Jeremy Kay talks to the co-founders of the Los Angeles-based company whose Cheap Thrills won an audience award at this year’s SXSW.

Of the handful of SXSW entries that secured US distribution at last month’s low-key festival, New Artists Alliance was behind two. Magnet picked up the dark comedy Milo and Drafthouse Films took the audience award-winning thriller Cheap Thrills, while Cinedigm struck a deal in Austin for Static, which was not in the festival.

Jeremy Kay meets New Artists Alliance’s Gabe Cowan and John Suits, the film school friends who launched their Los Angeles-based company in 2007 and are finally ready for their close-up.

You seem like good friends. Actually you are. How did you meet?

Gabe Cowan: John and I met at Cal Arts [California Institute Of The Arts] in the masters programme in film directing. At the end of our first year we decided to make a feature [Breathing Room]. We wrote it in two weeks and shot in eight days for $19,000. Somehow, the film got into several festivals and gained worldwide distribution at the AFM in 2007.

John Suits: It came out [in the US] through Anchor Bay, which was cool.

GC: Next, John made a drama called Family Of Four and I went to Rwanda and made a doc about reconciliation called Flower In The Gun Barrel.

JS: We thought they too would make money…

So you decided to focus on genre films?

GC: Turns out these genre films are way easier to sell – plus they’re fun as hell to work on so, as we were graduating, we decided to make a sci-fi popcorn flick called Growth in Martha’s Vineyard. Sure enough it sold to Anchor Bay for domestic and became the number one horror rental on iTunes.

JS: Our goal with that one was to make something that looked bigger budget…

GC: First it was ‘can we do it’?’ Then it was ‘can we do it and make it look big budget?’ And then it was ‘can we do all this and have it actually be good?’’

What came after that?

JS: Extracted, which premiered at SXSW 2012. Then we wanted to get more recognisable cast so we hooked up with Caliber Media and Dallas Sonnier and used our different strengths.

GC: We wrote and produced Static and actually built a unique 3D rig.

You arrived in SXSW with Static, as well as Cheap Thrills and Milo, and they all sold. How did that feel?

GC: We had sold movies before [SXSW 2013], but going into SXSW with these films and scoring the first sale of the festival and winning the award for Cheap Thrills was unexpected and wonderful. We have three films going theatrical in 2013 and are working with bigger and better distribution companies and actors than ever before.

JS: Last year we made five films. We read scripts all the time and you run into things all the time that don’t necessarily come from genre but you love them and you have to do them. Three of the films we did last year had genre elements and two were dramas.

Gabe is shooting a juvenile justice documentary now and you’ve lined up the comedy Why Now?! with Sam Rockwell, Marisa Tomei and Brian Geraghty that shoots in May. 

GC: It feels like all the hard work and sleepless nights are finally paying off. It’s not an overnight success story – John and I are about incremental advances – but we believe that by not skipping steps, and sticking to a realistic model we are getting better and better at this movie-making thing. Looking back each year and seeing how far we’ve come is really exciting.