How 'Moonlight' Altered NYC's Indie Scene

Illustration by Mark Matcho

With its Oscar triumph, A24 is leading the next gen of distributors facing off against such established players as The Weinstein Co. and Sony Classics.

In February 2012, The Weinstein Co. nabbed the best picture Oscar for the black-and-white silent film The Artist, just 12 months after landing the film industry's top prize for The King's Speech. The twin wins solidified the company's standing as king of the New York indie film distributors — and the only one able to regularly challenge the Hollywood studios.

Fast forward five years, though, and there's a new heir apparent flexing its muscle. With the surprise (and dramatic) best picture win of the $1.5 million coming-of-age drama Moonlight, A24 now holds bragging rights as the hottest distributor in town. Founded by Daniel Katz, John Hodges and David Fenkel only six months after TWC's Artist win, the Chelsea-based company with just 50 employees has shifted the balance of power in the city's delicate film ecosystem, which includes such seasoned veterans as Sony Pictures Classics and other newcomers like Bleecker Street and Neon. (Disclosure: The Hollywood Reporter's parent company owns a stake in A24.)

It has made for a dramatic upheaval in the New York landscape, where Harvey Weinstein has reigned for more than two decades, first at Miramax (which also landed such best picture wins as Shakespeare in Love and Chicago) and later TWC. But Weinstein has been paring back in film for the past two years, sharpening his focus on TV.

"Certainly A24 has established themselves as a New York entity, and you know they're solid," says SPC co-president Tom Bernard. A24 meanwhile has proved its ability to pick cutting-edge films that make traditional art house fare look downright stodgy, all while eschewing publicity for its efforts. (A24 execs declined to be interviewed and have done no public victory lap since the Oscars.)

Still, its box office has been just a blip on the overall film business' radar. Not a single A24 film — including its high earners Moonlight, Ex Machina and The Witch — has surpassed $30 million domestically. By contrast, TWC's best picture nominee Lion has grossed $51.2 million domestically — nearly double Moonlight's $27.8 million haul (Lion earned $81.4 million overseas to Moonlight's $32.8 million).

Though it started as a company that acquired finished films, A24 now is altering its game plan to make its slate almost entirely in-house and has aligned with New York producer Scott Rudin on its next two projects: Jonah Hill's Mid '90s and Pippa Bianco's microbudget date-rape drama Share. The company also is in talks to team with Rudin collaborator Barry Diller on a producing pact. (Katz and Fenkel skipped the recent Spirit Awards, where Moonlight dominated, in order to attend Diller's annual Oscar-weekend bash.) With global ambitions, A24 also is co-distributing Moonlight in the U.K.

Even as A24 looks to assert its dominance in the space, others in New York also are coming on strong, including two-year-old Bleecker Street, which is two for two in landing best actor nominations (Bryan Cranston in Trumbo in 2016 and Viggo Mortensen in Captain Fantastic this year). The company also nabbed Steven Soderbergh's long-awaited return from film retirement, Logan Lucky, the Channing Tatum-Adam Driver heist pic set to open Aug. 18.

"From my perspective, New York is alive and well in terms of the distribution companies," says Bleecker CEO Andrew Karpen. "I don't know if there's an advantage to being here. But we are physically closer to Europe, and that certainly helps with independent international productions."

Meanwhile, Weinstein defector Tom Quinn (who previously ran Radius, the TWC digital division, with Jason Janego) joined forces with Alamo Drafthouse's Tim League to launch Neon this year, after picking up Colossal, the sci-fi comedy starring Anne Hathaway, in Toronto. And while TWC made no moves at Sundance, Neon scooped up three pics: Ingrid Goes West, Roxanne Roxanne and Beach Rats. (TWC did send new intern Malia Obama to a Beach Rats screening.)

New York-based producer Jared Ian Goldman — who has worked with nearly every indie distributor in and out of the city, most recently Fox Searchlight on Wilson and Focus Features on Loving — turned down several suitors on Ingrid to opt for Neon. "I really can't emphasize enough how collaborative Tom is. I've worked with distributors who were basically like, 'Here's the money. Nice job. We'll take it from here,'" says Goldman.

Part of the allure of working with a New York indie distributor is its proximity to tastemakers, a selling point that Weinstein has long touted. Additionally, most platform releases begin their journeys in New York. That's particularly key for foreign-language films, an area of success for SPC as well as smaller New York players like Cohen Media Group, which, along with Amazon, released 2017's foreign-language Oscar winner The Salesman.

"Companies like Focus have moved West, and there's new companies that have popped up in the meantime," says Bernard. "We certainly have been here for 25 years under Sony Pictures Classics, and we're constantly trying to adapt to the changes in the industry and the changes and the taste of the audiences."

This story first appeared in the April 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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