Podcast #23: The Story of A24. Why Trust is Critical to Building a Modern Brand.
The Disaster Artist. A Most Violent Year. It Comes at Night. Spring Breakers. The Lobster.
The Florida Project. Amy.
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 (an awesome one, by the way), 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.
Early on, while admiring their logo and loving their films, I didn’t know much about A24 and how they became such prolific enablers of great creative work. But in writing this book, I began researching the company, watching it more closely, and marveled repeatedly at the way A24 has proved exceptional at strategic sharing. Not only do does this studio foster superlative films, it demonstrates a profound understanding of how digital media, storytelling, collaboration, direct influence, and trust-building can propel a company from zero to sixty in the Age of Ideas.
Like Supreme, David Chang, or Ian Schrager, A24 makes a product that intrigues me, that inspires excitement, aspiration, and irrational loyalty. What do I mean by irrational loyalty? I mean the willingness to pay more for a branded product or service with minimal added practical benefit. I listen to the A24 podcast and I’m signed up to the A24 email list. I follow their social media feeds. This isn’t the way I usually engage with movie companies. A24 has developed a direct-to-consumer relationship with me and become my trusted film curator. When their latest release comes out, I don’t even need to check reviews 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.
And now I know their origin story.
In 2012, Daniel Katz, David Fenkel, and John Hodges left their jobs at Guggenheim Partners, Oscilloscope, and Big Beach, respectively, to start a new, independent film company aimed at redefining the way indie movies 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 [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.”
Katz and his fellow founders had been great admirers of 1990s independent cinema and felt there was now a void when it came to films with that kind of boldness and artistic quality. They decided to start a New York-based 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 accoun- tants 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 has 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.
Viewed through the lens of our Age of Ideas thesis, A24 represents a prime example of the Creator’s Formula in action. The studio enables gifted filmmakers—experienced creatives—to tell distinct, emotionally generous stories from a personal perspective. And it has developed marketing expertise and credibility after repeated, flawless execution. The way A24 supports its filmmakers’ creative expression while also doing everything right when it comes to the strategic sharing of its movies with the world has created a brand that has few peers in the world of entertainment.
Four years after its 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 a Best Picture nomination for Lady Bird, plus a Golden Globe nomination (Best Motion Picture–Musical or Comedy) for The Disaster Artist.
A24’s marketing is innovative, even brilliant. Out of necessity early on, they turned to lower-cost digital platforms and creative guerrilla marketing tactics to build buzz around their films. And while these tactics cost less, such platforms, as we’ve been exploring, are also notably 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 market to unwitting 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 fea- tured 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 growing television-content business. While A24 has had its share of financial misses as well, it has succeeded beyond compare at building a deep connection to filmgoers and consumers of entertainment programming. And it’s done this by establishing a direct relationship with its audience and telling meaningful, beautiful stories.
Let me say a bit more about this relationship to audiences. Imagine if Steven Spielberg had a personal email list and multiple social media channels personally connecting him with all the filmgoers who have seen his movies during the last forty or so years. While Spielberg does have an immense brand, the main way he communicates with his audience is through mass media and expensive, metric-resistant platforms such as billboards and television commercials. By contrast, A24 has a direct relationship with a young, active audience and personal relationships with filmmakers who themselves enjoy close connections to their audi- ences. Both A24 and their collaborators can reach their audience directly at little or no cost to the parent company and the project they’re promoting. These one- or two-degree separations between brand and consumer give A24 reliable and growing influence in the entertainment industry. The studio not only has created an ideal platform for genuine creative storytellers, they have a machine in place to directly share with their customers and the expertise to collaboratively amplify their messages.
But none of this would have been possible without them first building trust, and that can only happen when you repeatedly and consistently deliver on your promises.
Repetition & Consistency
My close friend Josh Shames has a distinct expertise in turning annoying inside-jokes into timeless classics. He starts by coming up with a joke or saying something he thinks is amusing, such as shouting “herry ep” after every single request he makes. For example, he’ll say, “Can you get me some iced tea and throw a bit of hurry ep sauce on it.” When he first says it, you think he’s annoying, rude, and slightly off-kilter. But then he keeps saying it, over and over and over again, and it grows on you. By the thirtieth time, it starts becoming part of your lingo. All of a sudden, you’re accidentally using his joke, telling your mom to “hurry ep” with dinner. By the fiftieth time, you’ve made it your own, you begin to find joy in repeating it, and you can’t stop. It’s his particular brand of humor, and his consistency and repetition make you eventually love it, too.
When it comes to the sharing strategies we’ve been discuss- ing, repetition and consistency are crucial to using them effectively.
Repetition is the performing of an action over and over again. Messages can only break through to our deeper consciousness when they’re repeated. As Schopenhauer said, “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.” The only way to get past ridicule and violent opposition is to practice repetition.
Consistency is when the quality of a product or service doesn’t vary greatly over time. Every great brand is consistent. We’ve just seen how potent consistency can be when we examined the story of A24. It’s this independent studio’s ability to deliver one moving, art- fully made film after another that has won my deep loyalty, turning me into a “true fan.” The practice of brand management is actually defined as managing what makes you consistently different. Name any product you think of as great and you’ll realize the consistent delivery of quality is what makes the product that way. Coca-Cola? Google? Mercedes? The reason people use their products is because they’ve consistently met or exceeded their promise over time. If your Coca-Cola didn’t consistently taste the way you expected it to, or Google didn’t consistently provide the search results you were looking for, you’d find another product that did.
Brands, products, and people can only manifest their full potential when they’re able to combine repetition with consistency. To unlock your potential you must show up every day and reinforce what you want the world to know about you. Just like my old friend Josh Shames or your local pop radio station, you must repeat your message consistently until your audience begins to embrace what makes you different.
Josh is also a great friend, the kind you can count on no matter what. And he’s this way not only with me, but with a large group of people he has known since he was very young. He is a trusted friend because he puts the needs of others ahead of his own. Being a trusted friend is his defining characteristic. Your goal is to be a trusted brand and that results from practicing strategic, generous sharing. Trust is, as we’ve noted, the most important connection you need to establish with your community.
We’re constantly taking in information and categorizing it based on our level of trust for the source. As an example, let’s look at New York newspapers. The king of NYC papers is the New York Times. The Times has been reporting the news for more than 150 years and is widely considered the pinnacle of reliable news out- lets. The Times will only print stories if there are multiple reputable sources. For the Times, getting it right is more important than get- ting it first. On the opposite end of the spectrum is the New York Post. The cover of the Post is regularly strewn with over-the-top headlines and it’s filled with sensational tabloid stories. It’s famous for its gossip column, and the content is more entertainment than education.
The New York Times is the friend you reach out to for serious advice—more trust; the New York Post is the friend you have fun with—less trust.
The continuum of trust is directly related to value. When trust for a brand is high, we’re willing to pay more or make purchases with less consideration. For instance, Mercedes starts convincing you of the superiority of their automobiles when you’re young. The intention is to build your trust in the brand so one day, when you have the means, you’ll purchase a Mercedes. It’s crazy to think, but the sales cycle of a Mercedes actually starts thirty or forty years before you make a purchase; we buy promises, not products. When trust exists, you don’t have to manipulate customer behavior with discounts or sales, you only have to effectively and consistently communicate your story. Trust is a long-term play.
The same theory applies to individuals. Your name and reputation make up your brand. Your coworkers, friends, and even family value you similarly to the way you value a product. While this may sound clinical, it’s true. Let’s just consider the arena of employment. We’re more likely to hire someone and pay that per- son a higher salary if we trust her. I would even venture to say that when investing in someone’s business idea, how much we trust her is more important than whether we believe in the idea.
Being considered trustworthy may be the single most import- ant factor toward achieving your goals in the new paradigm. Ironically, though, how we evaluate trustworthiness has barely changed since the beginning of time. We make these decisions almost entirely based on our instincts and emotions. What do they look like? What do they sound like? What is their reputation? Therefore, all of the sharing strategies we talked about, from Storytelling to Collabo- ration to Repetition, are fundamentally about building trust. You must understand your audience and then package your message in a way that makes your audience feel an emotional connection.
Once you’ve won the trust of your audience, protect it, because if that bond is broken, it’s nearly impossible to fix.