Its subject matter is challenging, its title romantic and its Oscar prospects aglow. Moonlight, distributed by the innovative, tough-minded indie A24, swept the Gotham Awards this week and seems teed up for the Spirits and other plaudits. But while aggressively promoting Moonlight, A24 typically is ducking attention for itself – no interviews, no quotes. But with five other films in the awards race and a slate of 20 movies prepped for release in 2017, it’s nonetheless coping with this question: Can the offbeat social media strategies that have spurred A24’s growth thus far also propel it to the big stage?
Although A24 has had some winners before – Room, Ex Machina, Spring Breakers – Moonlight represents the first film that it has developed and fully financed by itself. A24’s ruling partners, who bill themselves as film nerds, work out of a grungy building in Lower Manhattan. While compulsively uncommunicative with the press, founders Daniel Katz, David Fenkel and John Hodges continue to shape a program of intriguing films as they furtively forge ahead with new ventures in television, overseas distribution and other arenas. Structured originally to forage for modest pickups, A24 now has a broad development slate, plus the funds and determination to become a important media player. They just don’t want to talk about it.
According to agents and producers who do business with them, the A24 partners are militant about their indie roots. They don’t covet star casting (Brie Larson’s star was created by her Oscar-winning turn in Room), disdain sequels and franchises and believe the majors’ marketing strategies are a self-destructive course. The company opened Moonlight at Toronto and Telluride, tested it on audiences beyond the usual art house crowd and then booked theaters in Atlanta, Miami and Washington, which offered diverse audiences, spending heavily on research in social media. Opening Ex Machina at South by Southwest, A24 created a software robot on Tinder that triggered techie buzz for the film. On Moonlight, however, A24 also has been buying radio and TV ads and even an isolated print ad here and there – contradicting its earlier aversion to print. Before its wider release last weekend, Moonlight has collected about $9 million in fewer than 200 theaters.
How indie will A24 remain? The company originally closed a deal with DirecTV for a limited number of films wherein the satellite provider obtained its initial 30-day window; still most of its future films, like Moonlight, remain outside of that deal. A24 has forged a few co-production deals with other entities – Megan Ellison’s Annapurna co-funded Spring Breakers and alsois a partner on 20th Century Women, which opens December 25, starring Annette Bening and directed by Mike Mills. While A24 has had its box office successes such as Room, The Witch and even esoteric thriller The Lobster, it has also taken a beating on several releases including the $20 million JC Chandor-directed A Most Violent Year and End of the Tour.
The partners’ approach to television is typically idiosyncratic. A24 is self-financing a series titled Iron Fisting, which is shooting in Romania. It’s described as an Iron Curtain cop show – a communist answer to Miami Vice. No network deal has been set.
Barry Jenkins, the 36-year-old director of Moonlight, had not gotten a movie off the ground in eight years when he submitted his screenplay to A24. Thoughtful and articulate, the filmmaker was nervous about the partner’s “group-think” approach to his coming-of-age story but got few suggestions for revisions, other than a change of title from In Moonlight, Black Boys Look Blue, to, simply, Moonlight.
WHAT HUMP?: With the awards season at full blast, every new movie arrives with a flurry of exuberant quotes, but the most offbeat “rave” is from non-critic Judd Apatow and concerns a 42-year old film. “Young Frankenstein is the perfect movie – the comedy equivalent of Sgt. Pepper or the ’86 New York Mets,” wrote Apatow. Appropriately enough, his quote appears in his introduction to Mel Brooks’ newly published coffee table book about Young Frankenstein, in which the 90-year-old comic describes his painfully hilarious trek to get the movie a green light.
Brooks’ devotion to Young Frankenstein has been unstinting. Many years after release of the film, he crafted a successful but flawed Broadway musical based on his movie and now is in London working on a substantial revision, which he hopes to stage next year. At the time Brooks set up the original movie, his chances were not propitious. “I had managed not to make a nickel for any studio,” he recalls. The Producers and The Twelve Chairs were not hits, and Young Frankenstein, an idea originally proposed to him by Gene Wilder, did not generate interest until Brooks delivered a passionate pitch to Columbia. Sensing a positive response, he saved until last his demand: that the film be shot in black and white. As Brooks dropped that line, he quickly ran for the door. “I heard a thundering herd of Jews following me down the hall screaming, ‘No black and white!” he recalls. Fortunately, his producer, Michael Gruskoff, had developed a friendship with Alan Ladd Jr, who was just taking over as chief of production at Fox. Gruskoff arranged for Ladd to see two reels of Blazing Saddles, which had not yet been released. Ladd promptly committed to Young Frankenstein even though, as he writes, “I knew a lot of theater owners wouldn’t take it unless it was in color.”
The shoot itself was appropriately crazed. Peter Boyle, cast as the gentle monster, was mystified by the role. “I am sure we risked Boyle’s life many times in making the movie, pouring boiling soup on him and lighting his thumb on fire,” Brooks recalls.
Test screenings were disastrous. When one audience rebelled at a 2-hour, 22-minute cut, Brooks stood up and apologized. “I insist you come back in three weeks and see the film at 95 minutes and it will be a smash hit,” he said. His forecast was correct. “Fox named a street Mel Brooks Boulevard, so studio executives can walk all over me every single day,” he writes.