a twenty-four

The Cult of A24

The iconoclastic studio has bred superfans, dropped swag, and perfected a house style. It’s also teetering on the verge of self-parody.

Illustration: Ari Liloan
Illustration: Ari Liloan
Illustration: Ari Liloan

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Last summer, an Austin-based graphic designer named Lauren Robinson threw herself a 24th-birthday party. She and her friends from the University of Texas loved a theme, and since they had spent the early part of the pandemic marathoning art-house movies, they latched onto the idea of ringing in 24 with an A24 party — held, appropriately, near the city’s Lady Bird Lake. A couple friends showed up dressed as the skaters from Mid90s, another as The Last Black Man in San Francisco; two different people came as the ghost from A Ghost Story. Robinson dressed up as Florence Pugh’s May Queen from Midsommar, a costume she created out of headbands, an old shirt, and $20 worth of fake flowers from the dollar store.

On TikTok, where Robinson had documented the party, someone commented, “It’s a movie production company. Not a personality trait.” Robinson thought they were making too big a deal: “This was literally a costume party.” What drew her and her friends to A24, she says, was the “rawness.” A film like The Florida Project could transport her to a world far away from her own, while Eighth Grade could make her cringe in recognition of her own teenage awkwardness. “It connects with you on a personal level. They’re not just these feel-good, rom-com-esque movies. There’s a deeper element.”

Regardless of whether the get-together was worthy of internet scorn, Robinson and her friends are far from alone in their devotion to the A24 brand. The r/A24 sub-Reddit has over 73,000 subscribers, making it larger than the one dedicated to the Chicago Cubs. The company’s T-shirts regularly resell for more than $100 on fashion sites like Grailed. And in plugged-in corners of social media, the “A24 superfan” has become a recognizable stereotype. As the writer Willy Staley once joked, “A24 is short for ‘A 24-year-old guy will think this is the best movie ever made.’”

What’s notable about all of this is that A24 is not a filmmaker or an arts collective. It’s an independent film studio, and studios don’t usually have fans. People may love Atonement and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but as KJ Rothweiler, one-half of social-media gadfly duo the Ion Pack, told me, “No one’s rocking a Focus Features hoodie.”

In its ten years of existence, A24 has released more than 100 films in nearly every genre imaginable, from psychological thrillers set in 1890s lighthouses to slapstick romps about intergenerational trauma. In the early years, the brand was built on hype-baiting films like Spring Breakers as well as brainy genre fare like Ex Machina and The Witch. (All of these were acquisitions; the studio didn’t begin producing its own films until Moonlight.) Its films felt like something new, harder-edged than the typical art-house film of the aughts and more nakedly expressionistic. Ask A24 fans to describe what unites them, and they’ll use words like eclectic, eccentric, immersive, and authentic.

There is a certain sleight-of-hand involved, as not everything A24 has put out is great. In the wake of Spring Breakers, it released a bad Gus Van Sandt movie (The Sea of Trees), a bad Gillian Flynn adaptation (Dark Places), and not one but two bad Atom Egoyan movies (The Captive and Remember). But the magic of the brand was that over time it has been able to sell the idea of A24 as synonymous with originality, idiosyncrasy, and prestige. Not a movie but a film.

The world of independent film is a place ambitious new companies go to die. The start-up costs are high, the financial rewards slim. If an indie studio is lucky, it staves off bankruptcy long enough to get bought by a major corporation; if not, it joins labels like FilmDistrict and Virtual Studios in a crowded graveyard. The founding premise of A24 was to avoid this fate by spending far less on traditional advertising like billboards and TV spots and focus instead on turning films into viral sensations. (The seed capital was provided by Guggenheim Partners, where co-founder Daniel Katz had previously worked.) A24 was an early adopter of Instagram, where shots of merchandise coexisted with memes that had nothing to do with the films. To promote Ex Machina at South by Southwest, the company created a Tinder bot that posed as Alicia Vikander’s character, Ava. For The Witch, A24 made a Twitter account for the satanic goat Black Phillip, which strengthened his memetic power to the point where fans were clamoring for him to be awarded an Oscar. Essentially, the company was doing Brand Twitter before Brand Twitter, and it’s telling that, as people started finding this type of engagement cheesy, A24 largely phased it out.

A24 had the good fortune to emerge in the early ’10s, the moment social media was transitioning from a text culture to an image culture of Instagram posts, Reddit memes, and reaction GIFs. Over the course of the decade, it became easy for a film to morph into a social-media fetish object, especially if it featured meticulous art direction and cinematography, as so many A24 films did. More so than its competitors, A24 operated with one eye toward online hype. From James Franco’s “Look at my shit” monologue in Spring Breakers (“I got shorts, every fuckin’ color. I got designer T-shirts.”) to Oscar Isaac’s Ex Machina dance to Adam Sandler’s manic grin in Uncut Gems, its movies seemed at times almost purpose-built for the gristmill of internet ephemera. Your experience of an A24 film did not end when the credits started to roll; so much of the fun was what you did with it after.

Take the Daniel Radcliffe farting-corpse comedy Swiss Army Man, which premiered at Sundance 2016 without distribution. After a mixed reception at screenings, the initial offers were underwhelming. Then, co-director Daniel Scheinert told the Washington Post, A24 arrived with a hard sell: An exec “said he would jump out of a window if we didn’t go with them.” A24 knew something everyone else didn’t. On the modern internet, Swiss Army Man’s ADHD-addled humor was not a turnoff; the strangeness of the concept could market the film all by itself. (Which is not to say that A24 didn’t market it: It turned Radcliffe’s character into a ragdoll-physics game, which evolved into a text campaign that sent fans pizza. It won a Clio.)

And thanks to a deal with DirecTV, the studio’s bad bets could be safely shuffled away to a place where only the completists would ever find them. Mojave, Barely Lethal, Low Tide — there’s a reason you haven’t heard of them.

By 2016, the studio had developed a reputation as the film-industry version of an underground record label. “I think of Sub Pop or 4AD,” says Mike Sherrill, COO of the Alamo Drafthouse theater chain, where A24 films gross comparably to efforts from far larger studios. “You knew they were going to have a take on the artists they selected. They had that sense of, If I follow these guys, maybe I can be the cool guy at the record store.” Knowing the same distributor was behind The Bling Ring, Under the Skin, and The Lobster was a mark of cinéaste knowledge — a phenomenon the company would soon capitalize on through concerted self-branding efforts.

Most important of these was the merch. From the beginning, A24 demonstrated an ability to transmute its sense of taste into physical objects: As head of acquisitions Noah Sacco told GQ, the studio wooed Spring Breakers producer Megan Ellison with a gift basket of custom-made gun-shaped bongs engraved with the film’s logo. As its standing grew, A24 merchandise became the company’s most visible means of brand extension. It could be cheeky: When people began calling it “A-two-four,” the studio released a sweatshirt emblazoned with A TWENTY-FOUR. It could be provocative, as in the butt-plug-shaped candles it released to celebrate Everything Everywhere All at Once. And, crucially, it could be exclusive. Employing the hype-building techniques of the fashion industry, A24 embraced limited-edition drops, often in collaboration with buzzy labels like Online Ceramics. The quality, cost, and availability of the product is a frequent topic of discussion on the r/A24 sub-Reddit, where one user recalled spending $170 on Hereditary tie-ins. “If they ever drop another Midsommar line I will probably buy everything … I’m ready to spend 700 bucks on merch lol.”

These efforts first began to bear fruit in 2017 and 2018. Moonlight and Lady Bird racked up Oscar nominations, while Hereditary broke box-office records and sent the idea of “A24 horror” — slow-moving, metaphorical, in dire need of an online explainer — into the mainstream. The company began routinely refusing to speak about its inner workings on the record, propagating a mystique that remains to this day. And the brand began to carry legitimate cultural capital. “Pre-A24, film culture was a guy wearing a flannel shirt with a Clint Eastwood T-shirt underneath it at the New Beverly in L.A.” Rothweiler says. Now it had become sexy. This was the era of Good Time, the cult hit that cemented the studio’s association with the downtown streetwear scene (Pete Davidson was a huge fan), and the Lower East Side opening of art-house-cinema hot spot the Metrograph, where A24 directors like Ari Aster were seen hobnobbing at the upstairs cantina.

The Ion Pack, which has built a podcast empire skewering the cinephile culture A24 represents, pinpoints this as the moment when A24-branded hats and hoodies began popping up in places like Soho House. “It’s mood-board culture,” says Curtis Everett Pawley, the other half of the duo. “A lot of ‘creatives’ love to find obvious art-film references to put on a mood board for fashion videos and album campaigns. It was this weird flattening: A24 became a bridge merging this mood-board, influencer, pop-culture Zeitgeist with art-house movies made by real directors.” You might say it was here that the A24 brand began to represent not movies but vibes — in the words of philosopher Robin James, a way to “connect status-laden people to status-laden cultural objects and practices.”

If 2017 and 2018 were the spring of A24, 2019 was its high summer. The writer Will Harrison calls it the year “that memeable A24 thing crystallized, to me at least.” With Midsommar, The Lighthouse, and Uncut Gems, the studio released three viral hits within a six-month span. “And then you have COVID. Culture was fully stagnant. All we had was just parsing over shit and canonizing it.” As cultural life moved fully online, A24 fandom filtered down to the digital middle classes through spaces like Letterboxd and online-dating profiles, at which point it followed a familiar pattern: What once was trendy became first a stereotype, then a punch line. As Fast Company put it, “What if Miramax, but also Supreme?”

Harrison used to work at the Metrograph, and he wrote a viral Baffler story about being laid off. He says the experience made him wonder if the internet idea of the “A24 superfan” had been fully separated from reality. “I had a job that was literally 50 paces from this intersection that the internet is obsessed with, and yet I could not sell a movie ticket to save my life,” he says. “Online, there’s this idea of an A24 fan as a guy wearing Salomon sneakers, a subzero-resistant shell coat, and a tiny beanie that looks like a condom. And you do see that guy walking around lower Manhattan, but how much of that is just us playing Don Quixote?” — tilting at windmills and thinking they’re Arc’teryx-sporting giants.

Over the course of reporting this story, the A24 superfans I encountered looked less like that caricature and more like Milwaukee IT professional Saraya Wallace. “If A24 makes a movie, I’m going to see it. That’s how it is,” she says. A lifelong film buff, Wallace has always loved the movies she found through Criterion and Janus, but it strikes her that most of those titles are older and already canonized. A24 stands out because it is new. The intensity of its movies, she says, brings out her emotions in ways films never had before. She estimates that she has seen Midsommar around 12 times, and she recently got a tattoo of Florence Pugh’s Dani. (“I know what it’s like to feel like you have no one.”) When Wallace saw Everything Everywhere All at Once, she cried through the entire movie. She’s in the process of getting a tattoo of that one too. In the meantime, she made herself a custom pair of Converse with the film’s googly-eyed motif.

Wallace is a member of A24 All Access, or AAA24 for short. For $5 a month, she receives a subscription to the studio’s in-house zine, the occasional free movie ticket, entry to the studio’s “close friends” list on Instagram, and, best of all, first dibs on limited-edition merch. The company is famed for its minimalist designs, but Wallace much prefers the products that tie into actual films. “People were going and getting, like, A24 tattoos just of the company. And I was like, Why are we doing that? Of all the cool things in all these cool films, you’d get the logo?

The AAA24 members I spoke with tend to agree that it’s worth the cost, even if they laugh about “joining the cult.” But the studio does not promote the program, and one might get the sense that it’s a little embarrassed, or at least self-conscious, about it. The membership program’s introduction does seem to mark the end of one period in the A24 story and the beginning of another. Is AAA24 a sign that a company even its biggest fans call slightly pretentious is tiptoeing frighteningly close to earnestness? Or is it merely a reflection of something we’ve known since the studio’s very first hit — that there’s no more powerful imperative than “Look at my shit.”

The Cult of A24