Inside the A24 phenomenon: How an indie film company became a major lifestyle brand

“This is me … this is how I win.”

Those are the internet-famous, meme-immortalized words spoken by Howard Ratner, the gambling-addicted jeweler played by Adam Sandler in “Uncut Gems.”

The thesis of Sandler’s speech in the film — which was one of the most beloved and critically-acclaimed movies of 2019 — is simple: Howard Ratner takes risks; he does things differently; he wins on his own terms.

It might be fair to say that A24, the independent film company which produced and distributed “Uncut Gems,” shares some ethos with Ratner. The production house, launched in 2012 by industry veterans Daniel Katz, David Fenkel and John Hodges, has exploded in popularity since its small-budget beginnings — a feat it’s accomplished by creating a brand that’s completely, incomparably distinct.

“Certainly, audience segments today see ‘A24’ and know what type of film they’re going to get — and when I say ‘type’ I don’t mean genre,” Gary Faber, an adjunct professor of movie marketing at New York University, told In The Know.

Also like Ratner, A24 has found more than a few ways to win over the past eight years. The company’s movies have racked up 25 Academy Award nominations, including a Best Picture win for “Moonlight” in 2017. Meanwhile, 2019 was the brand’s biggest box office year to date, with its movies pulling in nearly $100 million — a figure led, fittingly, by “Uncut Gems,” the company’s highest-earning film yet.

That success has been far from conventional. Throughout its meteoric rise, A24 has used social media, viral marketing, shrewd film selection and hypebeast-style merchandise to create a brand that transcends well beyond theaters — especially for younger fans.

“There are a few companies out there now that speak very well to younger audiences,” Faber, who also runs Entertainment Research & Marketing (ERM), a marketing consulting company that has worked with A24 in the past, said. “[For Gen Z moviegoers] A24 has become the brand they discovered, believe in and root for — and more than that, they trust A24 to curate content for them. I think that connection is what makes them stand out.”

Faber added that every semester, his students come to class buzzing about a new A24 film — a level of hype that may not have been imaginable in the company’s earliest days.

‘The first social media promoted film’

A24’s first moves may have been small, but they certainly made noise. In March of 2013, the company distributed its third film, “Spring Breakers,” an independent film about a college vacation gone completely haywire.

The movie itself was a major success — making more than six times its $5 million budget at the box office — but in many ways, it was A24’s social media team that came out on top.

The company was praised for its marketing in the lead-up to opening weekend, during which it posted a soon-to-be-viral photo of lead actor James Franco in full character, complete with braids, tattoos and gold teeth.

Within months, A24’s social pages had become their own kind of internet celebrity, with media outlets and content strategy sites alike praising its casual, irreverent online presence.

“A24 is tweeting witticisms that will have unfollowing the rest of your marginally funny friends to make room for theirs,” Gawker’s Defamer website wrote at the time. “They tweet about their own movies in the smallest of spam-free doses, which is another endearing trait.”

Faber says this revelation was crucial, as it helped the company make a name for itself without relying on the sort of traditional, big-budget ad strategies that other distributors were so reliant on. Instead, it could rely on its Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts to foster an audience of young, film obsessives who were steeped in internet culture.

“I’m not sure they get enough credit, but ‘Spring Breakers’ really was the first social media-promoted film,” he told In The Know. “[A24] figured out a way to use social to talk directly to their customers — in their language.”

‘They’re selling movies, right?’

A24’s Twitter account may have been a cult favorite, but back then its tweets were lucky to even get more than a dozen or so likes. That started changing in the following years, as the company took on bigger projects — and bigger marketing stunts.

In 2015, A24 distributed “Ex Machina,” a critically adored sci-fi thriller that arrived with its own romantic ad campaign. The movie, starring Oscar Issac, Alicia Vikander and Domhnall Gleeson, was debuted along with a Tinder profile for “Ava,” the self-aware android Vikander portrays in the film.

Vinakder reportedly controlled the profile herself, staying in character while asking unsuspecting men questions from the movie’s dialog.

Less than a year later, the company was managing another completely fake social media profile — this time for a demonic goat. The campaign, which was used to promote the supernatural horror film “The Witch,” revolved around a Twitter handle for Black Phillip, the frightening animal who became a breakout viral star before and after the movie’s release.

The A24 brand — and its increasingly popular movies — was also starting to make its way offline. Mid-2010s hits like “Ex Machina,” “The Witch” and “Lady Bird” served as a massive launchpad for the company’s merch store, which now sells hats, socks, T-shirts, candles, coffee mugs and even running shorts.

“I do think as far as studios go, they’ve done a great job branding. They approach it with the right balance of fun (they’re selling movies, right?) attitude and pedigree,” Faber told In The Know in an email.

Today, it’s a regular occurrence for several items in the store to be completely sold out, a trend that’s likely not helped by fashion tastemakers like GQ highlighting the brand’s “excellent,” hypebeast-attracting merch.

‘They’re definitely the place to be now’

And when it comes to swag, even celebrities are getting in on the action. In early 2020, a charity auction featuring props from recent A24 films drew a wave of high-profile bids — including some as high as $65,000.

One of those bidders was Ariana Grande. According to Insider, the 26-year-old pop star was so obsessed with the 2019 horror film “Midsommar” that she texted a friend she was “bidding as soon as possible” on the flower-filled dress that Florence Pugh dons in the movie.

She wasn’t alone either. The singer Halsey also apparently considered spending thousands on the dress, even tweeting about her intense urge to join the auction.

That sort of high-profile co-signing does more than make headlines, though. According to Faber, the brand’s increased notoriety feeds a sort of cycle of hype, one that helps A24 continue building its catalog.

“The brand is very well recognized among younger and heavier moviegoers, and in terms of ‘power’ that helps on the marketing end for sure,” Faber said. “But also helps with filmmakers knowing that they trust the company to get their film to their audience.”

In the last three years alone, A24 has worked with everyone from Jonah Hill and Robert Pattinson to Greta Gerwig and Paul Schrader, pulling in a cult brand of star power both in front of and behind the camera.

“They’re definitely the place to be now,” Pattinson told GQ in 2017. “I mean, I have no idea what they’re doing, really. They’re just on it. They have a very good understanding of the Zeitgeist.”

These relationships, Faber says, are what allow the studio to keep cultivating its incredibly strong identity, a brand that he says has become comparable to some of pop culture’s most powerful properties.

“They’ve used their earlier films to build the brand and now they can use that brand to endorse their new films (and grow their brand),” he told In The Know via email. “Certainly not at all unlike what ‘Iron Man’ did for the MCU [Marvel Cinematic Universe]. Yes, I just compared A24 to Marvel.”

Of course, the coronavirus pandemic has all but halted the movie industry, leaving plenty of questions as to what A24 will do next (the company was originally set to release at least six films this year). But as long as the brand continues serving its young and obsessive audience through merch, viral marketing and hyper-specific taste, Faber thinks it’ll continue to thrive.

“The interesting thing is [that my students] talk about A24 more like a friend than some big corporate entity that might be completely un-relatable,” he told In The Know. “They definitely feel that they have a connection and have a vested interest in their success.”

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