Thursday, May 23, 2024

What “Civil War’s” Success May Mean For The Future Of A24

In a particular context, there should be no doubt that A24 is a mainstream studio now. After all, it has won two Best Picture Oscars since 2016, won almost every single major Oscar in 2022, and got two Best Picture nominations in the same year for the first time in 2023. However, its record-setting $25 million-plus opening weekend for “Civil War” may be an even bigger sign that it isn’t just a quirky indie studio anymore – whether or not it’s a promising or ominous sign.

While this is the biggest opening ever for an A24 film, it still comes with some asterisks. Since this was the first time an A24 film opened in 3800+ theaters and the first time one opened in IMAX, it was always going to do better than the average small A24 film. Nonetheless, a higher-than-expected opening in the mid-20-million range for a deeply divisive, politically charged—or perhaps politically uncharged—film like “Civil War” is a historic achievement for a still technically small studio.

Yet there have been signs for months that something like “Civil War” isn’t meant to be an anomaly for A24. Back in October 2023, The Wrap alleged that A24 had started pursuing “action and big IP projects” to acquire and produce instead of the “traditional character/auteur-driven dramas” that built their brand. While “Civil War” is at least still an auteur-driven drama, if arguably not a character-driven one, its large-scale action and brutal homeland warfare do seem right in line with that new strategy. And with its large-scale box office opening, it seems to be A24’s most successful proof of concept that this strategy can pay off big – financially anyway.

Civil War” might still not wind up beating “Everything Everywhere All at Once’s” $77+ million domestic gross to become the biggest film in A24 history. Of course, that film had months of word-of-mouth success and months more of awards season dominance to build its growth, whereas “Civil War” has had a far more conventional release strategy. Now that it succeeded for at least one weekend, A24 certainly won’t waste any time trying to replicate it – just like any other studio that quickly runs an initially successful strategy into the ground.

A24 had already dipped its toes into such a mainstream outreach in 2023. “The Iron Claw” was technically a broadly appealing, conventional sports biopic/tearjerker about the tragic von Erich wrestling family and managed to build word of mouth to a $35 million domestic gross over the winter – even if award season voters didn’t notice. And while “Talk To Me” easily fell under the “elevated horror” brand that A24 has defined over the years, it still had enough mainstream appeal to reach nearly $50 million over summer 2023, even during the height of “Barbenheimer” mania. Those two films were among the top 6 grossers in A24 history up to this point. They helped prove that blending traditional A24 indie filmmaking with somewhat more mainstream-friendly storytelling and concepts could pay off with both critics and audiences. “Everything Everywhere All at Once” did that to a far larger effect, but almost no one expected it would become that massive going in. Now, “Civil War” seems to be the next intentional step forward to try to reach wider audiences, although pleasing both them and the usual A24 fanbase might have been harder to pull off this time.

To those who weren’t so impressed with “Civil War” and to those who were already dreading A24 becoming more conventional, this won’t be seen as much of a real success. In fact, to those who argue and lament that “Civil War” did everything it could to avoid any deeper commentary about its American Civil War—whether to avoid upsetting various political/audience factions or not—its success may seem to validate in worse ways.The A24 of old surely would have released a version of “Civil War” that was far more openly political and far less fearful of upsetting certain demographics. However, an A24 that is more concerned with box office returns and an eye for carving its place alongside the major studios indeed felt more reassured that this wasn’t the direction Alex Garland wanted to go in. Now that this direction has paid off at the box office, will A24 be more inclined to believe the “middle of the road” is the way to go for future hits? If so, will that accelerate any plans to go more mainstream and less independent – in distribution and content – regardless of what it means for the quality of A24’s future work and reputation? These questions can’t possibly be answered right now or perhaps in the next few years, but in the wake of “Civil War,” they certainly have to linger more than ever. As such, “Civil War” could go down in history as a massive turning point for the future of A24, with ramifications rippling well beyond one opening weekend. Whether critics, A24’s current base, or its potential new base see it as a good or bad turning point is another matter altogether. Either way, more eyes will be on the studio than ever before now, to say nothing of the rest of its upcoming lineup.

Looking ahead to the rest of 2024, it doesn’t look like A24 will have another big release like “Civil War” out anytime soon. It may certainly spend the rest of the year looking to greenlight a few for 2025 and beyond, yet in the meantime, it looks like business is going as usual for now. The studio’s most mainstream and awards-friendly project on the immediate horizon seems to be “Sing Sing,” which is slated for a July 2024 release. Yet it already had film festival audiences and Oscar pundits raving last fall, to the point where they will be more than eager to get the word out this summer and Oscar season. With its story of prison inmates who rehabilitate themselves through theater, and with a cast that includes real-life former inmates alongside recent Oscar nominees Colman Domingo and Paul Raci, it could also strike the same kind of late summer word of mouth gold “Talk To Me” did with a bit of help.

But before that, A24’s first attempt at a sleeper indie summer hit will be “MaXXXine” on the Fourth of July weekend. As the first teaser recently revealed, the conclusion to T.I. West’s “X” horror trilogy looks to be even bigger in scope than “X” and “Pearl” were in 2022. It is undoubtedly the closest thing A24 has ever had to a full-on franchise – and if “MaXXXine” does indeed become bigger than its predecessors, more attempts at franchise-building will surely be on the way.

Nonetheless, A24 is still intent on flooding the arthouses as well, at least for the time being. The Sundance and SXSW hit “I Saw the TV Glow” will be out in early May, while the coming-of-age drama “Janet Planet” is set for mid-June. As for other award season hopefuls, A24 has the likes of “A Different Man,” David Lowery’s “Mother May” with Anne Hathaway and Michaela Coel, John Crowley’s “We Live in Time” with Florence Pugh and Andrew Garfield, and any future acquisitions it may pick up from Cannes or the fall film festivals. Will those acquisitions be in line with “Past Lives” and “The Zone of Interest” or be broader like “The Whale?” That may be the next sign of where A24’s future priorities lie in box office and Oscar campaigning.

For those who hope A24 doesn’t sacrifice art and independence for four-quadrant hits, maybe not all is lost yet. Last spring, “Beau is Afraid” didn’t come close to making back a bigger budget than usual for an A24 film and didn’t have the usual A24 standard of critical acclaim either. Yet instead of backing away from director Ari Aster as a result, as bigger studios might do, A24 still greenlit their fourth film with him in 2025’s “Eddington” – with the likes of Joaquin Phoenix, Emma Stone, Pedro Pascal, and Austin Butler on board too. But if that too is a critical and box office letdown, and if A24 isn’t as eager to stick by Aster this time, maybe the tide really will have shifted by then.

Given how A24 is branching out, how even Neon is putting films like “Immaculate” in 2300+ theaters, and how big studios are struggling enough to give indie studios this kind of open box office window, this is a very tumultuous time for mainstream and indie circuits alike. A lot more beyond A24’s box office strategy may determine the future direction of indie studios and the next era of truly independent filmmaking, if indeed there is one. Nonetheless, just as A24 has symbolized independent cinema for the last several years, its lurch into the mainstream will symbolize its future for the next several – either positively or negatively.

What do you think will become of A24 now that their largest film to date is a box office success? Have you seen “Civil War” yet? If so, what do you think of it? Please let us know in the comments section below or on Next Best Picture’s Twitter account.

You can follow Robert and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars & Film on Twitter at @Robertdoc1984

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