This is not a review of Beau is Afraid. Someone you know has probably raved about the film’s determination to embody a bad acid trip, or a guy wearing an A24 cap might have popped up on your feed talking about how we need more Oedipal complexes in mainstream cinema. Props to Ari Aster for getting his one on-screen with all the adornments that a $35 million budget affords.
What has blown the internet’s mind is that when you give an arthouse director that much money, they’re going to run with it. Previously defined by its niche audiences, arthouse is becoming an aesthetic supported by bigger budgets, a convergence largely unseen before recent years.
To clarify, an independent (“indie”) film is produced or distributed outside of the major studio system. They’re typically more “unique” than big studio movies, as less restrictive box office and content expectations allow writers and directors greater creative freedom. Arthouse, a term regularly paired (or interchanged) with indie, means that the movie’s content is likely going to be more artistic and experimental than most films, which theoretically means it’ll appeal to a smaller audience. Beau is Afraid is a recent example of indie arthouse getting a budget: its semi-animated sequences, deeply personal content and freedom from genre appealed to a few people and made everyone else ask why they’re watching Joaquin Phoenix have a nervous breakdown for three hours.
When arthouse Norse epic, The Northman, directed by A24 darling Robert Eggers (The Witch, The Lighthouse), “flopped” in 2022, making $69 million on a $90 million budget, everyone worried that COVID was the nail in the coffin of big studios entrusting unique directors with high budgets, as it wasn’t financially smart. But it seems everyone was wrong. A24’s indie distributions Everything Everywhere All At Once and The Whale steamrolled their budgets and this year’s awards shows, and legitimised some independent filmmaking sensibilities — highly intimate plot, unique voices, a lack of Chris Pratt — in the Western mainstream.
Created in 2012 by three friends in New York, A24 was founded as a film distributor with the objectives of acquiring and popularising movies with directorial flair, and making “sophisticated” cinema more accessible to young people. It found considerable success picking movies with refined aesthetics and emotional depth, like Ex Machina’s glossy dystopia and Enemy’s brooding mystery. So, they began producing their own films.
People responded immediately. Barry Jenkins’ 2016 film Moonlight, the first movie actually produced by A24, won the Academy Award for Best Picture and was stunningly acclaimed. Following the life of a gay African American man in Miami, the film’s moody neon lighting, intimate storytelling and distinct directorial voice have become hallmarks of A24 movies. Moonlight grossed over $65 million against a $1.5 million budget, certifying it as an indie hit. The film and A24 didn’t only bring arthouse to its typical audience; they brought it to the mainstream.
What followed Moonlight established A24 as a preeminent producer of vibey and mostly-grounded-occasionally-pretentious independent films. Modern “auteur” directors — a concept which I don’t think really exists, it just surprises people when directors get the freedom to make what they want — like Robert Eggers, Kelly Reichardt (First Cow, Showing Up) and Ari Aster (Hereditary, Midsommar, Beau is Afraid) have defined a substantial part of the Western film landscape’s personality since A24 made indie arthouse trendy. Films as creative as Swiss Army Man (which follows a guy who befriends a rotting corpse on a remote island) and Zola (Janicza Bravo’s chaotic comedy based off a series of tweets) would undoubtedly have passed by mainstream cinemas without the distribution clout afforded by A24’s popularity.
This phenomenon isn’t limited to A24, however: studios like Neon (Crimes of the Future, I, Tonya), Annapurna Pictures (Sorry to Bother You, If Beale Street Could Talk), Blumhouse (Get Out, M3GAN) and Jordan Peele’s Monkeypaw Productions are growing in popularity and committed to making unique, boundary-pushing films.
For a good while now, higher-budget movies have been defined by massive studios like Warner Brothers, Universal, and Marvel, which aren’t known to take major chances, promote unique creative voices and seem to really like movies based on comic books. Moreover, the film industry took a massive blow after COVID. According to thenumbers.com, fourteen of the top twenty biggest money-losers of all time, based on absolute loss on worldwide earnings, are post-2020 releases. Independent cinema especially struggles in times like these, so it is heartening to know that studios are taking a chance on a variety of intriguing, personal and daring movies, and people are responding to them.
Big studios are even clocking the indie arthouse craze, as they seem increasingly committed to letting eccentric directors cook. Jordan Peele’s NOPE (Universal Studios) and Damien Chazelle’s Babylon (Paramount) are unique, non-franchise big-budget movies from directors with their roots firmly in arthouse.
While it’s true that A24 is prevailing in the indie scene right now, it’s not a typical media hegemony story. Usually, dominance in any field is harmful to the plurality of voices and causes homogeneity, but given filmmaking’s collaborative nature, as well as increasingly popular studios like A24 and Annapurna’s commitment to funding a variety of budgets, voices and styles, the mainstream-ification of arthouse indie is doing the culture a lot of good. The film landscape is experiencing stylistic diversity at unprecedented heights; despite all being produced by A24, 2022’s multiversal tax story Everything Everywhere All At Once, enigmatic family drama The Eternal Daughter and sexed-up slasher X have completely different worlds and voices. What they share is that they’re all a bit weird in their own way, and weird is good. Why?
Because, much like Beau is Afraid, it’s new, it gets you thinking about stuff, but most importantly, it’s fun. Let’s just hope that with this growing success, A24 doesn’t forget where they came from.