Indie Newcomer A24 Hopes to Find Love for Low-Budget Slate

It was a stunt, but an amusing one. Tinder users at SXSW last month found themselves caught up in a dialogue with a hot 25-year-old named Ava, directing romantic questions to her Instagram page. Ava turned out to be a robot featured in “Ex Machina,” an indie sci-fi thriller that opened last week to a fine per-screen average of about $60,000 at four theaters.

With the major studios mounting giant marketing fusillades behind their summer tentpoles, it’s easy to conclude that there’s no room in the marketplace for indie pictures. Hence an initiative like the “Ex Machina” caper inspires optimism.

The film is distributed by A24, a 3-year-old company founded by three young (mid-30s) entrepreneurs, Daniel Katz, David Fenkel and John Hodges. A24 is among several new players exploring fresh marketing and dealmaking ideas in support of independent projects. It has found success with films like “The Spectacular Now” and “Spring Breakers,” and two current releases, “Ex Machina” and Noah Baumbach’s “While We’re Young,” show promise.

It also has run into the predictable indie road hazards — films that have instantly disappeared.

Overall, the reviews of A24 inside the business are mixed-to-good; its partners admit to their relative inexperience. They toss around words like “artsploitation” or “asymmetrical marketing.” But they are also careful. When they make festival bids, it is often in partnership with other entities — they acquired “The Witch” at Sundance in concert with DirecTV. “Slow West,” a British Western starring Michael Fassbender that was taken by the same two partners, will be available on DirecTV on April 16 and in theaters and on demand May 15.

All this is in keeping with a well-crafted survival scenario. A24 has negotiated a multiyear SVOD pact with Amazon, has a TV series on USA (“Playing House,” already picked up for a second season), and is prepping a series for NBC. The partners say they’re not in a rush, and admit they have “a lot to figure out.” Overall, A24 has acquired more than 25 movies, released 18, and hopes to distribute about 20 a year.

Is there room for all that in the indie field? “The guys have big ambitions and damn good taste,” says one producer who is weighing whether to commit his film to them. Reflecting this assessment, A24 has commanded commitments from directors like Baumbach and James Ponsoldt (“Spectacular Now”) as well as stars like Scarlett Johansson (“Under the Skin”) and Jake Gyllenhaal (“Enemy”). “Who else would come out with a documentary about Amy Winehouse in summer?” asks one admiring studio executive.

To improve productivity, the company has
started to develop its own films, and wants to become an increasingly aggressive buyer at festivals. At the most recent Sundance Fest, it bought three films — Ponsoldt’s “The End of the Tour,” Ryan Reynolds starrer “Mississippi Grind” and “The Witch” — for a reported total of about $6 million. It’s eager to make an impact at Cannes, and will have a (yet-to-be-announced) film showing in the market.

All things considered, the three partners — Fenkel, Katz and John Hodges — still have to figure out why their strategy for films like “The Rover” and “A Most Violent Year” failed to resonate with viewers. They are quick to point out that they have limited financial exposure on their flops, but still must prove that they can come up with that occasional big winner, one that will pull in foreign co-financiers.

Personally, I’m not ready to link up with Ava. But I hope she will help propel box office action for “Ex Machina,” which deserves to find an audience, like many films on this brash young indie’s slate.

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