Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photo courtesy of A24
People love A24, the indie studio behind critical and commercial darlings like Everything everywhere all at once, Ladybug, Moonlightand Uncut Gems. But when moviegoers flock to an “A24 movie,” it can be hard to tell if they’re more excited about the “A24” part or the “movie” part.
On the last episode of In it – of which you can read an excerpt below — host Sam Sanders chats with Vulture film critic Alison Willmore and senior writer Nate Jones about A24’s aesthetic and branding and asks if the studio is changing the film industry at large. If you want more In itincluding a special appearance from Amber Ruffin, watch the show wherever you get your podcasts.
Sam Sanders: I want to start by offering the story of the creation of A24. Can we share how it started? Three guys who work in the cinema, right?
Nat Jones: Three guys working in film with ties to finance and private equity. Basically, their strategy was this: we can save money on traditional marketing, in terms of buying a Super Bowl commercial and newspaper ads, and focus primarily on digital efforts.
Alison Willmore: They have very good taste in movies. They’re good at choosing directors to work with, buying movies when they buy movies. But they are, more than anything else, an incredible branding triumph.
NEW JERSEY: They sometimes choose movies that they know, “Oh, this is a moment we can turn into a GIF.” Ex-Machina is a movie that stops short so Oscar Isaac can do a silly dance for two minutes. And when you look, you’re like, “Oh, that’s weird.”
It was wonderful.
New Jersey: It’s very silly, but watching, you know, “Oh, it’s going to be on YouTube and it’s going to be a GIF and a meme.” I’m also thinking of a movie like Swiss army mana movie that might have scared off other studios, because it’s a movie about a farting corpse.
AW: Played by Harry Potter.
New Jersey: Yes. Played by Harry Potter. And they realized that in the age of the internet, a movie about a farting corpse sells itself.
When you think back to some of these marketing campaigns, they are really awesome. When A24 came out ex machina, they or they created a fake Tinder chat bot to help hook up the film. As part of the campaign for The witch, they created Twitter accounts for various characters in this film, including a satanic goat. For Hereditarythey or they sent creepy dolls to influencers and critics. It really is genius.
AW: Breaking through and getting people to hear about your film is a huge challenge. It’s even more of a challenge now; there is so much noise. One of the interesting things about the founding of A24 is how grounded it seems to be with this idea of (1) how do we choose what kind of movies will cut through the noise, but also (2) how can we do the kind of marketing that isn’t necessarily expensive but will break through that sound barrier of things vying for people’s attention?
In the beginning, marketing was really the only thing A24 could rely on because they weren’t making their own movies. They bought films and then helped distribute them. It changed with Moonlight in 2015. They helped make this movie from the beginning. But what changes for a company like A24 when it changes from a film distribution company to a film production company? How difficult is it to maintain your aesthetic in the midst of this change?
New Jersey: They have this stable of guys we call the A24 boys where it’s—
AW: —They are boys, yeah.
New Jersey: Yeah, mostly boys. Trey Edward Shults is one. The Safdie brothers are two others. They acquired Good timethen they produced Uncut Gems. For Ari Aster, they produced both Midsommar and his next film, Boulevard of disappointment. Robert Eggers, same: They acquired The witchproduct Lighthouse. They acquired Swiss army Man, by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, then also produced their film Everything everywhere all at oncewhich became a huge hit.
New Jersey: Mostly boys. But yes, I think Everything everywhere all at once speaks of a feeling that they are able to change over time. It’s a movie that feels very present, in that kind of “me, me” therapy talking about post-pandemic culture.
AW: It’s a film about Asian immigrants and Asian Americans, this family divided into two experiences. When you look at a lot of the early A24 stuff, it was pretty white. They’ve changed over time by looking beyond the A24 boys to who can make a movie.
How important of a deal should we think A24 is? A lot of the coverage from this studio is this: they’re new, they’re different, they’re doing things that haven’t been done before, they’re changing the industry. But I can’t help but compare them to some of the big indie studios of the 90s, the old Miramax or Fox Searchlight, those prestige brands of yesteryear. How, if at all, is A24 significantly different from what they were doing back then?
AW: I would say there is just a lot more public awareness of A24 than I would say there necessarily is, or was at the time, of Miramax. You would see the Miramax card in front of movies, and maybe it would give you some kind of shine, like, Oh, that could be something good. But I don’t know if audience members felt as attached to distributors then as they feel to A24 now.
I would also say that we are going for better and for worse – I say mostly for worse – we are in a real era of brand loyalty. A24 might be a great story, but otherwise how do people choose things to watch? Marvel, Disney, a lot of big brands that people basically get attached to.
Do you like it? As someone who writes about film for a living, do you think this trend is good for filmmaking and film consumption?
AW: I think there’s so much to watch that people are always looking to find a way to help them decide what they might like next. I don’t think there’s a better way to choose things than to follow a person. It would make more sense for me to attach myself to a particular writer or director than to some sort of company. But I think A24 has managed to leverage its brand in a way that people are giving things a chance they maybe didn’t have before.
How much does this represent? I don’t think I’ve ever known a movie studio where people around me are really enthusiastic about merchandising. Yesterday a friend of mine was talking about his Fleece A24. My favorite thing in the A24 shop is a candle version of one of the accessories of Everything everywhere all at oncethe character of Jamie Lee Curtis Listener of the month trophy that looks like a butt plug. What is that?
New Jersey: That’s a really big part of it. Nobody walks around in a Focus Features hoodie like they do in A24 clothing. It goes back to marketing, to the realization that plugging into those downtown fashion circles is another way to cut through the noise. And they make these limited-edition drops that create that feeling of exclusivity that reflects how these films are treated so much in cultural conversation.
In the scheme of things, however, how much does A24 actually matter? I’m obsessed with how cool they are, but are they just their own little island? Or are they changing parts of the larger film industry?
New Jersey: I think you could say that they are important in that they have allowed the mainstream culture to invest in independent cinema. Their success turned out to be a way for these other small companies to write in their wake: if you’re not going to be a Marvel or a star wars, here’s how you can survive in this modern pop culture environment where people’s attention is so stretched and there aren’t many screens for movies that aren’t franchises. You should know that compared to their predecessors, they are truly independent. Focus Features is a division of Universal; Searchlight Pictures is a division of Fox. A24 has investors, but they are not from a major studio.
AW: I would also say that A24 was instrumental in removing the idea of small films, not necessarily from the dark but from the heavy. It’s cool to know these movies. And as loaded as it can be as an experience and as a brand, I think it’s proven its worth.