A24, The Future of Film
The Disaster Artist
A Most Violent Year
It Comes at Night
The Florida Project
Almost every movie that has meant something to me over the past five-plus years has been made by A24, an independent film company started in 2012 in New York. When I see their logo, which is awesome by the way (click here to check it out), I anticipate I’ll be taken on a journey of emotional discovery, experiencing a life or points of view that provoke deep thought and consideration. Beyond the work and the mark, I know little about who A24 is and how they became prolific enablers of great creative work. It’s interesting to me because, like Supreme, David Chang, Ian Schrager, or Gucci, A24 makes a product that intrigues me, that inspires excitement, aspiration, and irrational loyalty. What do I mean by irrational loyalty? The willingness to pay more for a branded product or service with minimal added practical benefit. I’ve listened to the A24 podcast and I’m signed up to the A24 email list. I went out of my way to do both of those things. This isn’t the way I usually engage with movie companies. I can’t claim to be a movie buff; I just like good stories. A24 has developed a direct-to-consumer relationship with me and become my trusted film curator, not dissimilar to the way HBO became HBO. There’s no need for a reviewer because I believe in them and the work they’re doing. They’ve consistently delivered great films, and this has led me to trust them with my entertainment needs. I actively and easily engage with their content and support their work because I trust them.
An independent film is a feature film produced outside the major film studio system. They’re produced and distributed by independent entertainment companies and often more accurately convey filmmakers’ personal artistic vision, despite considerably lower budgets. Generally, the marketing of independent films is characterized by limited release in select cities and theaters. This causes distributors and filmmakers to be more inventive in their approach to marketing and more reliant on positive reviews and word of mouth. “The modern independent movie can be traced back to the 1990s. With the rise in popularity of film festivals like Sundance and Toronto, Hollywood started to take more interest in the movies that seemingly only cinephiles watched. What resulted was an explosion of indie filmmakers. Because young up-and-comers now had affordable technology that allowed them to produce and distribute their movies to theaters, more and more low-budget features were made and distributed by arthouse studios.” This was the world of the now-infamous Harvey Weinstein and Miramax. They found filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and Steven Soderbergh and gave them the tools needed to make great work. Eventually, these companies got bought out by conglomerates like Disney, Warner Bros., and Fox, paving the way for the next wave of small companies to perpetuate the cycle of innovation.
In 2012, Daniel Katz, David Fenkel, and John Hodges left their jobs at Guggenheim Partners, Oscilloscope, and Big Beach to start a new, independent company aimed at redefining the way independent films were made and marketed. As Katz explained, “I always had dreams of [starting a company]. And on some level, honestly, I was afraid to go out on my own and try to make it work. And I was with a bunch of friends, and we were in the south of Italy, and we were driving into Rome and I kind of had this moment of clarity. And it was on the A24 [motorway]. And in that moment I was like: Now it’s time to go do this.” All three founders had come up in film admiring ’90s independent cinema and felt there was a void where those movies had once been. They settled on opening an office in New York and starting a company focused on “the films and filmmakers, not us.” This meant they would give the creatives, the directors and the writers, control of their work. As Harmony Korine, director of Spring Breakers, puts it, “Hollywood is run by accountants at this point. And so anytime you speak with someone who’s not a pure accountant, is not a pencil pusher? It’s exciting. They had heart to them.” And that heart made all the difference with filmmakers. While this approach is not new or novel, it’s rare. Entrepreneurs and business leaders who are open-minded and intelligent enough to enable creatives while providing them support and expertise to realize a truly differentiated vision are few and far between, but the ones who do it well are able to leave their mark on culture and exponentially improve their returns.
A24 uses their interpretation of what I call the “creator’s formula” to achieve success in the modern market. They enable filmmakers to tell distinct and emotionally generous stories from a personal perspective and use their experience and credibility to find the right audience and support the filmmaking and film marketing process. This combination of enabling creative expression while supporting filmmakers with expertise and marketing savvy has allowed A24 to succeed in creating a brand that supersedes independent film. They stand for something, and their audience believes in them. Instead of superheroes and monster brands like Star Wars, with inconceivably high budgets, they make high-quality, individualistic stories that resonate and grow organically with audiences. Four years after their inception, the company’s first original production, Moonlight, won the Academy Award for Best Picture. As of 2018, A24 has received a total of twenty-four Academy Award nominations, including another Academy Award nomination for Best Picture for Lady Bird and a Best Motion Picture–Musical or Comedy Golden Globe nomination for The Disaster Artist.
A great example of how A24 is different from other film companies is how they approach marketing. Out of necessity, it seems they have turned to lower-cost digital platforms and creative guerilla marketing tactics to build buzz around their films. This is interesting because while they’re lower-cost tactics, these platforms are also far more effective in the modern market, especially with the under-forty demographic. Their film Ex Machina premiered at the 2015 SXSW Festival, and A24 used the dating app Tinder to unknowingly market to festival visitors. When Tinder users clicked on an attractive woman named Ava, she would engage and eventually invite them to check out her Instagram. When potential daters visited her Insta page, it featured only a trailer for Ex Machina. This was not only an incredibly creative and engaging marketing tactic to target socially active festivalgoers, it reinforced the film’s premise of artificial intelligence and in itself was buzzworthy. The film ended up being received very positively at the festival and went on to become a hit at the box office, grossing $35 million on a $15-million production budget.
Lady Bird has been A24’s greatest financial success to date, grossing over $75 million on a $10-million production budget, and the company has recently expanded into the rapidly growing television business. While A24 has had its share of financial misses as well, they have succeeded beyond compare at building a credible and valuable brand among future filmgoers and consumers of entertainment programming. This isn’t an easy accomplishment, but this brand will reap them rewards for years to come. To understand more clearly, imagine that Steven Spielberg had a personal email list and multiple social media accounts with all the filmgoers who went to see all his movies the last forty or so years. While he does have an immense brand, the only way for him to communicate with them is through mass media and expensive yet mostly immeasurable media platforms such as billboard and television commercials. A24 has a direct personal relationship with a young and active audience and a personal relationship with filmmakers who have direct personal relationships with their audiences. They can reach these customers whenever they want at a minimal cost to the parent company and the project they’re promoting. These one- or two-degree separations between brand and consumer give A24 immeasurable and growing power in the entertainment industry. They not only have a connection with the genuine creative storytellers of the future, they also have a way to directly communicate and share with their customers. Though they have yet to sell their content directly to consumers, A24 has everything they need to become Netflix with street-cred.Beat that, Disney, or should I say, buy that.