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Beau Is Afraid’s strange rollout makes sense for such a strange movie

Ari Aster’s horror-comedy follow-up to Hereditary and Midsommar will debut in waves across the country

Joaquin Phoenix in Beau is Afraid, standing in a bathrobe with cuts on his face. Photo: Takashi Seida/A24

Ari Aster is a very strange director. Not just for his eccentric, fantastic popcorn-art horror movies, but also for the way those strange movies become incredibly popular. Both of his previous movies, Midsommar and Hereditary, are excellent, scary, contemplative horror movies about trauma and grief. They’re both funny, in their own twisted, dark ways. And they’ve both created a lasting footprint with teens and 20-somethings online, thanks to idiosyncratic marketing, intense shocks and imagery, and general meme-ability.

Now, production company A24 (which was behind both of Aster’s previous movies) is hoping to manufacture that same kind of enthusiasm for Aster’s newest, weirdest movie, Beau Is Afraid, by giving it an extremely odd release schedule that’s primarily designed to woo fans and take over social media.

Beau Is Afraid follows Beau (Joaquin Phoenix), less of a regular guy and more like a tightly wound ball of anxiety in every moment of his life, as he travels to visit his mother. Along the way, he encounters all kinds of oddities, like an apocalyptic city, a traveling theater group, slightly deranged children, and Nathan Lane. Unlike Aster’s other two films, Beau Is Afraid is more obviously a comedy, though it’s passed through a filter of absurdist tragedy with a bit of horror mixed in for good measure.

Nathan Lane wearing a Hawaiian shirt and holding tongs in Beau is Afraid. Photo: Takashi Seida/A24

It’s also a singularly bizarre film, in the most complimentary possible way. While it has bits and pieces of familiar movies, it combines them so aggressively and constantly that it defies comparison to any one other thing at a time. Instead, Beau is more like a hodgepodge of dozens of directors, movies, books, plays, and writers that have influenced Aster through his life. And with a movie this strange and disparate, it’s only fitting that its theatrical rollout should be just as odd.

To make that happen, A24 started with a surprise, simultaneous screening of the movie’s world premiere in Alamo Drafthouse theaters in several different cities around the United States. The attendees thought they were showing up for a screening of the Midsommar director’s cut (still Aster’s best movie), with a live Q&A from the director at the end. Instead, once they were seated, they were informed that they were attending the premiere of Beau Is Afraid — though the live Q&A still happened, hosted by Emma Stone and simulcast to theaters across the country.

This kind of early screening sometimes comes with a strict social media embargo, but in this case, attendees were allowed to post their reactions to the film the minute it ended. Which means the movie instantly generated positive word-of-mouth from some of Aster’s biggest fans — critics and general audiences alike.

Nathan Lane, Joaquin Phoenix, and Amy Ryan sit around a dinner table holding hands and praying in Beau is Afraid Photo: Takashi Seida/A24

The actual review embargo for Beau was set for 10 p.m. EDT on the night of Monday, April 10 — an unusual hour for an embargo, since they’re usually set for morning or afternoon. That embargo also lands a few days before the movie is released for a limited run in just a few theaters in New York and Los Angeles. In most cities, critics won’t even be able to see the movie until its public IMAX preview on April 18. After that, the movie will finally have a more conventional release, rolling out to theaters across the country on April 21.

This strange schedule, and the recurring and escalating social media blips A24 obviously hopes each new release wave will cause, are meant to kick off a slow build of anticipation and momentum for the film. If things work out in the studio’s favor, then movie fans will have been hearing good things about Beau Is Afraid for more than three weeks before they have the chance to see the movie themselves. This strategy reads like an artificial attempt to create the kind of hit that Aster’s Hereditary became. After a solid theatrical run (coming in at $44 million domestically), Hereditary really took off when it hit Netflix, and people showed it to their friends for the thrill of bringing someone else a solid shock.

Joaquin Phoenix in old age make-up in Beau is Afraid wearing a hat with a huge beard Photo: Takashi Seida/A24

But it isn’t just the impressive buildup of Aster’s previous movies that might have A24 hoping it can create a sleeper hit with Beau; it’s also the recent history of theatrical releases. The 2022 horror movies Smile, Barbarian, and Terrifier 2 all saw their box-office returns slowly reach impressive heights over the course of weeks, rather than experiencing the first-weekend boom common to bigger releases. Even blockbuster animated movies like Puss in Boots: The Last Wish took a while to find an audience in today’s movie environment. Meanwhile, this year, Skinamarink leaked online, generating a good bit of TikTok buzz before its theatrical release, convincing people to show up in droves for a very specific kind of slow-burn horror movie.

There’s no guarantee that Beau Is Afraid will necessarily find an equally large and dedicated audience, or that it will actually grow into a word-of-mouth success. But at the very least, it’s hard to fault A24 for experimenting with the release pattern on such a strange movie. I was at the movie’s first screening in Brooklyn, the one where Aster actually appeared live and in the flesh. His new film is entertaining, fun, weird, and messy, even if it doesn’t entirely gel in the end. Fans of horror, cinematic oddities, and Aster’s other work should go see it once that becomes an option. For all those reasons, it’s also a difficult movie to sell, so why wouldn’t A24 err on the side of building it up slowly, with Aster’s most ardent fans leading the way?

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