NEW YORK CITY — Sofia Coppola could have easily gone the studio route in choosing a distributor for her new movie, "The Bling Ring." Instead she chose the upstart company that set loose the viral image of James Franco as a resplendently thugged-out Jesus.
The Facebook posting of the actor in his "Spring Breakers" lizard-king persona, surrounded by his bikini-clad costars, director Harmony Korine and rapper Gucci Mane at a "Last Supper"-style banquet table, spread across the web in late March with a tide of 20,000 thumbs-up.
By the time the company called A24 released "Spring Breakers," the $5-million crime romp had exploded across the cultural consciousness. It was a trending topic on Twitter for several weeks and had about 600,000 Facebook likes before it set per-screen attendance records its opening weekend and clocked the biggest premiere of a movie in limited release this year.
Inside a converted industrial space with 20-foot-high ceilings and sweeping views of the Hudson River, the A24 crew of twenty- and thirtysomethings work shoulder to shoulder at long communal tables. With nary an executive suite in sight and no management hierarchy immediately apparent, the scene, more Pinterest than Paramount, calls to mind a Silicon Valley start-up, not the kind of corporate complex where moviemaking decisions typically get made.
But then, A24 isn't interested in business as usual in Hollywood. Less than a year in operation, the production and distribution company is attempting to rewrite the indie-movie playbook by erasing the divide between art-house cinema and the multiplex.
The industry is taking notice: "Spring Breakers" has grossed more than $14 million to date — a sizable score for an independently financed feature without studio backing.
Many predict that A24 could follow up that success with "The Bling Ring." On the heels of a widely publicized, glitzed-out premiere at the Cannes Film Festival last month, Coppola's ripped-from-the-headlines crime drama appears poised to deliver another of the year's biggest limited-release openings.
Opening in five theaters in New York and Los Angeles this weekend before opening wide next week across the country, "The Bling Ring" has already made bigger cultural waves than anyone could reasonably expect from an $8-million film whose biggest star is Emma Watson from the "Harry Potter" franchise.
Coppola says she was convinced that A24 would use tactical marketing finesse to help turn "The Bling Ring" into a crossover hit.
"I thought this movie can reach both a young and a grown-up audience," the director explains. "They saw a way to reach both an art house audience and a popcorn movie audience. They knew a lot about social media. And they had a strategy to make it work. I thought their whole approach was smart."
Thus far, the company has specialized in titles that fall under the umbrella term "artsploitation": prestige films such as A24's March-released drama "Ginger & Rosa" and "The Spectacular Now" (which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and hits theaters in August) featuring attractive ingénues who cast off their social inhibitions to learn life's lessons.
But the company's larger goal is less genre-specific: A24 wants to inject modestly budgeted films into the national conversation, providing the films, and their directors, a hard-won cultural exposure that defies the art-house ghetto.
"There is an audience out there for these films," says A24 co-founder Daniel Katz. "And there are platforms that didn't exist 12, 18, 24 months ago that allow us to create a profile for a project that didn't exist without national television advertising."
"We want all our films to cross over," says David Fenkel, another A24 co-founder.
But to hear it from Jesse Patrone-Werdiger, who concentrates on marketing and social media for the company, helping small films bridge that divide in the modern movie marketplace requires bypassing traditional promotional methods in lieu of a kind of asymmetrical marketing approach in tune with Generation Y consumer habits.
"We're always cognizant of trying to sell the film by not selling it," Patrone-Werdiger says, "by tapping into elements of it that are really evocative and compelling to people in a way that does not register as something they want to spend money on."
Which is precisely where social media fit into the company's strategy.