi Nandan notes that “Focus and Fox Searchlight had become kind of isolated in what they did” and thus formed an A24-shaped hole in the market.
They started solely as distributors. Buying films that had already been made and marketing them well. Like, really well. Their breakout success, Spring Breakers went viral when a wildly offensive recreation of Da Vinci’s The Last Supper starring James Franco as a thuggy Jesus alongside the bikini-clad cast got 19,000 likes on Facebook (okay, so, 2012 viral).
And who can forget about the time life imitated art at SXSW Film Festival when festivalgoers perusing Tinder matched with a beautiful user named Ava, who asked thoughtful questions like, “Have you ever been in love?” and “What makes you human?”. There was just one problem. She was never real. Ava was, in fact, the marketing team at A24 posing as the cyborg from Ex Machina with a picture of the then little-known star of the film, Alicia Vikander. Her suitors were eventually sent links to an Instagram page that advertised the movie’s premiere that weekend.
It’s this unorthodox approach that separates A24 from the crowd. Boasting an unusual amount of clout for a film studio, A24, the brand, sells custom socks and water bottles on its website. Through the release of such films as mid90s and Waves, they’ve become a cultural marker used online to refer to an edgy aesthetic or mood. If you type “A24” into Spotify, any number of user playlists appear named something along the lines of “my life if it was produced by A24”. And A24 is in on the joke. Regularly poking fun at themselves on their personified Twitter account, they retweet memes like the “A24 bingo” card, which features entries such as “lens flare”, “quirky aspect ratio shift”, and “somebody is set on fire”.
In 2018, The New York Times reported that A24 typically spends 95% of its marketing budgets online. An investment that has clearly paid off in their strong internet presence.
Since launching, they have branched out into production, making their Academy Award Best Picture winner Moonlight in collaboration with Plan B. Fast forward to 2019, and A24 catapulted into the television market with cultural phenomenon Euphoria and Emmy-nominated Ramy.
So where do you, a writer, come into all this?
Across their many varied styles, there are commonalities that give A24 films a distinct feel. So, what do these films share and how can you draw from these films to write a great contemporary script?
All A24 films are made with a modest budget. Even their most expensive film to date, Everything Everywhere All At Once only cost 25 million dollars to make. A measly sum compared to other films dealing with the sci-fi trope of the multiverse, one example being, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, which cost Marvel 200 million. When writing an A24-styled script, you must keep your story self-contained. This could mean reducing the number of locations to only what is absolutely necessary, using your imagination to build tension and climax without any big-budget explosions, and fleshing out your secondary characters to get your story across with a smaller cast. Cut the fluff and think economically.
A24 believes in the intelligence of its audiences, and so should you. Build your world quickly. The audience never needs as much exposition as you think. Adopt an in-media res approach, dropping your audience in what feels like the deep end of your story and letting them find their own way to the surface. In mid90s, we open on a narrow hallway in which our 13-year-old lead, Stevie is thrown against a wall by his older brother and thus throwing us into his tumultuous home life. A24 scripts are typically less concerned with hitting succinct plot points. Moonlight’s director, Barry Jenkins, said they’re “the kind of company [to] say ‘they (the audience) don’t need to know what it’s about. They just need to know how it feels.’”
The Lobster, A24’s first Jury Prize winner at Cannes, tells the story of a man who must find love in 45 days, or he will turn into an animal forever. Another uniquely A24 trope is creating absurdist narratives with moral dilemmas at their heart. Here, writers Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthimis Filippou, ask questions about monogamy and societal pressures in a fresh and even silly way so that the result never feels overly preachy or didactic. Think how you might use allegory to play around with the message of your story and always remember the old writing adage, “show don’t tell”.
The success of A24 lies in putting the writer’s vision first. Always. Even if that means Paul Dano riding the corpse of Daniel Radcliffe like a jet ski through the Pacific Ocean. In relinquishing creative control, they have nurtured relationships with some of the greatest auteurs working today, many of whom keep coming back for more. Since distributing Good Time in 2017, A24 has partnered with the Safdie brothers on Uncut Gems and in 2020 the pair signed a TV deal with HBO. Ari Aster’s Midsommar and Hereditary, two disruptive horrors that leave an irreversible imprint on your brain, were both picked up by A24. Icon of French film, Claire Denis worked with them on her most recent English language releases High Life and Stars at Noon. Asif Kapadia, director of A24’s much-loved Amy Winehouse biopic, Amy, spoke warmly of the collaborative nature of working with them, “I felt with these guys it was a dialogue. [It was] like we were all on the same team.”
The company even has a board on their Pinterest titled ‘We <3 Our Directors’, with pictures of a young Harmony Korine and a reposted magazine cover of teenage Sofia Coppola. A24 sort of feels like what would happen if a group of Gen-Z film buffs was given financial backing to go play.
As writers, A24’s exponential success reminds us to keep putting even our weirdest ideas to paper because, who knows, maybe one day they’ll help bring them to life.
For a relatively small company, A24’s range is pretty impressive. It’s hard to believe that Bo Burnham’s wholesome Eighth Grade was distributed by the same minds behind Hereditary. Over the years, they’ve captured the hearts of vastly different demographics. Equally synonymous with the A24 name are the Ladybird-esque coming-of-age dramedies and the new wave of horror they helped pioneer. Behind every great A24 release seems to be the belief that while not everyone will want to see this film, a small margin of people will want to see it so badly it needs sharing.
It’s in their treatment of filmmaking as something heartier than business, whether that’s through championing underrepresented voices or experimenting with whole new whacky worlds, that A24 offers hope to a new generation of screenwriters.
Delve deeper into the magic of A24 with our Ultimate A24 Screenplay Collection. Take an inside look at the making of an A24 script and traverse through their years of expansion from the early features to the first award winners and their most recent TV pilots.
Ella is a lover of all things storytelling. When she’s not conducting market research at her part-time job as a movie theatre usher, she’s interning at Shore Scripts or hunched over Final Draft. So far, her scripts tell coming-of-age tales that are seemingly about very little but show seismic shifts in her character’s growing worlds. You can find her at ellahenke.com