New Generation: How A24 Is Helping Keep Art Films Alive
A trio of celebrated and highly distinctive breakout movies at this year’s Sundance Film Festival—Raven Jackson’s visionary All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt, Savanah Leaf’s heartrending Earth Mama and Celine Song’s gripping Berlin Competition selection Past Lives—share a few conspicuous elements: They were all debut features made by women of color, they each display an impressive mastery of their forms and they were all backed by A24.
A24 has been celebrating one of its biggest years ever—a record 18 total Oscar nominations and its highest grossing film in Everything Everywhere All At Once—but amidst the genre mashups, prestige star vehicles and cult horror, the independent studio has also continued to nurture, finance and distribute subtle art films with unproven talents, unknown actors and elliptical, meditative or impressionistic storytelling. If the arthouse is dying, A24 remains committed, at least for now, to keeping it on life support, with company executives—especially production and acquisitions chief Noah Sacco, creative executive Zach Vargas-Sullivan (who shepherded last year’s The Inspection, along with All Dirt Roads… and Earth Mama) and indie marketing and distribution head David Laub (who worked on its successful foreign releases Aftersun and Close)—focused on supporting new and innovative voices. How does that happen?
For one, distinctive personal visions can be seen as an important selling point. While A24 executives would not comment for this story, the company has maintained a consistent interest in the idiosyncratic, eccentric and out-of-the-box, from Spring Breakers to Moonlight to Marcel the Shell with Shoes On. Industry veteran Christine Vachon of Killer Films, one of the producers on Past Lives, suggests the very precarious nature of the current market requires this type of risk-taking. “The only way an independent film is going to succeed right now is that it feels truly original,” she says.
For Vachon, who worked with A24 on Zola and whose company was approached by them to produce Past Lives, the personal nature of Song’s film gave the project a unique quality that distinguishes it in the marketplace. (Slate critic Sam Adams called the film “one of the most moving and fully formed debut films the Sundance Film Festival has seen in years.”) A decades-spanning romance about a Korean woman who moves to New York and maintains unrequited feelings for her childhood sweetheart, Past Lives was one of those “extraordinary” screenplays being passed around the industry, according to Vachon. It also helped that Song, a rising playwright in New York, “was able to articulate her vision in a way that was really convincing,” says Vachon.
Similarly, London-born Savanah Leaf was very clear about the movie she wanted to make in Earth Mama, an intimate neorealist portrait of a pregnant Black mother in the Bay Area struggling to keep her young children. “I think A24 took the long view on Savanah’s career,” says Earth Mama producer Medb Riordan, of UK production company Academy. “There was a recognition of the importance of telling these types of stories that are unseen and unheard from an authentic and honest place.”
Developed with the help of Cinereach and SFFILM’s Rainin Grant, Earth Mama was first taken on by the UK’s Film4 in 2020, where the script was further developed before Academy and Film4 pitched the film to A24. Leaf, a former Olympic volleyball player, had made an acclaimed Searchlight Shorts documentary dealing with similar subject matter, The Heart Still Hums, and had crafted “an incredible deck and supporting materials,” says Riordan. She still remembers her first call with A24’s Sacco. “He said, ‘I love this movie. I want to make this movie,’ and we said, ‘Do you have any notes?’ And he said, ‘I just want to make this movie,’” recalls Riordan. “That showed the trust in her and trust in the script.”
Co-financed by Film4 and A24, Earth Mama shot for 26 days in the Bay Area on a budget between $2 and $5 million. “If we had slightly different partners,” acknowledges Academy producer Shirley O’Connor, “it would have been difficult to get to the budget level.” But the filmmakers always felt that A24 had their backs, supporting their casting choices, including first-timer Tia Nomore as their star, as well as their decision to shoot on 16mm film with cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes, and offering key crew suggestions. For example, the company execs recommended production designer Juliana Barreto Barreto, who had recently wrapped All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt.
Producers who’ve worked with A24 say the company remains actively involved in offering up department head and casting suggestions and is particularly helpful in getting quick answers from agents about actors’ availabilities, which otherwise can be a long and painful process. But it’s also respectful of a filmmaker’s vision for the cast. Earth Mama’s O’Connor feels “incredibly lucky” to have partnered with A24 because, as she says, “They’re in a very specific position in that they’re able to allow for that.”
The reason for this risk-taking may have to do with the fact that A24’s smaller passion productions have low enough costs to make and release, with modest marketing campaigns built more on critical acclaim and word-of-mouth than large media buys. And with A24 controlling global licensing rights for the titles it produces in many cases, the company’s strong relationships with international partners can help the economics of the films’ bottom lines.
The company’s investment in All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt would seem to offer a primary test case for how far it can go with challenging films in today’s uncertain
arthouse market. A sumptuously photographed nonlinear lyrical journey across a Black woman’s life in the South, the film received critical acclaim at Park City, even as some critics described it as a more of an experimental visual poem than your standard Sundance hit.
Developed over the years through grants (SFFILM, Cinereach) and several labs and residencies (the Gotham, San Sebastian), the project got its biggest boost through Indie Memphis’s 2019 Black Filmmaker Residency for Screenwriting, where the filmmakers connected to Moonlight’s Barry Jenkins, who became a champion of the project. In 2020, Jenkins, Adele Romanski and Mark Ceryak’s company Pastel boarded the film and helped develop it both creatively and financially before taking it to A24, according to producer Maria Altamirano.
“There was an initial recognition from both Pastel and A24 that because Raven was attempting to do something so different, the way for it to have that impact was to just let her do what she wanted,” says Altamirano. “Of course, we weighed casting choices and produced it in a way that was fiscally responsible, but at the very core, there was a protection of the film itself—to make a film in [a] form and structure that is very rarely seen.”
Altamirano recalls how the notes process on the script and edit was different from a traditional production because the standard language didn’t apply: “We always talked about how something made us feel as opposed to clarity about a plot point.” The post-production process lasted almost a year, and A24 gave Jackson and Altamirano its blessing to work with Thailand-based editor Lee Chatametikool (Memoria) and Spanish sound designer Miguel Calvo, who worked on Jackson’s acclaimed short film, Nettles. “A24 went on a leap,” admits Altamirano, “and I don’t know many studios would do that.”
Many producers echo the sentiments expressed by Altamirano. Anish Savjani and Neil Kopp, producers on Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow, described an open and transparent collaboration with A24, where creative concerns mostly trumped commercial ones. “When they decide to make something,” says Kopp, “it’s clear they know who the filmmakers are, they know early on what the movie is and they help us make that film.” And, adds Kopp, “Everyone is really nice.”
Whether A24 is able to continue this kind of support for personal debut films such as Past Lives, Earth Mama, and All Dirt Roads… remains to be seen. The company’s future slate is filled with a familiar mix of work from A24-type auteurs (Ari Aster, Alex Garland, Kelly Reichardt) and newer voices (Aaron Schimberg, Jane Schoenbrun, Garrett Bradley), though many of these projects have genre elements that may be crucial to their success in challenging times. Then again, next year’s Sundance could offer more surprises. Perhaps for A24, it will stay business (and art) as usual.