NEW YORK CITY — Sofia Coppola could have easily gone the studio route in choosing a distributor for her new movie, "The Bling Ring." Instead she chose the upstart company that set loose the viral image of James Franco as a resplendently thugged-out Jesus.
The Facebook posting of the actor in his "Spring Breakers" lizard-king persona, surrounded by his bikini-clad costars, director Harmony Korine and rapper Gucci Mane at a "Last Supper"-style banquet table, spread across the web in late March with a tide of 20,000 thumbs-up.
By the time the company called A24 released "Spring Breakers," the $5-million crime romp had exploded across the cultural consciousness. It was a trending topic on Twitter for several weeks and had about 600,000 Facebook likes before it set per-screen attendance records its opening weekend and clocked the biggest premiere of a movie in limited release this year.
Inside a converted industrial space with 20-foot-high ceilings and sweeping views of the Hudson River, the A24 crew of twenty- and thirtysomethings work shoulder to shoulder at long communal tables. With nary an executive suite in sight and no management hierarchy immediately apparent, the scene, more Pinterest than Paramount, calls to mind a Silicon Valley start-up, not the kind of corporate complex where moviemaking decisions typically get made.
But then, A24 isn't interested in business as usual in Hollywood. Less than a year in operation, the production and distribution company is attempting to rewrite the indie-movie playbook by erasing the divide between art-house cinema and the multiplex.
The industry is taking notice: "Spring Breakers" has grossed more than $14 million to date — a sizable score for an independently financed feature without studio backing.
Many predict that A24 could follow up that success with "The Bling Ring." On the heels of a widely publicized, glitzed-out premiere at the Cannes Film Festival last month, Coppola's ripped-from-the-headlines crime drama appears poised to deliver another of the year's biggest limited-release openings.
Opening in five theaters in New York and Los Angeles this weekend before opening wide next week across the country, "The Bling Ring" has already made bigger cultural waves than anyone could reasonably expect from an $8-million film whose biggest star is Emma Watson from the "Harry Potter" franchise.
Coppola says she was convinced that A24 would use tactical marketing finesse to help turn "The Bling Ring" into a crossover hit.
"I thought this movie can reach both a young and a grown-up audience," the director explains. "They saw a way to reach both an art house audience and a popcorn movie audience. They knew a lot about social media. And they had a strategy to make it work. I thought their whole approach was smart."
Thus far, the company has specialized in titles that fall under the umbrella term "artsploitation": prestige films such as A24's March-released drama "Ginger & Rosa" and "The Spectacular Now" (which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and hits theaters in August) featuring attractive ingénues who cast off their social inhibitions to learn life's lessons.
But the company's larger goal is less genre-specific: A24 wants to inject modestly budgeted films into the national conversation, providing the films, and their directors, a hard-won cultural exposure that defies the art-house ghetto.
"There is an audience out there for these films," says A24 co-founder Daniel Katz. "And there are platforms that didn't exist 12, 18, 24 months ago that allow us to create a profile for a project that didn't exist without national television advertising."
"We want all our films to cross over," says David Fenkel, another A24 co-founder.
But to hear it from Jesse Patrone-Werdiger, who concentrates on marketing and social media for the company, helping small films bridge that divide in the modern movie marketplace requires bypassing traditional promotional methods in lieu of a kind of asymmetrical marketing approach in tune with Generation Y consumer habits.
"We're always cognizant of trying to sell the film by not selling it," Patrone-Werdiger says, "by tapping into elements of it that are really evocative and compelling to people in a way that does not register as something they want to spend money on."
Which is precisely where social media fit into the company's strategy.
A24's "Last Supper" post on Facebook worked for "Spring Breakers" because it easily stood alone as a comic homage for sharing among friends on the Web. But it also carried the caption "On Friday, be good. We're saving you a seat" — a wink to the Good Friday holiday — and linked to a website selling tickets to the movie. The post wasn't an ad, per se, but it engaged its potential audience.
"For studios, the digital campaign is an offshoot of the main campaign," says John Hodges, head of acquisitions for A24. "For us on 'Spring Breakers,' it was the spine of the campaign. It's different when it's the leading narrative as opposed to additional material."
Korine, the shock indie auteur behind such disquieting cult films as "Trash Humpers" and "Julien Donkey-Boy," had never heard of A24 before it acquired the domestic distribution rights to "Spring Breakers" last fall. But the director quickly warmed to A24's efforts to virally distribute on-set photos of the film's stars preening in fluorescent bikinis and a series of lurid trailers that created "stickiness," or awareness for the small film.
"They saw that marketing was a creative act that could be entertaining in and of itself," Korine says."They were thinking in a different way, trying something newer and maybe more radical with their approach. That broke the film out. It became something more like a cultural event."
Since getting its start with an infusion of capital from Guggenheim Partners, the behemoth Wall Street investment firm, last August, the company has encouraged its 18 employees — more than half of them younger than 30 — to pitch ideas across departmental lines and help define corporate culture from the bottom up.
"That plays all the way down to our interns," Patrone-Werdiger says. "They're in touch with pop culture in ways that we aren't necessarily. In trying to keep all these materials relevant — being in touch on a day-to-day basis — we open up to the whole office. It's not something that [any] one person could ever do well."
This goes against the usual practice of many companies in Hollywood, where flop sweat trumps inspiration and entrepreneurial brio takes a back seat to trend chasing. A24's open seating plan fosters open communication and a creative environment that defies its Wall Street backing.
"The practical use of that space is a flow of ideas I've never found anywhere else," says Noah Sacco, who worked at the Einstein Co., Focus Features and Cinetic Media before landing in production and acquisitions at A24. "It has manifestations at a micro and a macro level. Everyone knows what's going on in every other department, to a degree."
The big decisions, however, still fall to A24 principals. Fenkel, 38, is a veteran of the prestigious indie distributor ThinkFilm and co-founded another scrappy indie start-up, Oscilloscope Laboratories, with the late Beastie Boys rapper Adam Yauch. Hodges, 35, previously headed production and development for New York-based Big Beach Films ("Little Miss Sunshine," "Away We Go"). Katz, 36, began his career at Lionsgate Films before going on to lead the film finance group at Guggenheim Partners for five years, where he helped back "The Social Network" and "Twilight."
Katz's history with the global financial services firm — which supervises assets totaling more than $180 billion and famously acquired the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2012 for $2.15 billion in cash as part of a consortium led by Magic Johnson — is a key part of A24's DNA. Guggenheim invested several million dollars to set up the company on behalf of its investors and manages A24 through its board of directors.
"The stars were aligning for an interesting investment opportunity," says Michael Damaso, Guggenheim Partners' senior managing director and co-head of corporate credit. "Our investors had made money in the entertainment space. Now we also had a manager. We didn't have to bet on someone we didn't know."
Neither A24 nor Guggenheim would discuss dollar amounts, but the firm's backing allows A24 to acquire and distribute up to 10 movies a year.
According to Damaso, the endgame is to create value for both the films and the firm's investors. "By applying the fiscal discipline we put into other industries, we've done a good job of mitigating risk for our clients. We want to marry the arts with something fiscally responsible."
For Coppola, A24's plucky start-up spirit provides certain upsides for "The Bling Ring." "The whole company's really behind it. It's not going to get lost in the shuffle of a bunch of other films. It's always exciting when someone's starting something new."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun