What Is Going On With A24 Dumping Its 2024 Documentaries?

Jerry Lee Lewis, the central subject of Jerry Lee Lewis: Trouble in Mind, one of many 2024 documentaries A24 has dumped onto the small screen.
Jerry Lee Lewis, the central subject of Jerry Lee Lewis: Trouble in Mind, one of many 2024 documentaries A24 has dumped onto the small screen. / Evening Standard/GettyImages

After a decade of existence, everyone knows about A24, the indie film distributor of the moment. The studio's logo is everywhere, including on hats and T-shirts worn proudly by film buffs everywhere. It's not just that there are now two Best Picture winners in the studio's catalog. A24 has also distributed enough iconic horror movies to inspire a subgenre known as "A24 horror". This studio has garnered incredible modern notoriety. Rarely in the history of modern cinema has an indie distributor become this popular.

However, even with all the attention showered upon so many of the new movies A24 releases, a crisis has emerged regarding the studio's output. A24 has put out a lot of documentaries in 2024, many of them financed by the distributor. Yet most of them have received next to no publicity and are on nobody’s radar. What’s going on here? Why has A24 been dumping its 2024 documentaries?

On January 12, 2024, the documentary My Mercury dropped onto Amazon Prime Video with zero promotion. A documentary about an extreme act of conservationism, the film was partially directed by Philippa Ehlrich, one of the Oscar-winning filmmakers behind My Octopus Teacher. Eleven days later, Open Wide premiered on Netflix. This documentary about John Mew, a staunchly anti-braces man, also debuted with no marketing (though it at least got a Sundance 2024 premiere). This strange one-two punch was a precursor for other troubling release strategies to come.

These two documentaries were followed up by the conclusion of the bizarre saga of Jerry Lee Lewis: Trouble in Mind . This documentary about the famous musician directed by Ethan Coen first premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2022. The feature then sat on a shelf for nearly two years before quietly dropping on Amazon Prime Video on Valentine’s Day 2024. Even with the documentary scoring mixed reviews, it was still bizarre to consider an Ethan Coen movie flying so far under the radar thanks to A24’s release strategy. 

Two-and-a-half months later, a documentary about the January 6th insurrection against the U.S. Capitol, entitled The Sixth, quietly premiered on premium-video-on-demand (PVOD) services. Even eagle-eyed movie buffs reacted in shock at how suddenly this feature dropped. There was no significant pre-release marketing or film festival screenings to drum up buzz for its imminent arrival. A24's social media pages, like its Instagram, made no mention of the project’s debut. There is . However, the title was not plastered on A24’s homepage around the time of its release. Other major May 2024 A24 movies and TV shows were all over that homepage, but not The Sixth.

These features aren't alone in being documentaries that A24 has barely promoted or acknowledged. The 2023 deep-diving documentary The Deepest Breath (which went straight to Netflix) also barely received any promotion. Then there's Steve McQueen's expansive documentary Occupied City. Unlike most other documentaries released by A24, this one did go to theaters. That feature began a limited theatrical run in North America on December 25, 2023. Bizarrely, though, A24 never reported domestic box office figures for the film. It basically vanished before it even started screening.

The recurring trend of A24 happily selling documentaries to streamers, giving them blink-and-you’ll-miss-it theatrical runs, or sending them straight to PVOD is both puzzling and troubling. Of course, this kind of treatment is nothing new for documentaries. This strain of cinema has often been seen as “unviable” for theatrical distributors. Even big arthouse labels like Searchlight Pictures don’t prioritize documentaries in their annual line-ups of titles. There’s a perception that such features aren’t “cinematic” enough to inspire audiences to come to see them in theaters. This concept runs rampant throughout the entire film industry. That reality was underscored by documentary filmmaker comments reported by Deadline at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival.

In this report, various distributor directors and producers were open about the lack of opportunities for theatrical distribution of documentaries. Filmmaker Deborah Riley Draper even remarked that big screen chances for documentaries had grown so bleak that it was time to explore other ways of getting productions out to the public. Such words reflect that A24 isn’t alone in its lack of interest in giving documentaries major distribution pushes. However, what’s extra weird about the fate of My MercuryThe Sixth, and others is that A24 was a key financier on these projects. It’s one thing to not produce documentary films, let alone acquire them for distribution. It’s another to create them in-house and then just dump them without any fanfare.

At least when a specialty label like Focus Features acquires a documentary like Every Body or The Brothers Sparks, those titles receive a theatrical-exclusive release in a couple hundred theaters. A24, meanwhile, just sends its self-produced documentaries to the small screen with no promotion. Presumably, financial reasons play a big part in this. Selling distribution rights to documentaries to Netflix or Amazon can give A24 some easy quick cash. Given the perceived limited box office viability of documentaries, A24 executives may see selling these titles to streamers as a minimal loss. In their eyes, documentaries are unlikely to become the next Everything Everywhere All at Once or Talk to Me sleeper hit. Given that perception and how much cash streamers throw at acquiring movies, A24 leadership may see creating documentaries for these outlets as just easy money.

Perhaps the studio's lack of experience marketing documentaries also inspired this release approach. Before 2019, A24 only had three documentaries in its library of titles (two of which barely got theatrical runs). Starting in 2019, the studio began to ramp up its involvement in documentaries. This came through projects like The Elephant Queen and Boys State. However, the majority of those productions went straight to Apple TV+ as part of the label's deal with the streamer. Even before the great A24 documentary purge of 2024, this distributor shoveled documentaries like Val to streaming platforms. The studio's history just isn’t littered with theatrically released documentaries. My Mercury and The Sixth's release plans indicate A24 doesn’t plan to change that.

Even this concept of historical precedence informing A24’s wariness towards promoting its documentaries feels strange, though. For one thing, A24’s distribution efforts have often seen the studio entering previously uncharted territory. Launching the costly mid-budget movie Civil War didn’t have a lot of precursors for the label. Ditto taking a chance on The VVitch back in 2016. For many kinds of narrative films, A24 executives are happy to leap into the unknown. Sending something like A Ghost Story to theaters is never in doubt. If this studio gambled on Beau Is Afraid, why couldn’t it take a risk on theatrical runs for documentaries? Heck, even sending these titles to PVOD with a modicum of marketing muscle would’ve shown some confidence. 

Then there's the box office success of A24’s one theatrical-exclusive documentary, Amy. This project's lucrative run showed that the studio could use its resources to launch hit entries in this genre. A documentary with the A24 logo on it can drum up respectable big screen business. Despite all of these factors, though, A24 has not changed its release strategies. The studio remains steadfast in sending documentaries to streaming and PVOD platforms with zero marketing.

This trend has become especially troubling given that the distributor’s handling of these films has begun to rankle the participants of some of these motion pictures. In its breakdown of The Sixth getting abandoned by A24, Michael Schaffer of Politico reported that one subject in the documentary was especially distressed by how the movie was released. Photojournalist Mel D. Cole told the outlet that he’d previously denied being interviewed for other documentaries about January 6th. However, he accepted the invitation for The Sixth almost exclusively based on A24’s involvement. In explaining the situation, Cole released the following statement to the outlet:

""I’m very disappointed in the lack of publicity and the lack of promotion that’s coming from A24…I love their films and I think they always put their all into what they accomplish. I thought that this would have that same kind of push.” "

Mel D. Cole, Politico

Documentaries are an incredibly bold form of cinematic expression. So too are the anecdotes coming from working-class people contained in many of those documentaries. Both this artform and souls like Cole willing to go on-camera deserve better treatment. They certainly don't deserve things like A24 shuffling The Sixth to PVOD with zero fanfare. In that Deadline piece, Cinetic Media executive Jason Ishikawa remarked that documentaries require thoughtful care in how they're released. These features require theatrical runs and savvy marketing to get on people's radar. 

""A lot of nonfiction needs that...We need that watercooler effect because we don’t have billboards.”"

Jason Ishikawa, Deadline

It'd be one thing if A24 executives simply had no interest in distributing or acquiring documentaries. However, given that the studio is now producing many of these titles, A24 needs to improve its handling of documentaries. These titles need more nurturing with how they’re rolled out to the public. Dumping My Mercury, Open Wide, and The Sixth (among others) to the small screen with no notice won't do. A24 has become famous for its horror movies. Now the distributor needs to become equally renowned for turning around its current default handling of documentary releases. C’mon A24, if Warner Bros. can send multiple documentaries to theaters in 2024, you too can give documentaries a chance on the big screen!

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