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A24 Knows How to Get People to Watch Its Films

Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photo Courtesy of A24

People love A24, the indie studio behind critical and commercial darlings such as Everything Everywhere All At Once, Ladybird, Moonlight, and Uncut Gems. But when moviegoers gush over an “A24 film,” it can be hard to tell whether they’re more excited about the “A24” part or the “film” part.

On the latest episode of Into It — an excerpt of which you can read below — host Sam Sanders talks with Vulture movie critic Alison Willmore and senior writer Nate Jones about the signature aesthetic and branding of A24 and asks whether the studio is changing the film industry writ large. If you want more of Into It, including a special guest appearance by Amber Ruffin, check out the show wherever you get your podcasts.

Sam Sanders: I want to begin by offering up the A24 creation story. Can we share how it started? Three dudes working in film, right?
Nate Jones: Three dudes working in film with connections to finance and private equity. Basically, their gambit was: We can save money on the traditional marketing, in terms of buying a commercial during the Super Bowl and newspaper ads, and concentrate mostly on digital efforts.

Alison Willmore: They have very good taste in movies. They’re good at picking directors to work with, at buying movies when they buy movies. But they, more than anything else, are an incredible triumph of branding.

NJ: They pick up movies sometimes that they know, “Oh, this is a moment that we can turn into a GIF.” Ex Machina is a movie that stops in its tracks so Oscar Isaac can do a silly dance for two minutes. And when you’re watching, you’re like, “Oh, this is weird.”

That was beautiful.
NJ: It’s very silly, but while watching you know, “Oh, this is going to be on YouTube and this is going to be a GIF and a meme.” I also think about a movie like Swiss Army Man, a movie that other studios might have been scared off by, because it’s a movie about a farting corpse.

AW: Played by Harry Potter.

NJ: Yes. Played by Harry Potter. And they realized that, in the era of the internet, a movie about a farting corpse sells itself.

When you look back at some of these marketing campaigns, they’re truly genius. When A24 was releasing Ex Machina, they made a fake Tinder chat bot to help plug the movie. As part of the campaign for The Witch, they made Twitter accounts for various characters in that film, including a satanic goat. For Hereditary, they sent out creepy dolls to influencers and critics. It’s really genius.
AW: Breaking through and having people even hear about your movie is a huge challenge. It’s even more of a challenge now; there’s just so much noise. One of the things that’s interesting about the founding of A24 is how much it seems to have been founded with this idea of (1) how can we pick the kind of movies that will break through the noise, but also (2) how can we do the kind of marketing that is not necessarily expensive but is going to penetrate this wall of sound of things that are competing for people’s attention?

At the start, marketing was really the only thing that A24 could rely on because they weren’t making their own movies. They were acquiring movies and then helping to distribute them. That changed with Moonlight in 2015. They helped make that movie from the start. But what changes for a company like A24 when they go from being a movie distribution company to also being a movie production company? How hard is it to keep your aesthetic in the midst of that shift?
NJ: They have this stable of guys we call the A24 boys where it’s—

AW: —They are boys, yeah.

NJ: Yeah, mostly boys. Trey Edward Shults is one. The Safdie brothers are two more. They acquired Good Time, and then they produced Uncut Gems. For Ari Aster, they produced both Midsommar and his upcoming film, Disappointment Boulevard. Robert Eggers, same: They acquired The Witch, produced The Lighthouse. They acquired Swiss Army Man, by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, and then also produced their film Everything Everywhere All at Once, which has become a massive hit.

Mostly boys.
NJ: Mostly boys. But yeah, I think Everything Everywhere All at Once does speak to a sense that they are able to change with the times. That is a movie that feels very of-this-moment, in this kind of “me, me” therapyspeak of the post-pandemic culture.

AW: It’s a movie about Asian and Asian American immigrants, this family split over two experiences. When you look at a lot of early A24 stuff, it was pretty white. They have changed with the times in looking further afield from just the A24 boys in terms of who can make a movie.

How big of a deal should we think A24 is? So much of the coverage of this studio is: They’re new, they’re different, they’re doing things that haven’t been done before, they’re changing the industry. But I kind of can’t help, but compare them to some of the big indie studios of the ’90s, the old Miramax or Fox Searchlight, these prestige brands of yesteryear. In what ways, if at all, is A24 significantly different from what they were doing back then?
AW: I would argue that there’s just much 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 that would give you a kind of glow, like, Oh, this might be something good. But I don’t know that the members of the public then felt so attached to distributors in the way that they feel about A24 now.

I would also say we are in for better and worse — I say mostly for worse — we are in a real era of brand loyalty. A24 may be this big story, but how else do people pick things to watch? Marvel, Disney, a lot of just massive brands that people just essentially kind of hitch themselves to.

Do you like that? As someone who writes about film for a living, do you think that trend is good for moviemaking and movie consumption?
AW: I think there’s so much stuff out there to watch that people are always casting about trying to find a way to help them choose what they might like next. I don’t think it’s a better way of choosing things than, like, following a person. It would make more sense to me to latch onto a particular writer or director than it would to kind of latch onto a company. But I do think that A24 has managed to leverage its brand in a way that people will give things a chance that they might not have before.

How much of that is the merch? I don’t think I’ve ever experienced a movie studio in which people in my circles are actually excited about the merch. One of my friends yesterday was raving about his A24 fleece. My favorite thing in the A24 store is a candle version of one of the props from Everything Everywhere All at Once, Jamie Lee Curtis’s character’s Auditor of the Month trophy that looks like a butt plug. What is that?
NJ: That’s a very big part of it. No one’s walking around in a Focus Features hoodie the way that they are in A24 stuff. It goes back to the marketing, the realization that plugging into these downtown fashion circles is another way to cut through the noise. And they do these limited-edition drops that create this sense of exclusivity that mirrors the way that these films are so treated in the cultural conversation.

In the greater scheme of things, though, how much does A24 actually matter? I’m obsessed with their coolness, but are they just their own little island? Or are they actually changing certain parts of the larger film industry?
NJ: I think you can say they matter in that they have provided a way for mainstream culture to be invested in independent film. Their success proved a way for these other smaller companies to draft in their wake: If you are not going to be a Marvel or a Star Wars, here is how you can survive in this modern pop-culture environment where there’s so many demands on people’s attention, and there’s not a lot of screens for movies that are not franchises. It is worth knowing that compared to their predecessors, they are genuinely independent. Focus Features is a division of Universal; Searchlight Pictures is a division of Fox. A24 has investors, but they are not owned by a major studio.

AW: I would also say that A24 has been pretty instrumental in tugging the idea of smaller films back from, not obscurity necessarily but from stodginess. It’s cool to know about these movies. And as loaded as that can be as an experience and as a brand, I do think that has proved to have value.

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A24 Knows How to Get People to Watch Its Films