Peter Bart: A24 Covets Oscar Haul, But Its Leaders Are More Skittish Than Ever About Spotlight
Now that the noise has subsided, were there any helpful takeaways from the Oscars?
If you ask the leaders of A24, the distributor that swept six categories, their answer would be the same as it was six years ago when Moonlight was the surprise winner. “Can’t think of a thing to say,” is what they said.
A24 likes to surround its victories with the sounds of silence, as they made numbingly clear when last I had a sit-down with them (they resist sit-downs: more below).
But there were, in fact, some questions to be asked after this year’s Oscars. Would the field of contenders hopefully be emboldened next year? Not really, according to early evidence: Witness the odd absence of hype for future hits on the Oscar show, even on the pre-show.
Disney and its subsidiary ABC took advantage of the moment to hustle The Little Mermaid and Universal ran an ad for its nuclear movie Oppenheimer, but otherwise there seemed an odd quietude about next year.
Has the infusion of new (principally overseas) Oscar voters energized the Academy? Or affected its taste?
Not really, but improved ratings suggest that the show will be around through 2028. Ratings edged up 12% this year to 18.7 million. The all-time low was 10.5 million in 2021.
HBO scheduled the season finale of its zombie drama The Last of Us against the Oscars, a further reminder that awards shows are no longer scary competition. Ad prices are higher for the Super Bowl or postseason football.
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A study of 4,400 filmgoers by the Wall Street Journal suggested that few viewers had even heard of the Oscar contenders this year, except for the Avatar/Top Gun/Black Panther “audience movies.” Contenders like Triangle of Sadness might score at Cannes but attract zero following among Academy voters.
Still, media coverage of the Oscar competition was surprisingly strong in a year when movies like Women Talking or Aftersun set records for empty seats. In years past the media buzz focused on Oscar campaigning – complaints about Harvey Weinstein’s tactical sniping or about the big party spends.
But the campaigns themselves weren’t news this year: Steven Spielberg’s presence seemed shadowy, and of course neither Tom Cruise nor James Cameron showed up at the Oscars.
Which brings us back to the mysteries of A24. While other indie chiefs are ubiquitous at festivals and premieres – witness the garrulous presence of Sony Classics’ Tom Bernard and Michael Barker – the founders of A24 cherish their invisibility.
After Moonlight’s success I suggested a meeting six years ago and was hastily turned down, only to be re-invited hours later but with new rules. All three partners would have to attend (Daniel Katz, David Fenkel and John Hodges) whose backgrounds were principally financial (Hodges has since left the company).
Fine by me, but when I arrived at the company’s grungy headquarters in Lower Manhattan, 20 other members of the A24 staff also crowded into the conference room (no, there was not enough coffee to go around). Katz made it clear in his introduction that I was not to ask questions but rather was there to answer them.
A24 was still formulating its management strategy, it seemed, and I was to explain the origins of certain films — projects that I had been held responsible for putting together: Being There, Rosemary’s Baby, The Godfather, Harold & Maude among them.
The questions were smart, but then when I started asking about some of A24’s unlikely successes the curtain came down. Movies like Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine), Ex Machina (Alex Garland) and Lady Bird (Greta Gerwig) were off the table for discussion. So were budgets and media strategy (“we prefer guerrilla marketing to ad buys,” mumbled Katz).
On the way out, there were profuse thank-yous and cordial comments about future get-togethers, which never occurred. “We’d like to tell you about our TV plans,” enthused one staff member, who was then shut down.
“This isn’t so much a company as a sort of indie mafia,” one A24 executive assured me. “We’re really nice people but public attention freaks us. Besides no one wants to know about success in the indie world. The indie world is just about failure. Ask anyone who’s been here.”
I tried asking but await a return invitation, perhaps after next year’s hits.