Wednesday, June 21, 2017

A24 A-to-Z: #3. "Spring Breakers" (2013)

In case you didn't know, A24 is one of the great purveyors of modern cinema. Since 2013, the studio has found a way to innovate independent cinema by turning each release into an event. As a result, A24 A-to-Z will be an ongoing series that looks at every release from the studio by analyzing its production history, release, criticisms, and any awards attention that it might've received. Join me on a quest to explore the modern heroes of cinema by exploring every hit and miss that comes with that magnificent logo. They may not all be great, but they more than make A24 what it is and what it will hopefully continue to be for ears to come.

Spring Breakers
Released: March 22, 2013
Release Number: 3
Directed By: Harmony Korine
Written By: Harmony Korine
Starring: Vanessa Hudgens, Selena Gomez, Ashley Benson
Plot: Four college girls hold up a restaurant in order to fund their spring break vacation. While partying, drinking, and taking drugs, they are arrested, only to be bailed out by a drug and arms dealer.
Major Awards: 0

To quote a harebrained expression, third time really was the charm for A24. Following the first two releases, the independent film studio had yet to have a hit that would exist outside of limited releases. A week after the release of Ginger & Rosa, director Harmony Korine released Spring Breakers to a violent swirl of opinions. Was it exploitative? Was it feminist? Did it need to be anything significant? As David Ehrlich once suggested, this film's release was the moment that "The film industry crawled out of its deathbed and back onto its feet." There have been more favorable movies in the years since, but none properly announced A24's intent to redesign the film culture zeitgeist through characters who only dreamed about bikinis and big booties while singing Britney Spears tunes. It may be unorthodox as a film, but its success is in line with everything that's to come.

It would seem unlikely that Korine's ode to spring break would be a success, in part because having his previous film be called Trash Humpers suggests a certain lack of marketability. However, it was sometime in between when he was working on shorts that he came up with the core idea of Spring Breakers. It was an atonement for his youth. He was a skateboarder and never enjoyed the summer event. He would go on to write the script for the movie in Florida, believing that it would help get him in the hedonistic mindset. Add in influence from director Michael Mann's Miami Vice, and the general crux of the movie was formed. Korine didn't care about structure so much as getting lost in the images. 

The casting was the most ingenious part of the entire affair. While James Franco was the easiest to get, casting the young sorority members was tough. In order to raise attention to this exploitation movie, they needed big stars. By some luck, that included recent Disney Channel stars Vanessa Hudgens (High School Musical), Selena Gomez (Wizards of Waverly Place), and Ashley Benson (Pretty Little Liars). Benson was a replacement for Emma Roberts, who dropped out when it was discovered that she needed to gain weight for the role. The cast was so against type that Gomez had to be taught how to smoke for her role. Since the film was shot entirely in Florida, and often in real settings, there was a certain intimidation with the lowly societies that the "beach noir" film took place in. At certain points, the discomfort felt by the actresses wasn't so much acting, but genuine fear. 

The film lived up to Korine's expectations, which was to make it more meditative and flowing. There was a lot of repetitive dialogue that emphasized the characters' internal vapidness. Cinematographer Benoit Dobie also added a candy-colored surrounding that made it appear more fictional and romantic. Along with composer Cliff Martinez, this film also marked the first film score for dubstep artist Skrillex. Many of his actual tracks were altered by Cliff Martinez to fit a more classical style, including "Scary Monsters on Strings." Franco studied the local hip-hop culture to prepare for his role as Alien: a rapper who is as egotistical as he is cryptic. Together, the central group committed criminal acts that were both romanticized and criticized, often simultaneously. Korine wanted to "Do the most radical work, but put it out in the most commercial way." Even if the film's large presence of people who were often reckless and naked wasn't accessible, it would be hard not to have an opinion.

The film released a three minute reel at the Cannes Film Festival in 2012. It made its premiere at the 69 Venice International Film Festival on September 4, 2012. From there, it began to play various film festivals and kept being pushed back for release. Many praised Franco's performance, which lead to the launch of the very odd Oscar campaign for Spring Breakers, dubbed "Consider This Sh*t" (a play on dialogue from the movie). What started as a joke by soon became a serious move by A24, thus launching their first ever awards contention campaign. While the film was racking up reviews like "Terrence Malick on bath salts," reviews for Franco remained mostly positive and downright weird, especially when David Rooney referred to Franco as "A cross between Bo Derek in 10 and Richard Kiel in Moonraker." Along with a campaign that emphasized the party elements of its Disney stars gone wild, Spring Breakers had the greatest lead in of an A24 film to that date. It even had the extremely rare co-production release with fellow indie film auteurs Annapurna Pictures.

The film's innovative marketing definitely paid off. It managed to reach the youthful audience that would care about a movie with Gomez, Hudgens, and Benson. It debuted at number six at the American box office with $4.8 million, becoming the highest grossing limited release of 2013. The numbers may have not seemed impressive, but its total of $31 million worldwide made it one of A24's earliest successes. With a 67% on critics aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes, it was a divisive film, but one that inevitably lead to a lot of great conversation. Admirers appreciated it as a deeper commentary on the emptiness of decadence. Younger audiences hated its repetitious nature and lack of dialogue. Dissenters simply hated the movie and called it sexist. Among the few awards that Spring Breakers did win was Women Film Critics Circle Award for Hall of Shame for having "No depth, little plot and a pitiful depiction of today's college kids. Gratuitous in nothing more than flesh and violence. A grossly and dangerously skewed depiction of young women and their values in today's America." The film was also nominated for the Alliance of Women Film Journalists' Actress Most in Need of a New Agent, citing the entire female cast as the possible recipient. 

The debate raged on as the film made the best and worst films of 2013 lists. However, its legacy has continued in some peculiar ways. Franco is being sued for $10 million by artist Riff Raff over the belief that Alien is based off of him and that he is illegally "sampling" his life. Franco claims that while Riff Raff has some influence on the character, Alien is more predominantly based on Dangeruss, who appears briefly in the film. The film has inspired a potential sequel from "Trainspotting" writer Irvine Welsh, though none of the original crew is connected to the project and caused Franco to ask potential collaborators to reconsider. Likewise, there have been talks of a potential web series based around the film released on Blackpills platform. As of the point of publication, none of these lawsuits or movies have come to pass. What is present is the continuing divisiveness of the film, which has continually begun appearing on best of the century lists, such as Little White Lies' best of the century (so far). It isn't the only A24 film from 2013 on the list, as later release Under the Skin took home the top position.

Even if other A24 films can at least claim to be as provocative as any mainstream release, Spring Breakers set the pallet for how to cause a stir. From its ingenious marketing to gimmick premise, it reflected perfectly what these independent films would be. They would be sold as events, and often appealed to niche audiences. The films were personally created and not afraid to be confrontational. Korine said that he wanted to "infiltrate the mainstream," and he did it in a way that, at very least, would give the viewer a serious impression. This wasn't a movie for everyone, and its themes are still being debated as to whether they're positive or negative. Even then, it's impossible to not see the genius behind a film as specific and dirty as Spring Breakers. It reflected the studio's ideals boldly and vulgarly. It would only to get more successful and interesting from there, as an ex-Harry Potter actress decided to rob people, but in a much more subtle way. It was also the second collaboration with a Coppola family member, proving just how much prestigious credibility A24 had early on.

Up Next: The Bling Ring (2013)

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