– By James Powers –
Back when Avengers: Endgame came out, I published a long rant about how movies like it – massive “event” films with astronomical budgets and correspondingly astronomical audiences – have essentially become the new business model for wide-release theatrical features. In this day and age, a theatrical film that hopes to be profitable needs a marketing blitzkrieg behind it that gets everyone and their dog through the doors on opening weekend. It needs to smoke the competition and be the only thing that anyone is talking about.
Ok, I’m exaggerating a bit, mostly because I wanted to use the word blitzkrieg and employ “smoke” as a verb. But the basic point still holds. Film studios and distributors are now putting more and more of their eggs into fewer, larger baskets, and it’s pretty widely accepted in Hollywood today that mid-budget theatrical films (roughly, those that cost between $5-75 million to produce and market – yeah I know) are just no longer viable products. As more and more content is funnelled directly into streaming platforms, the conventional wisdom is that a theatrical film can only draw in enough box office revenue to turn a profit if it’s big enough and hyped enough to give audiences a compelling reason to make the trip to the theater. To say nothing of shelling out for a ticket. After all, people could just stay home and watch something else for free on Netflix. You’d probably leave your couch for Spider Man: Far From Home, but probably not for Always Be My Maybe (RIP rom-coms).
However, within the last five or so years, a safe haven seems to have emerged in the otherwise desolate landscape for mid-budget movies hoping to go theatrical. That is A24 Films, a distributor, production company and, uh, purveyor of sweaters and scented candles, based somewhat defiantly in New York rather than LA. Since its founding in 2012 by distribution veterans Daniel Katz, David Fenkel and John Hodges, the company has turned out an almost shockingly consistent string of critical darlings as well as commercial successes, all produced within the seemingly-cursed mid-budget range. Chances are pretty high that if you’re a film nerd reading this blog, you’ve already been in love with them for awhile and are quite familiar with their catalogue: Eighth Grade, Lady Bird, The Witch, The Bling Ring, Hereditary, The Disaster Artist, Ex Machina, etc., etc., etc.
They’ve also turned out plenty of movies you’ve never heard of, but for such a new company, it’s almost uncanny how many of their titles have burst out and become sensations. This is both the cause and effect of a weird phenomenon that’s pretty unique to A24 – unlike the majority of distribution companies (except perhaps genre-specific ones like Blumhouse), they have a brand to them that people immediately recognize. They have become the place to go, not just for indie films but for a particular type of indie film, one that spans across all types of genres yet still – somehow – always has an undeniable A24 flavor. A couple weeks ago they released the psychedelic horror film Midsommar, which although not a box office sensation is well on its way to profitability; and today sees the opening of their dramedy The Farewell, which is currently basking in a Rotten Tomatoes score of – wait for it – 100%. And you can bet that a lot of the same people, including me, are lining up to see both.
So um. How did this happen? How did this upstart distribution company come out of nowhere seven years ago and make like gangbusters in a market segment that’s supposed to be drying out?
Welp, it’s hard to say; like many successful people, the minds behind A24 aren’t about to share the secret sauce with much of anybody. When asked about their curatorial methods in an interview for the Wall Street Journal, co-founder Katz explained, “the first question we ask is, is this cool?” Hm, real shocker, cuz if I were a distribution executive, the first thing I’d ask about a film I was thinking of picking up would be “is this going to be at least a little bit unpleasant and alienating to people? Yes? Great, then let’s grab it.”
Except no. I wouldn’t ask that. Like Katz and like any other sane person, I too would ask if the movie’s cool. I would ask myself if I like it, if I think my friends would like it, or my parents or my coworkers or the noisy high-schoolers that swarm the corner Starbucks every afternoon. I would rely on my taste and intuition, at least in part, so for Katz to say that he and his colleagues do the same is kind of meaningless. Of course, I’m sure it’s true to an extent, and since all three of the co-founders have been in the distribution business for a while, they probably have more reliable taste than most. But the same can be said for any other distributor, and yet here’s A24 doing their thing, the same kind of thing that many other distributors have been trying and failing to do for a while. After all, simply having a good film is in no way a guarantee that you’ll find an audience. Ask any hipster or frustrated indie director.
So ultimately, the x-factor has less to do with the company’s taste and more to do with their marketing methods, which are pretty ahead of the curve and far more nimble than those used by larger companies. Where a lot of the media establishment has been slow to just let the old ways die already when it comes to publicity, A24 has been leaning hard into the new paradigm of social media marketing. The benefit of this new paradigm is twofold: it offers marketers an enormous data pool, as well as a far more efficient mechanism for buzz around a film to develop organically.
So when A24’s marketing gurus (who definitely exist even if Katz is being coy about them) are strategizing for the release of, say, The Lighthouse, they can first get a very, very precise picture of who their target audience is and structure their ad campaigns accordingly. This way they can ensure that all the people who not only like but love this kind of movie know that it’s coming. Then, after the film is released, they can rely on that smaller, more devoted audience to spread web-based buzz on their own and gradually pull in the “swing voters.” These are people like my dad who don’t necessarily pay much attention to indie film, but who remember that Toni Collette was really great in The Sixth Sense and have now heard that she plays a completely unhinged role in this flick called Hereditary. Sounds interesting, why not check it out?
This stands in stark contrast with most other distributors, who still treat web-based marketing as complementary to more traditional methods, rather than superior to them. They still pay buckets for network- and cable-based advertising blitzes, which are far more expensive and less adaptable. But when A24 released Hereditary last year, which came from a completely unknown director and was, shall we say, very unique among horror films, they waited until a couple weeks before its release to start marketing it and never did any TV advertising at all. Then, after all that, they had the chutzpah to drop the thing on over 3,000 screens on opening weekend, by far one of their widest releases ever.
It was an intense, controversial movie, and the company seemed to plan on that in their marketing strategy. Rather than a long-winded media saturation, they went for a kind of guerilla campaign that hit fast and hard and, sure enough, produced lasting reverberations. Not everyone liked the movie, but everyone was talking about it, and Hereditary ultimately grossed $43 million after a $14 million opening weekend. Although those big numbers kind of all blur together, they represent impressive longevity for the film’s theatrical run.
Similar stories of gutsy strategies abound for many of their other releases, such as the fake Tinder profile for Ex Machina, or the very particular poster on a very particular billboard for The Disaster Artist, or the special screenings allowing middle-schoolers to see the R-rated Eighth Grade (as corrupting as that may sound, I personally think it was a great idea, but that’s another story). It comes down to this: A24 has made a name for itself by giving each theatrical release a very precise, unique marketing strategy that is tailor-made for that specific film, and I think that more than anything is their secret.
But while they might like you to think that these strategies are simply birthed from their own artistic genius, that’s only half of the story. Artistic genius, taste and intuition on their end are definitely part of it, but so is the information that they’ve received from us, the audience, after seven or so years of us tweeting, liking, watching, streaming, RT-researching, weird-PR-stunt-sharing, YouTube-trailer-replaying and so on.
The brains at A24 don’t only understand film – they understand data, how to dig into that data to find out what it is that makes audiences tick, and how to both find and craft films that respond to that. Am I spooked by how much they might know about me? Well, kind of. But as long as everybody else is spying on me anyway, I’m glad that they’re at least using these powers for good. By which I mean, making good movies.
About the Author
James Powers is a staff writer for the Impacting Culture Blog, currently earning his MBA in Film Producing at JPCatholic as a member of the class of 2019.
For all articles by James, click here.