A24 Achieves Art-House Supremacy With Triumphant Oscar Night

Six years after nabbing the best picture Oscar for “Moonlight,” the hip, art-house studio A24 succeeded at Sunday night’s Academy Awards on a scale that seemed to surprise even its executives, who entered the post-show Governor’s Ball with what-just-happened-looks on their faces.

The studio became the first in the 95-year history of the Oscars to capture the top six awards at once: the four acting categories, director and picture. It won nine trophies in all — out of 18 nominations — with seven, including best picture, going to “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” That film, about a family of Asian immigrants who travel through a multiverse in their quest to find one another, was made for $20 million and grossed $106 million worldwide.

The acting awards went to Michelle Yeoh (“Everything Everywhere All at Once”) and Brendan Fraser (“The Whale”) in the lead categories, along with Jamie Lee Curtis and Ke Huy Quan, both from “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” for their supporting roles. (Among those Mr. Fraser beat out was Paul Mescal, nominated for A24’s “Aftersun,” while Ms. Curtis faced her co-star Stephanie Hsu and Hong Chau from “The Whale.”)

The filmmaking duo behind “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert — known as the Daniels — won the directing Oscar.

Michelle Yeoh is the first Asian woman to win the Oscar for best actress. Credit…Todd Heisler/The New York Times

It signaled what could be a changing of the guard. The two studios that have long dominated the art film business, Searchlight Pictures and Focus Features, left the ceremony empty-handed. Searchlight’s “The Banshees of Inisherin” was nominated for nine Oscars. Focus was behind “Tár,” which was nominated for six.

Making A24’s glittering night all the more notable is that it comes as the movie business is in disarray. Art-house theaters shut down at a rapid clip during the pandemic and the audience for adult-minded films is shrinking. Auteurs are increasingly turning to streaming services that offer more money and less stress. And the big studios are becoming even more risk-averse in what they are willing to put in theaters, churning out a steady stream of sequels and superhero films.

More on the 95th Academy Awards

  • ‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’ Wins Big: The head-twisting, sex toy-brandishing, TikTok-era film won best picture — along with six other Oscars, including acting awards for Michelle Yeoh, Ke Huy Quan and Jamie Lee Curtis.
  • The Show: An Oscars broadcast that’s become a shrink-wrapped, anodyne exercise stuck safely to the script, our television critic writes.
  • Oscar Fashion: Rihanna’s belly, Florence Pugh’s shorts and Cate Blanchett’s archival velvet brought new relevance to awards show dressing, our fashion critic says.
  • Governor’s Ball: At the academy’s big post-Oscars party, stars and filmmakers celebrated with dancing, drinks and prime rib. Here’s a look inside the festivities.

“I’m just so glad they exist because no one else is making the weird stuff that they are, and we all need that,” Paul Rogers, who won the editing Oscar for “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” said of A24 after entering the Governor’s Ball. “We need to know, all the weirdos out there, that we’re not alone. They’re helping us and the world realize that it’s OK to be strange. It’s OK to be different. It’s OK to tell different types of stories about different types of people than what we’re used to seeing.”

“Moonlight” won the best picture Oscar for A24 in 2017.Credit…David Bornfriend/A24

A24, named after an Italian highway, was founded in 2012 in New York City by three independent film executives. David Fenkel co-ran Oscilloscope Pictures; John Hodges, who has since left, started at USA Films; and Daniel Katz began his career at Lionsgate Films before leaving to run the film finance group at Guggenheim Partners.

Guggenheim was an early investor in the company. A year ago, A24 announced a $225 million equity investment that put the company’s valuation at $2.5 billion and would allow it to expand its production and distribution operations. A24 declined to make any executives available to be interviewed for this article, reflecting a practiced counter-intuitiveness and general disinterest in Hollywood-style preening that has become part of its brand. The company issued a pat statement instead: “It was a special night. We’re very proud and couldn’t be happier for all of our winners.”

The winners were happy, too. Several from the “Everything Everywhere All at Once” team gathered at the engraving table during the post-Oscars party in the Dolby Theater ballroom, including Ms. Curtis, and Mr. Kwan and Mr. Scheinert, who also won the Oscar for their original screenplay.

Mr. Scheinert handed his Oscar to his mother. “You want to carry it, Mom?” he asked. “People will be like, ‘Ooh, who is she?’”

The room exploded when Mr. Quan, the personification of an only-in-Hollywood comeback story, jumped atop the table where the engraving of statuettes was taking place and let loose a guttural scream. It felt like a fitting exclamation point to a triumphant evening for his genre-bending film and the studio that helped make it a reality.

Ke Huy Quan celebrated his Oscar win at the Governors Ball.Credit…Sinna Nasseri for The New York Times

A24, which employs about 180 people, is now one of the few significant, truly independent studios left. It routinely takes chances on younger filmmakers with original ideas that are compelling to audiences, many of them in the coveted 18-to-34-year-old demographic, to head to the theater.

“To his credit, Daniel Katz had experience in the financial world and structured the company financially to thrive in the indie world while having a strong sense of the marketplace,” said Stephen Gilula, the former co-chairman of Fox Searchlight. “Between him and his partners, they had an instinct to go even edgier — moving into the indie fringes — and they have proven a business that no one else has done, as a true independent, over time.”

A24’s success has come with a steady drumbeat of unlikely hits like Harmony Korine’s “Spring Breakers,” Sophia Coppola’s “Bling Ring,” Alex Garland’s “Ex Machina,” Robert Eggers’ “The Witch,” Yorgos Lanthimos’s “The Lobster,” Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird,” Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell,” Ari Aster’s “Midsommar,” the Safdie Brothers’ “Uncut Gems,” and Lee Isaac Chung’s “Minari.”

Darren Aronofsky, director of “The Whale,” said he had the opportunity to sell his film to a streaming service for more money. He opted for A24 because of the company’s commitment to theatrical distribution, even during the middle of the pandemic, when the future of movie theaters was uncertain.

“I felt like ‘The Whale’ in the theater would be a great experience because it would bring people together to feel in such a deep way and in a different way than the theater has been used for a very long time,” Mr. Aronofsky said in an interview. “We used to have tear-jerkers back in the day, but that doesn’t seem to be out there much anymore.”

The film was made for $3 million and turned into a modest hit, with a worldwide gross of $37 million and Oscar nominations for Mr. Fraser and Ms. Chau. It also won the award for best makeup and hairstyling.

Brendan Fraser won best actor for “The Whale,” part of an A24 sweep in the acting categories.Credit…Todd Heisler/The New York Times

Mr. Aronofsky said what stood out about A24’s approach was the studio’s “attention to detail.”

“It’s clear that they love their movies and they’re proud of their movies and I think that’s how they choose their movies,” he said. Mr. Aronofsky is currently partnered with A24 on the rerelease of his first film, “Pi.”

Now, as the acclaim sets in, will the company, which is better capitalized than it has ever been, be able to maintain its taste level and its financial discipline? There is concern within the industry that they could begin delving into the more expensive, studio-level movies, much like Harvey Weinstein’s Miramax did after its early Oscar triumphs.

The company’s upcoming slate of films indicate it is sticking to its roots. The Australian horror film “Talk to Me” was just shown to rave reviews at the SXSW film festival and is scheduled to hit theaters this summer. Other films include Nicole Holofcener’s “You Hurt My Feelings,” starring Julia Louis Dreyfus; “Past Lives,” from the writer-director Celine Song; and “Beau Is Afraid,” starring Joaquin Phoenix and directed by Mr. Aster.

A24 will also still have to compete with streaming companies like Apple, Amazon and Netflix (A24 had a two-year production deal with Apple that expired.) Those services regularly compete with the traditional studios for big-budget films, but they have also shown themselves willing to dabble in more independent fare, like Apple TV+ did when it paid $20 million for “CODA,” which went won best picture last year.

“When you have Apple and Amazon, and still Netflix to an extent, who are distorting the marketplace, all of it ripples out,” Mr. Gilula said.

“The economics for everyone now are really screwed up,” he added. “So A24 has to continue doing indie movies, because as much money as they have, I don’t think they can compete head-to-head with those other three.”

To this point, A24 has managed to succeed by spending less and doing more. Unlike most studios, A24 does not rely on television ads to sell a movie. In fact, the studio may not take out any TV ads at all for a film. Instead, the company has mastered the art of finding a specific audience online and convincing them — through clever social media content, for instance — to evangelize for them. Their commitment to original work has become their calling card. Seeing A24’s name attached to a film has begun to connote a certain standard of quality to a segment of the moviegoing audience and to the film industry.

Sunday night’s triumph only emphasizes that.

“It’s actually just amazing, what they’ve done,” said Stephen Galloway, the dean of Chapman University’s film school. “It’s really art-house moviemaking that all of us probably thought was dead. And yet they’re proving it is not. You can guarantee at this point that they’re getting first dibs on any interesting, original, different non-mainstream screenplays.”

Brooks Barnes contributed reporting.

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