After last year’s three-Oscar haul for “Moonlight,” including Best Picture, A24 wants to prove that was no anomaly. Here’s what the rising young distributor will push this awards season. (Remember: A year ago, “Moonlight” wasn’t viewed as a likely Best Picture contender — much less the big winner.)
Co-founded by David Fenkel, John Hodges, and Daniel Katz, A24 is known for edgy arthouse pleasers that eschew conventional storytelling. “Moonlight” was the company’s first original production; its other box office players include Oscar-winners “Ex Machina,” “Room,” and “Amy,” and smart horror flick “The Witch.” But none have passed the $27 million box office earned by “Moonlight.”
After the fall trifecta of Venice, Telluride and Toronto, the company has three bonafide awards contenders: SXSW’s well-reviewed true story “The Disaster Artist” (December 1), director James Franco’s 14th movie; Sean Baker’s “The Florida Project,” which premiered at Cannes; and a pickup from producer Scott Rudin, Greta Gerwig’s directing debut “Lady Bird” (November 10), a mother-daughter dramedy starring Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf.
Less likely are Yorgos Lanthimos’ mordant satire “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” (November 3) starring Cannes special award-winner Nicole Kidman and Colin Farrell, and the Safdie brothers’ gritty crime caper “Good Time” ($1.9 million domestic) — although there’s talk of Robert Pattinson as an acting breakthrough.
Both are critically hailed, small-scale movies that will play best for the Academy’s largest branch: actors. To break out of the Indie Spirit ghetto, they will require not only special handling but also luck with the box-office gods and weak Oscar rivals. Both are well-liked, popular entries and A24 can easily (with boosts from Lisa Taback and Cynthia Swartz’s PR teams) get people to see them. But they will need to work at the box office, too.
Much like Benh Zeitlin’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” “The Florida Project” could ride strong Cannes buzz and the fall festival circuit to major nominations: “Beasts” landed Best Picture, Writer, Director, and Actress Quvenzhane Wallis — a precursor to “Florida Project” star Brooklynn Prince, a 6-year-old diminutive breakout. Baker’s slice of life along Orlando’s budget motels relies on twice-nominated Willem Dafoe (“Platoon,” “Shadow of the Vampire”), who is overdue for more awards recognition. His humane and paternal motel owner is the closest thing to a father figure and civilizing force these marginal characters will ever know.
But while Baker assembled an expertly orchestrated mix of professionals and Florida locals to create a believable milieu that is authentic, heartbreaking, and also full of joy, the movie lacks snob appeal. Some viewers are turned off by these often-angry and unappealing characters. Critics will chime in, and A24 is a wily marketer, but this movie may wind up more Indie Spirit than Oscar fodder.
Even people who like “Lady Bird” point out that it’s a small coming-of-age movie in an all-too-familiar high school setting. Never mind that: The reason this will go far is people can’t stop talking about it. Gerwig has prepared herself for years, moving from theater maven and actress and constant writer to full-fledged collaborator with Joe Swanberg (“Hannah Takes the Stairs”) and her partner Noah Baumbach (“Frances Ha” and “Mistress America”) to solo filmmaker. She shone in Rebecca Miller’s feminist romantic triangle comedy “Maggie’s Plan,” and nabbed some confidence from Miller to go forward with her own project, set in California state capitol Sacramento during her character Christine’s senior year.
“Lady Bird” played well in Telluride and Toronto, and will continue to resonate in the culture as the ultimate mother-daughter love story; Metcalf nails this angry, frustrated, loving mother who cannot help returning to old arguments. But this is also a movie, like Best Picture contender “Boyhood,” with lasting and universal appeal.
He’s a long shot with his oddly moving performance as Tommy Wiseau, the mysterious writer-director-actor with an indeterminate foreign accent who financed and starred in 2003 indie flick “The Room.” In “The Disaster Artist,” Franco recreates the making of that unlikely cult phenomenon, costarring his brother Dave Franco and his producer Seth Rogen. The movie conjures what it’s like to be anxious about exposing yourself as an artist, and Academy members will relate — as they laugh their heads off.
Even in a competitive year, she has a strong shot. She channels a version of Gerwig as a feisty 1993 theater maven in a Sacramento Catholic high school who is dying to lose her virginity and go to college back East. Ronan has been nominated for “Atonement” and “Brooklyn” and is respected for her work in theater and film. It’s a moving, sexy, dramatic, and comedic performance that SAG, the Academy actors and year-end critics groups should all recognize.
As Lady Bird’s angry, loving, judgmental nurse mother, who is nicer to everyone else than her own daughter, theater actress Metcalf is a pretty sure bet. Coming up on the outside is Brooklynn Prince. Her fate depends on how well “The Floria Project” plays going forward.
Assuming it takes off with critics, audiences, and guilds, she has a good shot with “Lady Bird.” (For a small-scale dramedy, everything has to go right.) Gerwig’s advantage: her popularity as an actress. (See: Robert Redford, Kevin Costner, Mel Gibson, Warren Beatty etc.) She is well known and people will root for her. Baker is less established outside of indie circles, and Franco is directing a raunchy comedy, which is a much harder road at the Oscars.
“The Disaster Artist” writers Neustadter and Weber, who also brought us “(500) Days of Summer,” have a shot at Adapted Screenplay. Veteran screenwriter Gerwig (“Frances Ha,” “Mistress America”) also has a shot for Original Screenplay. Baker’s movie may seem more improvised and less dialogue-driven (it’s written), even if that degree of difficulty is extremely high.
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