My favorite film of all time is “Lady Bird.”
The plot of “Lady Bird” is deceptively simple. It’s a coming-of-age story about a 17-year-old from Sacramento, California, who dreams of moving to the East Coast for college. There’s obviously various overarching themes — platonic relationships, mother-daughter relationships, the relationship between personal faith and personal morals — but that’s the basic gist.
The way I’ve always described it is that it’s sort of like “The Catcher in the Rye” if that novel starred a teenage girl from California in 2002 instead of a teenage boy from New York in 1954.
The reason I bring all of this up is because “Lady Bird” is a perfect example of modern, mainstream independent filmmaking. Created on a relatively modest budget of $10 million, it was Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut after a career primarily in acting. Its stars weren’t yet massive household names: Saorise Ronan’s biggest role before it was arguably in “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and Timothée Chalamet had just had his breakout lead in “Call Me by Your Name.”
On top of all of this, it was also distributed by the independent studio A24. The company had already made a name for itself: it had an Academy Award for Best Picture under its belt with “Moonlight” and it did have some modest hits with “The Witch” and “Ex Machina.” But, “Lady Bird” ended up becoming a bigger hit than any of those films: while “Moonlight” had made $65.3 million in the box office, Gerwig’s semi-autobiographical comedy made nearly $80 million.
And the studio has only continued to grow since. Its most recent box office peak was in 2022 when the much-talked-about “Everything Everywhere All at Once” earned over $100 million.
But, hey, a lot of films make a lot of money — it’s not exactly a groundbreaking concept. So, what point am I trying to make?
It’s helpful to first place this studio’s emergence within the broader context of the film industry at-large. We’re living in an era that’s dominated by major franchise films — in 2022, the top 10 highest grossing films domestically all belonged to already-established intellectual properties.
To make a long story short, various filmmakers have criticized this business model as bad for films generally: as Martin Scorsese put it, in most places “franchise films are now your primary choice if you want to see something on the big screen.” It’s not that audiences only care about movies like “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” or “Avatar: The Way of Water,” it’s that these are the movies being most aggressively marketed to them.
But still, A24 has managed to emerge from this franchise system as an underdog of sorts. The runaway success of “Everything Everywhere All at Once” is the perfect case study for this: for all intents and purposes, the film itself provides no indication that it should have made the amount of money it did. Sure, it focuses on the multiverse, which, thanks to Marvel, has become a hot topic in recent years. But, beyond that, it’s a highly experimental, highly unconventional film that, theoretically, wouldn’t appeal to a mass audience.
But, it did. And one could debate the reasoning for this all day, but the simplest explanation is that audiences aren’t stupid. People like movies that do new things. They like movies that are kind of weird and aren’t cookie -cutter and don’t treat them like they’re dumb. Experimental, director-driven films don’t have to be relegated to niche arthouse audiences — A24 knows this and it’s used this information to revolutionize independent media.
This year alone, the company netted 18 Academy Award nominations, more than any other single studios. At the 2022 Primetime Emmy Awards ceremony, it received 16 nominations just for the series “Euphoria.” Yes, these events are ultimately just popularity contests, but doesn’t that just prove my point?
A24 will most likely never see the financial heights that Disney and its subsidiaries have seen, but it doesn’t have to. It’s proven there’s a wide audience that craves creative risks — and the film industry is being forced to listen. And that is worth a lot.
Joey Sills (he/him) is a sophomore studying journalism and political science.