A24’s Not-So-Secret Recipe for Success

A24’s Not-So-Secret Recipe for Success

Hollywood is a tough business. Especially for newcomers facing the need to get past the enormous cost barriers just to find themselves in a market dominated by big, well-established studios.

Tough, but not impossible. One company has repeatedly demonstrated how to succeed in this unforgiving industry—A24. Over the last decade, this distributor-turned-studio has built up an impressive roster of successful independent films. And shows no sign of slowing down.

(L-R) Joachim Phoenix and director Ari Aster on the set of A24’s upcoming movie Beau is Afraid. Image © A24
(L-R) Joaquin Phoenix and director Ari Aster on the set of A24’s upcoming movie Beau is Afraid. Image © A24

A24’s slate features a unique combination of commercial hits, critical darlings, and cult classics. With momentum on their side, A24 cleaned up at the 2023 Oscars with Everything Everywhere All At Once and The Whale, earning 18 of their 49 Oscar nominations in this year alone.

This also made A24 the first company to win the six top awards in a single night: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Supporting Actress. So where did it all start, and how did they get here?

The early years

A24—named after the Italian motorway—was founded in 2012 by film industry vets Daniel Katz, John Hodges, and David Fenkel. Katz previously led the film financing division at Guggenheim Partners, which provided the seed money for the industry disruptor.

Katz claimed that “Films didn’t seem as exciting to us as when we started our careers, and that signaled an opportunity.” During the early years, A24 operated as a distributor, focusing on bold and unique stories that were overlooked at the bigger studios.

“Films didn’t seem as exciting to us as when we started our careers, and that signaled an opportunity.”

One of A24’s early successes came with Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers in September 2013, a frenetic amalgamation of crime, coming of age, and comedy. In that same month, A24 signed a $40 million deal with Direct TV’s cinema division. A mere two months later, they entered a partnership with Amazon Prime Video, as well.

A24 expanded rapidly. By financing, producing, and distributing their films, the plucky startup grew into a fully fledged independent studio. While the films they’ve released over the years vary in scope, theme, and style, there are distinct commonalities among the films they champion.

So let’s take a look at the formula that’s led to their success.

Marketing and brand association

As a startup in the entertainment space during the 2010s, A24 had to stand out to make an impact. A survey of their films indicates a clear target audience—millennials and Gen Z—and A24 recognized the need to appeal to this younger demographic on their home turf.

Social media challenges and fan interactions are the bread and butter of establishing and growing a brand. Take, for example, their marketing for Ex Machina during SXSW, where they made a fake Tinder account for the AI robot, Ava. The campaign saw them interacting with the attendees of the festival (presumably movie buffs), before sending them a link to the film’s Instagram account. There was also www.ava-sessions.com, a still-active website where ‘Ava’ will draw a three-dimensional portrait of you using facial recognition software.

Visitors to Ava’s fake Tinder profile were redirected to the movie’s Instagram account, @meetava.
Visitors to Ava’s fake Tinder profile were redirected to the movie’s Instagram account, @meetava.

These interactive experiences created hype and interest around the film and its themes while engaging with fans of the brand—which was a far cry from the formulaic approach taken by Hollywood at the time.

Today, their brand is so established it could almost constitute a fandom. While not on the same scale as Marvel and DC, it’s set a new standard for an indie film studio. In fact, A24’s brand is so appealing that even their merchandise is coveted—partly a result of customer loyalty, but also of A24’s savvy practice of producing unique items sold in limited quantities.

And it’s this combination of clever marketing of very particular content that’s paying off for A24. In much the same way that HBO has become synonymous with high-quality television, the A24 logo is an indicator of stories you won’t find in the risk-averse franchises that dominate the world’s box office take.

This kind of brand association is even more important when considering how much theatrical box office performances have slipped, especially for big studios. However, because A24 can draw crowds into the theaters and sustain interest for their releases, this allows them to turn a profit on their films, which gives them the opportunity to take new risks.

The business model

A24 is also keenly aware that they are an indie film studio and operates in a different financial space. During the early days when they functioned solely as a distributor, they released between 10-15 films a year; as a studio, they now release 18-20 per year. By comparison, in 2022 Disney released 16 theatrically and Warner Bros. only 15.

With far lower budgets, somewhere between $15-$20 million on average, A24’s strategy has paid off.  Their ethos of trusting their talent and giving them full creative freedom means that they can take more chances. Although not every film will achieve commercial success, their track record indicates that another will. Compared with a larger, more traditional studio that needs the vast majority of its films to be commercially successful in order to be profitable, A24 only needs one or two commercial hits per year. A box office hit like Everything Everywhere All At Once ($140.2 million) could finance a full year of more than half of their slate.

This high-volume, lower-budget approach allows them to take bigger risks that lead (theoretically) to higher profit margins. A delicate balance between commercial and critical success has allowed A24 to expand rapidly from a distribution company to a production company, and now, to a seasoned studio. For any company or creator looking to scale their operation from minor to massive, it’s a proof of concept.

Trusting talent

A24 invests in talent, and not just actors. Even in their first few years as a distributor they set a clear precedent, choosing to work with modern-day auteurs like Harmony Korine, Sofia Coppola, and Denis Villeneuve. When working under the A24 banner these directors are able to tell original, unique, and even downright strange stories.

“Yeah, they don’t need to know what it’s about. They just need to know how it feels.”

Directors appreciate this approach. Barry Jenkins (Moonlight) summed it up by saying, “Yeah, they don’t need to know what it’s about. They just need to know how it feels.”

Barry Jenkins (shown here filming The Underground Railroad) directed A24’s first production, the Oscar-winning Moonlight.
Barry Jenkins (shown here filming The Underground Railroad) directed A24’s first production, the Oscar-winning Moonlight.

While the big studios tend toward risk aversion, A24 resolutely faces in the opposite direction, betting big on new or untapped talent. As a result, they’ve been instrumental in launching the careers of successful indie filmmakers. These include Ari Aster (now on his third A24 production with Beau is Afraid), Greta Gerwig, The Daniels, and Robert Eggers—who all made their directorial debuts with A24. And most have since gone on to direct larger productions like Egger’s The Northman, and Gerwig’s upcoming Barbie.

A24 also has a knack for finding established acting talent with directorial aspirations, among them Jonah Hill with Mid90s and Bo Burnham with Eighth Grade.

This approach also attracts more established talent who want to work on less mainstream projects.  Director Darren Aronofsky, for example, approached them for The Whale, which might have been considered a riskier property by a larger studio.

Director Darren Aronofsky and cinematographer Matthew Libatique on location for The Whale. Image © A24
Director Darren Aronofsky and cinematographer Matthew Libatique on location for The Whale. Image © A24

It’s possible that some directors might prefer the A24 model. Not only are they allowed greater creative freedom, A24 also supports the kind of filmmaking that takes them back to their creative roots.

Emphasis on diversity

In their search for story diversity, A24 supports cultural diversity, both in production and subject matter. Films such as Minari, The Farewell, Everything Everywhere All At Once and the recent Netflix hit Beef are all examples of A24 embracing Asian directors creating stories that are based on their family and cultural experiences.

The Farewell is one of many A24 movies with Asian directors and themes.
The Farewell is one of several A24 movies with Asian directors and themes. Image © A24

Similarly, the casting decisions of Dev Patel in The Green Knight and Denzel Washington in The Tragedy of Macbeth show that A24 is willing to put diversity at the forefront in their modern adaptations of classic literature.

Robert Eggers at work on The Green Knight, which cast Dev patel in the lead role.
David Lowery at work on The Green Knight, which cast Dev Patel in the lead role.

However, there’s no better example of the studio’s commitment to inclusivity than Moonlight. Written and directed by Barry Jenkins, this was a coming-of-age story in more ways than one.

Released in 2016—just three years after the company’s founding—Moonlight was A24’s first production, receiving critical acclaim and taking the Oscar for Best Picture.

A24’s big bet on Black, Moonlight demonstrated a demand for bold stories.
A24’s big bet on Black, Moonlight, demonstrated a demand for bold stories. Image © A24

If you’re looking for the defining moment in A24’s timeline, this is it. Greenlighting a movie specifically about Black male identity and sexuality in a genre film, featuring an all-Black cast was a bold first move. But A24 was willing to champion Barry Jenkins’ vision and it paid off massively, turning a production budget of $4M into a box office of $65M.

Joi McMillion, the film’s editor, went on to become the first Black woman to be nominated for an Oscar for Best Editor, while Mahershala Ali was the first Muslim ever to win an Oscar.

Mahershala Ali in his Oscar-winning performance for Moonlight
Making waves. Mahershala Ali took home an Oscar for his performance in Moonlight. Image © A24

Allowing these filmmakers to tell their deeply personal stories expanded the studio’s audience from traditional art-house film lovers to a much wider, global demographic. And, of course, bigger audience = more ticket sales and downloads.

Facing an uncertain future

Unsurprisingly, the studio’s success has generated a lot of interest. And rumors. In 2021, Variety reported that A24 was flirting with a sale valued at $3 billion and while this clearly hasn’t materialized, A24 remains tight-lipped on the topic. In fact, the founders speak very little, choosing to let their films do the talking for them. In that vein, A24 has just produced and released Ari Aster’s comedy/horror film, Beau is Afraid, starring Joaquin Phoenix. They’re also slated to release Celine Song’s directorial debut, Past Lives, a romantic K-Drama.

It’s a solid model. And while Everything Everywhere’s huge success isn’t predictably repeatable, A24’s combination of trusting its directors, putting diversity first, and constructing stories outside the mainstream—at a reasonable price—continues to pay off.

If there’s anything we’ve learned over the past several years, the movie industry can be capricious. As we’ve observed, even studios like Netflix have faced recent existential challenges, and A24 isn’t the only company going up against the franchises with quirky, offbeat, and challenging stories—like Searchlight’s The Banshees of Inisherin and AB Svensk’s Triangle of Sadness. It will be exciting to see how A24 continues to move forward, what new risks they take to retain their fanbase’s loyalty, and how they attract new viewers.

Thank you to Danny Avershal for contributing this article.

Danny Avershal is a writer and video producer based in LA. He writes about entertainment, technology, and entrepreneurship, and his work can be seen in Rolling Stone and Fast Company.

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