In the winter of 2019, I attended the Sundance Film Festival as an over-worked intern. Although the experience was mostly dropping off Uber eats orders and escorting people to their interviews, I had been given free tickets to watch two films of my choice. I had to choose from a list, giving each film a numerical value ranging from 1 to 5. The film marked “1” (meaning the film I wanted to watch most) was A24’s The Last Black Man in San Francisco. Due to popular demand, I was not able to get a ticket to this film, and was instead stuck with watching a horrifically boring documentary about lumber.
‘How bad could it be?’ I thought. ‘It may be a lumber documentary, but it’s a Sundance lumber documentary.’
Oh, how wrong I was. At these festivals which carry so much esteem, the screened films lie on a range of “So amazing that it reaches the attention of the Academy” to “People will walk out within the first five minutes”. This situation makes one ask, “How do films this bad even get into film festivals?“
The reason is that festivals need to fill a roster of potential ticket-sellers, giving both up-and-coming artists and veterans the chance to cater to every possible audience that would and will attend the festival. The film will be screened because the festival sees a potential audience for it; whether it is good or bad is determined at the premiere. This allows veterans of popular filmmaking (like A24, for example) to showcase their new work, and gives them a “blank slate,” with no grudge or high mind held to their past successes or failures. Whether or not people buy tickets depends on how well known the company or filmmaker is. Thus, A24 films were extremely popular with audiences at Sundance in 2019 because of their past successes and reputation for distributing quality auteur cinema.
I walked out of the lumber documentary in the first four minutes, resenting the lost chance to watch the A24 film which had garnered so much hype from the festival crowd. After the festival ended, I had to wait 4-5 months to watch The Last Black Man in San Francisco on a streaming service. Why was this film in such demand at this festival, that it was so difficult to get a ticket and took so long to be available to stream?
A24’s success in terms of hype and viewership can be analyzed through their method of distribution to festivals and mainstream theatres, and the reputation they have built for independent film lovers. For casual film goers and Kensington Market hippies alike, it is very hard not to get on the bandwagon of loving A24 films. As one who enjoys watching a possessed woman saw their own head off with a garrote wire as much as the next guy, I am glad that such a production company exists, where the auteur filmmaker is allowed to make even their grossest, wildest visions come alive.
A24 has an international distribution network that brings the work of auteur filmmakers to the largest film markets, so you may see an A24 film at TIFF, Cannes, Sundance, or Venice. A24 feeds films directly into the festival circuit, and plays the distribution game so well that they have huge lines outside of their premieres, even before their films hit mainstream theatres. Films are publicised as individual titles, but advertised under the brand: the sleek, minimalist logo that lets you know that this film is well-written by someone they trusted to carry their name. The festival audience is served first, and the films that do well in festivals are given a release in mainstream theatres. If you please the festival crowd first, there is a higher chance that the film gets picked up for further distribution to streaming services, like Amazon or Netflix. In other words, higher ticket sales at festivals lead to more exposure on these streaming services. It’s the long game, but the festival circuit was the best way for this particular company to build its reputation for putting out quality indie films.
A24 gives full creative control to individual directors, yielding original works which are given the respected “A24 stamp of approval”. The “writer’s table” aspect of big-budget filmmaking is effectively eliminated, strengthening the notion that film is an auteur’s medium. The company does not display the unnecessary concern over content being “family friendly”, or catering to the everyman. Blockbuster films of the modern era are rarely conceived in the mind of just one person; creative control is distributed according to the best interest of the production company’s image. But this is not the case for A24. This particular company seems to promote the voice of the independent artist, rather than promote the image of the company as a whole. The A24 stamp attracts a mature audience and devoted fanbase; if you love well-made indie films, you probably love A24. As a result of this business tactic, A24 has pulled off arguably the most effective commercialisation of independent filmmaking, aside from the major film festivals themselves.
Blockbuster films of the modern era serve as a “cinema of attractions”, where the target audience is the largest amount of people possible. ‘Take your whole family to come see this film! It has all the things that you, or anybody will like!’ That said, films distributed by A24 seem to gather an audience of independent film lovers instead of a general impressionable audience—you can count on A24 to show you who the next best auteur directors are going to be. Their business plan seems to be this: make films which cost a (relatively) low amount to make, yet yield high box office returns through a respected name, and quality auteur work.
I wish I had kept these concepts in mind when I was trying to procure tickets to The Last Black Man in San Francisco in 2019. Next time, I would buy them in advance instead of trying to beat the festival crowd.
 Dir. Joe Talbot.
 “Hereditary” (2019). Dir. Ari Aster.
Blockbuster films of the modern era are rarely conceived in the mind of just one person; creative control is distributed according to the best interest of the production company’s image. But this is not the case for A24. This particular company seems to promote the voice of the independent artist, rather than promote the image of the company as a whole. The A24 stamp attracts a mature audience and devoted fanbase; if you love well-made indie films, you probably love A24.