New Cinephilia: The Rise and Rise of A24

My first memory of A24 was in early high school, when I discovered that two of my favourite Disney stars, Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens, would be starring in a new film together (the best of both worlds, if you ask me). 2012’s Spring Breakers was A24’s feature debut as a production company, and for a younger Rhea curled up in bed after rewatching High School Musical (2006) for the umpteenth time, having perfected her lip-sync performance of ‘We’re All in this Together’, the last thing she was expecting to see was Hudgens’ character engaging Spiderman’s (2002) James Franco in performing fellatio on two handguns.

Since this release, A24 has come a long way in both producing and distributing films, with twenty-five Academy Award nominations to their name for films including Moonlight (2016), Room (2015) and Ex Machina (2014), all the while earning a growing cult following. A24’s banner has frequently prefaced the best of indie films in recent years; films favouring a level of directorial control that isn’t usually at the forefront of other commercial film studios. Unlike most production and distribution companies, A24 have approached film marketing in a way that inextricably links their company title to their work; name-brand indie films that sit back and let actors and auteurs mould the face of the company. This has been the key to success ― or part of it ― for A24 who, in recent years, have distributed critically-acclaimed films from the Safdie Brothers, Robert Eggers, and Ari Aster, all of whom have gone on to be regular collaborators in the company’s ensuing films, television series, and podcasts.

Benny and Josh — the Safdie Brothers — are two of the rising auteurs that have birthed many of the stylistic qualities deeply linked to A24; their thrillers are manic, small and anxiety-inducing by design. Their first release through the company, crime-thriller Good Time (2017), starred Robert Pattinson ― at the time, probably better known as the Twilight (2008) series’ Edward Cullen ― playing Connie Nikas, a petty criminal trying desperately to bail his brother out of prison after a bank robbery gone wrong. Aided by a distorted and droning score from electronic composer Oneohtrix Point Never, the Safdie Brothers cemented themselves as some of the most messy, raw, and incredibly nervy filmmakers on the scene, who then went on to be nominated for the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. 

Now, scrolling through the comments on the Good Time trailer: @Michael Stuhlman comments: “If you doubt [Pattinson] as Batman then watch this film. Or The Rover (2014). Or High Life (2018)” ― all other A24 releases that also star Pattinson. @Sleepy Azathoth posts: “In A24 we trust”. This sentiment is clearly one that was also carried to the brothers’ next, equally nerve-shredding film. Uncut Gems (2019) stars Adam Sandler as a Diamond District jeweller and gambling-addict ― a character very unlike his lowbrow roles in Happy Gilmore (1996) or Jack and Jill (2011) to say the least. It came as a surprise to many when Sandler was awarded Best Male Lead by the Independent Spirit Awards, the Boston Society of Film Critics, and notably, the Razzie Redeemer Award for his performance. In light of watching these two specific releases, it’s hard not to notice a growing trend with A24; a revitalisation of actors looking to explore beyond their rigid, typecast roles in comedy and genre films.

In an interview discussing the essence of A24 films and celebrity revitalisation, Associate Professor Bruce Isaacs discusses film aesthetic and style, crediting their success to “character-driven plots” and a fascination with genre cinema. “We shouldn’t forget that both Robert Pattinson and Adam Sandler are just sensational in these movies. People make fun of Adam … He’s like this [Saturday Night Live] guy, crazy and quirky comedian. Having said that, he made Punch Drunk Love (2002) with Paul Thomas Anderson and now, Uncut Gems. In spite of the genre structures, it’s driven by character motivation and character arcs which I think, of all the A24 films I’ve seen, seems to be one common thread.”

It’s interesting to consider how actors like Pattinson and Sandler are turning to smaller independent projects as a de facto purging off their earlier careers and public images. The image of Pattinson as Edward Cullen, with his glistening diamond-like skin and tousled bronze hair, has melted away to reveal a kind of true American grit in the form of Connie Nikas and his unruly goatee (or his other characters: Eric Packer (Cosmopolis), Reynolds (Rover) and Dennis Scot (Life). This isn’t to say that these actors are saying no to bigger opportunities; for example, Pattinson’s role in Christopher Nolan’s Tenet (2020) and Matt Reeves’ upcoming The Batman. Pattinson has knowingly weaved in and out of mainstream and indie films, drawing together an eclectic filmography that showcases substance away from the heartthrob status.

“Pattinson seems to have tried to actively reconstruct himself in the way that Brad Pitt did, say, 20 years ago, where he would try to redefine what he could be as an actor,” Isaacs says. “If he’s in the new Nolan movie, which is going to have a budget of $200 million, that allows him to do The Lighthouse (2019). It allows him to commit to smaller projects, which is what people like George Clooney used to do, or Bruce Willis doing Pulp Fiction (1994).” A similar case can be made for the equally-career-binding public images of Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens, whose roles in the Spring Breakers assured viewers that their Disney personas, Alex Russo and Gabriella Montez, were dead and buried.  

The reinvention of such actor profiles, aided by their guerrilla marketing strategy and impressive ability to adapt to the social media space, has enabled A24 to sink into their ‘alternative’ image in their films’ marketing strategies. Notable examples include the promotional campaign for psycho-thriller Ex Machina (2014), where the company made a Tinder profile for AI character Ava, then a Twitter account for Black Phillip, the Satanic goat from The Witch (2015). In the case of Good Time, it was creating pizza boxes emblazoned with the faces of Pattinson and Safdie himself, and sending them to various New York pizzerias for distribution. Guerrilla techniques have proven to be the most effective forms of publicity for A24; companies with little budget, who nevertheless understand the whims of their audiences back to front. 

As a result, A24 have captured a cinephilia audience that are loyal to their films ― a cinematic quality almost guaranteed with its association with the indie studio itself. “A24 realises that their films aren’t for everyone. It’s not the fact that they put their ads in less open spaces, but it’s the places they know their fans would look. This doesn’t mean that A24 likes to have a certain moviegoer view their film, but that they know how to communicate to the ones that do,” says Adriano Papandrea, an avid Sydney film-goer I spoke to at The Lighthouse preview earlier this year.

Time and time again, A24 have successfully marketed their films to such a specific consumer audience that it’s not unreasonable to suggest that someone who likes one A24 film probably likes others. A unique cinephilic culture has accumulated around the company; a growing appreciation of a particular aesthetic that collages together various styles and genres, all of which challenge norms of American indie cinema and offer directorial speciality (A24’s acquisitions of with films directed by the names of Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird), Lulu Wang (The Farewell), and Bo Burnham (Eighth Grade), for instance, each offer refreshing explorations of suburban intimacy and coming-of-age).

Facebook’s A24 Film Group is evidence of A24’s digital cinephilic fandom, currently boasting 40,040 members with no sign of slowing down. A space for fans globally to share A24-based film recommendations, memes, or to merely show off their new merchandise, the group attests to the defined aesthetic A24 has developed. Through the various posts and discussion threads, it also confirms the existence of the ‘universal’ A24 fan ― not just one-off film lovers ― that seem to want to engage in heavy discussion and analysis, and within an online community setting.

The memes.

When I spoke to Thomas Enriquez, a member of the group, he told me: “A part of me just engaged with the ‘factious camaraderie’ of the company’s fanbase … I ended up getting strung along with its appeal. I enjoy the creative liberty of their human-centred stories that shorten the distance from which I, as a viewer, can identify with the narratives on screen … And as a result of the social and cultural nuances of their characters, it opens discussions on the value of more lived-in or quieter stories as opposed to bombastic studio adventures.”

Though, as is with any online forum, it becomes easy for digital spaces to manifest as toxic echo chambers, indulging in unabashed fandom pretension and more specifically, a breed of fan that aligns with the company’s independent, risk-taking aesthetic over the films themselves. Perhaps, considering the amount of discussion of how A24 is ‘disrupting’ Hollywood and on the road to saving mid-budget films, it’s easy to be carried by the hype and self-branding of a company targeting a hip, Millennial-to-Gen Z, main-character-syndrome-prone audience (i.e. me).

A24 are pushing their low-budget-small-business bent beyond production and distribution, and other companies are slowly catching up ― yes, I’m looking at you, NEON and Blumhouse. Sitting on the younger, trendier and social media savvy end of Hollywood entertainment companies, A24 as well as horror stalwart Blumhouse Productions, seem particularly thoughtful with their distribution methods for ‘riskier’ lower to mid-budget films, aiming to ensure maximum viewership for their smaller, indie projects. Often, certain films face a limited release or non-theatrical release and are launched directly to streaming platforms. Films including Blumhouse’s Hush (2016) and A24’s Hot Summer Nights (2017) both premiered at South by Southwest then were distributed via Netflix and DirecTV-Cinema respectively. And now, faced with cinema closures due to COVID-19, it is a similar case for Blumhouse’s The Hunt (2020) and yet-to-be-released Run Sweetheart Run (2020) which will be launching on Amazon Prime Video later this year.  Though, this does leave room to question the exact criteria of determining which films to market and modes of distribution; what methodical approach is taken to curate these investments?

A24 has attracted criticism from its fanbase surrounding the selectivity of marketing campaigns across its film slate.

A growing trend to notice among these film companies is their capitalisation off the power of merchandising, from their studio brands themselves, as well as niche references to their films. In the past year, Blumhouse Productions have launched their online shop selling memorabilia, such as shirts, collectibles and home decor, emblazoned with their logo as well as phrases from their films (though to be honest, I’m more taken by the Jason Blum Funko Pop! Figurine). Similarly, NEON, who distributed award-winning films such as Parasite (2019), Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) and I, Tonya (2017) have also recently launched an online store that sells Bong Joon-Ho merchandise and Parasite T-shirts ― their Best Picture Oscar-winning film title whose social fanbase was integral in fostering word-of-mouth hype around its awards campaign.

In spite of the modest efforts from NEON and Blumhouse, A24 easily rises above its peers, becoming more adept at the kind of hype-building their actual brand image that exclusive luxury streetwear companies, like Supreme and Off-White, have mastered. A24’s current merchandise line-up features a sleek curation of apparel, including embroidered A24 caps, minimalist ‘Champion x A24’ sweatshirts, and a rather chic pair of gym shorts. Covering a strange intersection between clout-drenched streetwear and movie merchandise, A24 have built a branding model where cinephiles anticipate merchandise drops. For example, the A24 subreddit now hosts a “Buy/Sell/Trade Merch Megathread”, for people who missed out on the exclusive drops ― a common occurrence when some items sell out in minutes. This also extends to their clever approach in merchandising their films.

“Obviously mainstream industries have always done this with blockbusters,” says Isaacs. “I think that the idea of merchandising and mass-culture is different to how you see these independent companies establishing cinephilic cultures. You have [merchandise] that commemorates not just your love for the film, but your cinephilic relationship to the film.”

While the culture behind merchandising is an endless one, A24 bridges a gap between merchandise and movie props that make the substance of films more tangible to their audiences, expanding on the narrative and aesthetics of the films. No, they don’t sell t-shirts with film posters on them. They sell The Lighthouse grooming kits that “smells of sea foam, black waves, biblical storms, and debauchery”, Midsommar (2019) ‘90s-inspired ‘Bear In A Cage’ toys, and Uncut Gems Winning Bet Basketballs. The effect of having such specific products is that it tightens the demographic of fans who would understand the gag of a product, building loyal and dedicated fan cultures similar to what you would find, for example, in gaming communities.

As a dedicated fan, Enriquez agrees, citing that their innovative strategies of building fandom aren’t merely superficial: “The way A24 diversifies its income, merchandise-wise, is already quite telling of their awareness of fan allegiance. I find that the designs of their wearable material are decently fashionable and have clear thought into brand image and wearability as opposed to just pandering to fandom culture.” 

A24 even hit the pages of streetwear publications like HYPEBEAST and HIGHSNOBIETY, and they’re further  collaborating with streetwear brand Brain Dead, for a new line of cinema apparel. In April of this year, A24 also announced their most recent feat of merchandising; a series of auctions of various costumes and props used in their films in order to raise money for a number of charities based in New York City. Most notably, these include the heavily bejewelled Furby necklace from Uncut Gems that sold for $13,500USD, the Midsommar May Queen dress, auctioned to The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for $65,000USD, and the mermaid carving from The Lighthouse, which went for a shocking $110,750USD – no doubt, because of a salacious scene or two shared between Pattinson and the trinket.

Of course, like any merchandise trend, this clearly capitalises on the wearable participation within a subculture and fosters a false narrative of exclusivity that derives from the nature of its niche marketing. Note Tumblr’s 2013 indie aesthetic of Pulp Fiction (1994) T-shirts, or Kanye’s Life of Pablo merch, or the resurgence of vintage band tees at any large clothing retailer. Flaunting a curiously elitist sense of style and movie appreciation, it could be argued that some of A24’s style-over-substance approach mirrors the frequent aesthetic self-indulgence that oozes from its films. The fandoms that have accumulated around A24 reflect a similar self-indulgence that, in the past, would have been recognisable in discussions and debate involving the works of earlier auteurs like Quentin Tarantino.

A24 has continued the revitalisation of arthouse cinema in a way that goes hand-in-hand with the digital age, unlike most companies in the Hollywood production-distribution scene. Their current clout and reputation demonstrates the commercial and cultural power of distributors who consider the powers of social media and self-aware references and humour, continuing to prove that unique films deserve unique marketing approaches ― something less common among the blockbuster industry. For A24, the next few years hold exciting projects in line with their brand image for producing auteur-driven screen content,  including a new TV collaboration between the Safdie Brothers and HBO, and a TV  adaptation of 1996’s Irma Vep with the film’s original director Olivier Assayas. For now, as the industry struggles to adapt to the uncertain changes COVID-19 has had on upcoming theatrical and digital releases, it becomes exciting to consider the possibilities of a new era of film marketing innovation.

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Rhea Thomas is a writer from Sydney and is Deputy Director of SURG. She enjoys discussing her emo music fantasies on her show, ‘And the Infinite Sadness’, and kindly requests that you shout her a bowl of ramen. Follow her on the gram, @rheasara.

Rhea Thomas

Rhea Thomas is a writer from Sydney and is Deputy Director of SURG. She enjoys discussing her emo music fantasies on her show, ‘And the Infinite Sadness’, and kindly requests that you shout her a bowl of ramen. Follow her on the gram, @rheasara.