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I spent six weeks living in A24-world. Here’s what happened

The ultra-hip indie film house recently opened up a paid membership for fans of its films, its merch, and everyone else. Is it worth it?

I spent six weeks living in A24-world. Here’s what happened
[Photos: A24]

What makes A24 a cultural powerhouse is not that it released a film last spring in which an inter-dimensional assassin impales himself on an Auditor of the Month trophy, inexplicably shaped like a certain sex toy, although it most certainly did. It’s not that most cinephiles would immediately guess A24 as the company who put out that film, Everything Everywhere All at Once, even if its logo didn’t appear before the credits, although they probably would. No, what makes A24 a steady, sturdy phenomenon is that it started selling $60 designer candle replicas of that unlikely trophy just after the movie’s early-June digital release.

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Whether enough fans purchase the item—a collaboration with Brooklyn-based design studio, Joya—to justify its overhead cost is incidental. Everything Everywhere is now A24’s biggest hit ever, its $89 million box-office haul rendering the digital release a victory lap. The very existence of that candle, though, is an audacious in-joke that got people talking. It billboards the film’s sensibility, and further cements its inextricable link to the company behind it. This is part of A24‘s grand design. Its movies, its marketing tactics, and its ravenously consumed merch all flow together to maintain an unmistakable vibe that pulls into its orbit the die-hards, the casually curious, and even some folks who may be barely aware of A24 as anything other than a streetwear line. Back in April, the company announced a new offering that promised to bring each of these fandoms closer to the source than ever before: membership in an exclusive club entitled A24 All Access (AAA24). In an effort to get to the bottom of the company’s appeal—and the ecstatic support it inspires—I decided to join. If nothing else, I would probably get a fire shirt out of it. Maybe even one of those super-rare Hereditary fire-shirts.

The welcome wagon

The official announcement of AAA24 on Twitter is greeted the same way as everything else is on Twitter: polarization. For as many folks who respond rapturously to the news, many more are aghast. They can’t believe the $5-a-month fee does not include access to an A24 streaming library. They downplay the decade-old company as just a film distributor, as though its first original production, 2016’s Moonlight, didn’t win Best Picture in the most dramatic pre-slap Oscar moment ever. They bemoan A24’s supposed descent into hypebeast-baiting fashion brand—positing it as a sort of circa 2017 Thrasher Magazine of the film world, without specifying whether and how this development has had any impact on the quality of its films.

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After Yang [Photo: A24]
Whatever the detractors may think, the spiritual heir of mid-90s Miramax is objectively having a strong year. The tender sci-fi meditation, After Yang, was well-reviewed if underseen, and it was followed by throwback-slasher hit, X, and of course that comedic multiverse mindf—, Everything Everywhere All at Once, a critical, commercial, and cultural smash. While Twitter users dunk on AAA24 for clicks, denizens of the A24 subreddit, the kind of people who design virtual theme parks based on the company’s films and buy props from them at auction, are engaged in a subtly different discourse. In between posts complaining that all the Everything Everywhere merch is sold out, redditors earnestly pick apart the particulars of AAA24 to determine whether it will be worth the cost.

Here is what A24 All Access membership entails at the time I join in early May: a subscription to A24’s zine, including the sold-out current issue, edited by Everything Everywhere directorial duo Daniels; a club logo pin; a membership card and key fob for getting into member-prioritized live events; the chance to buy exclusive merch as well as purchase non-exclusive merch before anyone else; an as-yet unspecified birthday gift; and Close Friends status on A24’s Instagram account, where members will be privy to giveaways and “sneak peeks we’ll never post to main.” It is this last perk that has some commenters on the subreddit especially excited.

The ongoing fascination with A24 is a matter of mystique. From its frequently inscrutable trailers—which have inspired a micro-trend of cutting fake trailers in A24’s enigmatic style—to the way its founders and creative team are cagey about interviews, this is a company known for moving in secrecy. Getting any kind of peek behind the curtain is a rare, tantalizing opportunity for fans. Indeed, one of the first things I see on A24’s Instagram as a Close Friend is an illuminating glimpse at the company’s machinations in action. It’s a screenshot from an internal email, dated 12/16/21, about an idea for a candle based on a certain memorably shaped trophy from Everything Everywhere All at Once, with a caption that teases: Coming Soon.

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When the butt plug candle goes on sale six weeks later, it will become a minor news story. For now, it’s just a private little happy surprise for members.

Externalizing movie universes

There’s an art to exporting the texture of a movie out into the real world. Done right, it can dazzle not only prospective audiences, but also executives. Long before A24 entered the candle business, the company scored distribution rights to what became its first hit, 2013’s Spring Breakers, by sending producer Megan Ellison a gun-shaped glass bong engraved with the film’s logo. It was a gimmicky bit, sure, but almost all marketing is gimmicky bits. This one telegraphed a gonzo sensibility and the kind of customized care A24 was willing to put into breaking Spring Breakers. The movie would go on to make $32 million, on a $5 million budget, partly propelled by the image of costar James Franco’s cornrowed party gangster anchoring a Last Supper tableau in a promo photo that went viral on Facebook.

In the years to come, A24 would get far more sophisticated in its approach to externalizing key elements from its films. When Alex Garland‘s Ex Machina, about an extremely humanoid AI named Ava (Alicia Vikander), debuted at Sundance in 2015, A24 launched a Tinder bot with Ava’s name and likeness geolocated nearby. This impromptu Turing test for horny festival goers eerily mirrored the movie’s plot, and media outlets ate it up. For Ari Aster‘s 2018 horror hit, Hereditary, the company sent influencers and critics creepy anamorphic dolls, ostensibly made by Charlie (Milly Shapiro), a character heavily featured in the film’s trailer, and later opened an Etsy shop to showcase Charlie’s other weird wares. Marketing methods like these deftly—perhaps uncomfortably—convey the themes and tone of the films they support, and present those films as immersive worlds, which viewers don’t merely view but rather explore and experience.

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Of course, this playful reality-jamming extends to some of the brand’s merchandise.

The first exclusive item I am offered as a literal card-carrying member of AAA24 has that same in-world feel as a festival marketing integration. It’s a hat from A24’s archives, briefly released in 2018 to promote Paul Schrader’s eco-religious psychodrama, First Reformed. The hat is in no way stylish—faded denim-blue with embroidered white lettering—but it’s not supposed to be stylish. In the film, it makes a cameo as a perfunctory gift shop item at the titular church, part of Pastor Toller’s (Ethan Hawke) pitiable efforts to keep the lights on with souvenir money.

As a fan of the film, I’m tempted to buy the exclusive $35 hat. However, I weigh the benefit of sparking conversations with the odd movie nerd or two against the burden of explaining to my moderately Jewish/Paul Schrader-agnostic family why they may have glimpsed me on Instagram wearing a dorky hat that simply reads “First Reformed Church.”

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The hat is so successfully esoteric I can’t reasonably own it.

What if Miramax, but also Supreme?

My birthday is in the end of May. Well, it actually passed a month earlier, but for the sake of this article, I have committed the kind of mild birthday fraud people have used to score free desserts and embarrassing waiter serenades at casual dining chains since time immemorial, to make sure I get my promised gift.

An email from A24 reveals my options. The main contenders are a diamond-grading chart, purportedly from Adam Sandler’s character in Uncut Gems, for all my diamond-grading needs; a handsomely packaged illustrated postcard set, based on 2021 Oscar hopeful, Minari; and a pair of mesh maroon gym shorts with A24 piping down either side. An r/A24-dweller later asks whether b-day gift options will change over time. Based on the screenshot in that post, which includes a long sleeve ‘A Twenty-Four’ shirt and a stencil, the answer is yes. I can hardly imagine anyone with these options not go jumping on the most wearable one, although another redditor proudly promises to “stencil the sh*t out of everything I can draw on” with their gift.

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The maroon gym shorts, which arrive in almost comically upscale packaging, quickly become a staple of my errand-running wardrobe. They’re not quite the kind of garment that helped transform A24 into a legitimate purveyor of capital-F Fashion, though. A24 may be the cultural heir to mid-’90s Miramax, but it has also sort of become the cultural heir to late-aughts Supreme, complete with merch drops and pop-up shops. The company had the clout to lure in respected streetwear names like Online Ceramics and Brain Dead as collaborators, starting around 2018, and the clash of mutual credibility amplified the coolness factor of each resulting item exponentially. Now, a long since sold-out Green Knight hoodie from Online Ceramics might go for $800 on streetwear resale shop Grailed.

Who’s to say which side of these partnerships benefits more?

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I’d already had an inkling about the intensity of A24 merch stans, but being an active club member really brings them into focus. On r/A24, someone always breathlessly posts screenshots of membership emails, to show off what hesitaters are missing. If these don’t raise their buying temperature, perhaps a screenshot of the holy grail of A24 Close Friends Insta Stories will do the trick: news of an impending Office Closet Cleanout. (The only previous giveaway I clocked was for tickets to a Cannes screening of First Cow director Kelly Reichardt’s next A24 film, Showing Up, for members who happened to be near the French Riviera.)

At noon the next day, the green-rimmed circle on A24’s Instagram profile appears, and I momentarily stop making lunch. The Closet Cleanout is about to begin. A series of captions reveals that, going forward, on a monthly basis, A24 will be giving away five archival merch items—one every 15 minutes—to the first member who correctly answers a trivia question related to each item at hand.

The questions turn out to be way above my pay grade. Who the hell knows, right off the top of their head, which two years of championship rings former Celtics power forward Kevin Garnett exchanged with Howie Ratner (Adam Sandler) in Uncut Gems? Some lucky A24 superfan, apparently, who now owns the most coveted gold Furby necklace in the world.

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Living in an A24 trailer

Whenever a new A24 release is upon us, all of the company’s social channels align to promote it. The awareness-bombardment doesn’t intensify much more for members, however. That would be obnoxious and over-obvious. Bush-league rookie stuff. Instead, there’s just a mention of whatever project is up next at the bottom of AAA24 emails, along with some other fun touches elsewhere.

In mid-May, the company rallies around Men, director Alex Garland’s second film with A24 after Ex Machina, and his third altogether. From its typically mystifying trailer—it feels close to a parody of an A24 trailer—I have absolutely no idea what the movie’s about. The many memes on Twitter and r/A24 highlighting various men’s bathrooms as potential screening sites don’t provide much help either, nor do they stoke further interest. However, an A24 Close Friends Story about the film, depicting a red velvet cake with angry rock-face icing, piques my interest. What the hell does that mean? I feel like I’m living inside an A24 trailer.

Not enough people are enticed into seeing Men, and it underwhelms at the box office. The brand is strong enough to shoulder a flop or two, though, and just like clockwork, attention soon turns to its next offering: the preciously existential Marcel the Shell with Shoes On, starring A24 veteran Jenny Slate. It’s a low-key campaign, culminating in “Marcel” guest-reporting at the Westminster Dog Show. AAA24 members are invited by email to attend advanced screenings, and that’s roughly the extent of the extra push for the film.

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A24 trailers never give too much away, just enough to get you interested. For better or worse, this is exactly what being in the club is like, too. It’s an augmented reality game for film fandom where winning means an exclusive opportunity to buy a shirt with A24’s logo in fun colors, or finding out before anyone else that the sold-out Hot Dog Finger Gloves from Everything Everywhere All At Once have restocked. (They sell out again immediately.) Being this invested in a boutique film house feels kind of silly and extremely consumerist, but nobody would be doing it if the films didn’t reliably deliver on the company promise.

As a sucker for exclusivity, I consider buying the members-only A24 shirt for $40, but I also consider buying a knockoff of the high-demand Hereditary fire-shirt on Redbubble for $23 and going to see Marcel the Shell with the difference.

Pretend this is an A24 trailer and ruminate on which one I chose.

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