Don’t Count A24 Out of This Year’s Awards Race

Indie distributor aims to once again compete in screenplay races as majors throw their weight around

Eighth Grade

It might seem that New York-based indie distributor A24, two years after claiming a best picture victory with Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight,” and a year removed from the success of Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird,” is set for a low-key Oscar season in 2018.

Films like Bo Burnham’s “Eighth Grade,” Paul Schrader’s “First Reformed” and Ari Aster’s “Hereditary” certainly echo the small-but-acclaimed paradigm of previous players, but they and Jonah Hill’s “Mid90s” seem unlikely to catch fire in the Academy’s top race. It will be particularly difficult to gain a foothold with the major studios roaring back this year with films like “Black Panther” (Disney), “Green Book” (Universal), “A Star Is Born” (Warner Bros.), and “Widows” (Fox).

Nevertheless, here’s a bit of Oscar trivia for you: A24 has secured at least two screenplay nominations in each of the past three years, including three in 2016. Some of them, like Yorgos Lanthimos’ “The Lobster,” Mike Mills’ “20th Century Women” and Alex Garland’s “Ex Machina,” proved to be pleasant surprises. So don’t, by any means, count out the six-year-old company for a run at some serious bling. There is a solid quartet of films to work with, one that perfectly represents A24’s artist-haven swagger.

Schrader’s picture, about a priest dealing with self-doubt, was the first into theaters, arriving last May, half a year after unspooling at the 2017 Venice and Telluride film festivals. The uncompromising 72-year-old writer-director has not been so well-received since his 1998 drama “Affliction,” which won James Coburn a supporting actor Oscar and earned Nick Nolte a nomination in lead. But Schrader was not recognized by the Academy for that film, or, for that matter, any of the cinematic milestones he’s helped conjure throughout the years, from “Taxi Driver” to “Raging Bull.” That could change this time around, and the campaign is certainly banking on industry goodwill — on top of the genuine acclaim “First Reformed” has generated in its own right — to bring him his first-ever Oscar bid.

But in an original screenplay category that is filling up fast with contenders like “The Favourite,” “Green Book,” “Roma” and “Vice,” Schrader could find himself duking it out with stable mate Burnham for a spot. Burnham, a YouTube sensation, dropped “Eighth Grade, ” his directorial debut, at the Sundance Film Festival ahead of a mid-summer release that drew rave upon rave. It’s exactly the kind of film — a coming-of-age dramedy about an introverted teenage girl — that grabs the writers branch’s attention every year in lieu of much love elsewhere (not that lead actress Elsie Fisher isn’t brilliant and deserving of serious consideration). Boots Riley’s racially and politically tinged “Sorry to Bother You” at Annapurna is another example.

But who knows how that original screenplay category will unfold? There’s certainly a world where both “Eighth Grade” and “First Reformed” find purchase in the field, making good on A24’s double-dipper track record. “Hereditary” and “Mid90s,” however, are taller orders all around.

“A24 has secured at least two screenplay nominations in each of the past three years.”

Hill’s movie, a personal ode to his SoCal skateboarding youth, is a little gem perfectly suited to its distributor. But it failed to register any nominations from the Independent Filmmaker Project’s Gotham Awards in New York, and turned out just one notice from West Coast Film Independent’s Spirit Awards last week, so it’s bringing up the rear with this group. “Hereditary,” which earned Gotham and Spirit nods for breakthrough/first-time director and lead actress (Toni Collette’s sweat-inducing performance getting the love it deserves), has a little more going for it. Genre bias may not be much of a hurdle with the Academy anymore; we’re coming off a year dominated by films like “Get Out” and “The Shape of Water,” after all. But horror, and particularly gruesome horror like “Hereditary,” seems like it will continue to struggle.

Ultimately, A24’s slate of contenders this year is a stellar one worth fighting for. What’s more, it feels like yet another extension of the company’s identity. Awards-season perennial Fox Searchlight seems like the only other company that can boast as much from all its years on the circuit. Maybe the votes will be there for these films, maybe they won’t. But come what may, here’s hoping A24 — which just signed a production pact with Apple, ensuring longevity in the streaming space — will keep on keeping on.