Discover more from Cansler Culture
Can the arthouse studio repeat its movie-industry success Off-Broadway?
I don’t remember the first time I saw an A24 tote bag. Frankly, I don’t remember the first time I saw the A24 logo. It was probably at the start of a film sometime in the 2010s, and I probably acknowledged the studio’s name for three seconds before immediately pushing it to the back of my mind.
I do remember that at some point in 2018, I looked up and realized that the slick, art deco logo was everywhere. It wasn’t just on tote bags, but on T-shirts, phone cases, stickers, and, of course, the poster for seemingly every film my friends were excited about.
“It’s the new A24,” a friend told me about Hereditary back then, saying the studio name as if that’s all I needed to know about the movie in order to want to see it.
Indeed, since its founding in 2012, the independent arthouse studio has built a brand for itself that is bigger than any individual film it has released by modernizing how movies are marketed and churning out a series of awards-circuit hits, amassing a cult-like fanbase along the way.
You can imagine, then, my intrigue when I learned that the studio bought a theater last month. Not a movie theater — an Off-Broadway theater. More specifically, the Cherry Lane Theater.
While few details have been revealed about what exactly A24 will do with the theater — we do know they’re planning on renovating it later this year and then beginning programming in 2024 — it is still a business move that has the potential to shake up the NYC theatre scene in much the same way the studio has shaken up the arthouse cinema scene over the past decade.
How A24 did that shaking up actually had little to do with filmmaking. Certainly, having an eye for quality films and filmmakers is always part of the equation for any studio, but what made A24 such a success story had more to do with marketing.
Starting out at first as a film distributor, the company immediately abandoned the old ways of marketing films. Instead of showing trailers on TV and buying billboards, the company focused almost entirely on social media. Specifically, they developed campaigns that were designed to make users feel like they “discovered” the film, and thereby were more inclined to recommend it to a friend, creating a word-of-mouth hype more valuable than any trailer could be.
Since then, they’ve stayed ahead of the curve in how they market online. As Nate Jones wrote for Vulture last year: “the company was doing Brand Twitter before Brand Twitter, and it’s telling that, as people started finding this type of engagement cheesy, A24 largely phased it out.”
It helps, too, that A24’s films all seem tailor-made for the specific demographic that would respond to this kind of marketing. While the studio has run the gamut in terms of genre, virtually all of the studio’s films, both those distributed and developed, are original works by emerging filmmakers that feature highly-stylized cinematography and themes that appeal to young progressive-minded audiences.
Within that target audience — an increasingly important demographic when it comes to box office sales, especially post-pandemic — A24 has built a strong enough brand that the logo essentially markets the films itself. As Jones wrote, “the magic of the brand was that over time it has been able to sell the idea of A24 as synonymous with originality, idiosyncrasy, and prestige.”
The story of A24, though, is not simply its rapid success, but the way it changed the movie industry’s idea of what arthouse cinema could look, and sell, like in the 21st century. It’s fair to say the theatre industry is due for a similar shake up.
Much has been said and written about NYC theatre post-pandemic, to the point that a clear picture of how the industry as a whole is doing is difficult to ascertain. A week of good sales or a particularly successful new show will lead to headlines about audiences coming back. The opposite will lead to headlines saying the opposite. Even the most optimistic pictures, though, paint the city’s theatre scene as stagnant financially and, with a few exceptions, artistically.
It is also fair to say that even before the pandemic, the theatre industry had never quite figured out how to market itself in the social media era, with even the most progressive ad campaigns still a few steps behind the curve. Especially for new shows that audiences aren’t familiar with, the marketing plan usually relied on getting just enough sales to last until word-of-mouth marketing spreads on its own. These are generalizations, of course, but even with the exceptions to the rule, there is room for improvement.
Can A24 change things? It’s hard to say for sure. They haven’t revealed exactly what kind of programming they’ll be doing in the Cherry Lane, but we do know that it will be a for-profit space used for live performances, including theatre.
I’m optimistic, mostly because the specific skills that the studio has for building online hype among young people around its films before release seems to be exactly what the theatre industry needs, especially when it comes to innovating new ways to advertise on social media and pull in young audiences.
Plus, with the exception of perhaps only Public Theater, few theatre company names have the recognition and reputation to get audiences interested in new works by emerging artists. I can imagine, though, looking up a few years from now and hearing a friend in New York say “it’s the new A24” about an exciting new play, as if that’s all the information I’d need.
In fact, if that does happen, and I would bet it’s more likely to than not, I may just purchase an A24 tote bag.
That’s all for this edition of Cansler Culture. If you’re looking for more fun takes, download the Substack app and check me out on the new Notes feature. I’ll be writing daily “micro-criticisms,” the least cringey term I could think of to describe my posts.