Does a Paid Fan Club and a Merch Store Make A24… Cheugy?

Maybe the better question to ask, in light of its reception on the international film festival circuit, is: Does it even matter?

Florence Pugh in 'Midsommar' (2019). Credit: Courtesy of A24

A24 punches well above its weight. The daring art house distributor-turned-studio is behind films such as Moonlight, Ex Machina, and The Witch, not to mention the HBO cultural flashpoint Euphoria. While the entertainment company has been a distributor for 10 years, it’s only been in the production biz for six. Its flicks have become favorites on the international film festival circuit and it’s already nabbed awards at at Cannes and TIFF this year, with Venice looking likely as well. Recently, though, the entertainment company has been accused of “teetering on the edge of self-parody” thanks to a cultish following and recently launched fan club. 

There’s no denying that A24 is full of dualities. Its name elicits either derision or awe. Its hits sweep the festival awards circuit, snagging the likes of the Grand Prix at Cannes (Lukas Dhont’s Close), or at least a six-minute standing ovation at Venice (Darren Arronofsky’s The Whale) while its flops quietly scuttle to DirecTV. Its merch store is reviled or beloved, depending on who you ask. It’s both a lifestyle brand (but, importantly, in the opinion of at least one TikTok commenter, “not a personality trait”) and also a valuable stamp of approval for up-and-coming directors looking to make their mark in an industry that places immense value on generations-old connections and a proven track record of cultural relevance—all the better if it’s cultivated by those connections.

How did the distributor-turned-studio responsible for Greta Gerwig’s solo directorial debut (Lady Bird), Anya Taylor-Joy’s star turn (The Witch), and Robert Pattinson’s indie-darling makeover (The Rover, High Life, Good Time, The Lighthouse) become both a meme and a cultural tour de force? Unsurprisingly, marketing know-how. Its reputation for breaking old-school studio rules to churn out prestigious and, sometimes, outright bizarre indie hits (see: Swiss Army Man) has cultivated an adoring fanbase. But some critics seem to see the studio’s attempt to capitalize on that following—with a fan club subscription and a robust merch store—as more cheugy than counterculture.

Brendan Fraser in 'The Whale', which received a six minute-long standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival. Credit: Courtesy of A24

The production company has found success by offering creative freedom in an industry that’s adept at micromanaging anything remotely outside the lines of superhero franchises and tried-and-true action flicks. The laissez-faire approach has served both A24 execs and filmmakers well. Its first studio production was none other than Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight. Arguably its most significant hit, it swept the mainstream awards shows while also dazzling critics. “If I told you I was opening a Hollywood studio and the first film I was going to put my money into was going to be a triptych film about a gay Black boy whose mom was addicted to drugs, made by a filmmaker who’s only made one film for $15,000, would you say, ‘Yes, that sounds like an awesome idea?’ Probably not,” Barry Jenkins told the Washington Post of Moonlight’s production process. “But these people [A24] did.”

Put another way, in the words of Eighth Grade writer and director Bo Burnham, “They’re giving you the rope to either tie a ladder or make a noose for yourself.” 

A24’s ability to mobilize fans around a new release plays a pivotal role in whether directors can scale that ladder Burnham mentioned. That authority is what writer-director Lulu Wang sought out when she turned down a streaming giant’s sizable offer for distribution rights to The Farewell and instead opted to work with A24. “They can create community and a brand around [a] filmmaker, and they’re one of the only companies that can do that,” Wang said in her interview with the Washington Post. “So many other companies, particularly streaming companies, are wonderful in terms of the access they have. But when you put a small fish like this film, like me, into this wide ocean of content, we get lost, you know?”

A24's virtual member's club, A24 All Access, or AAA24, offers perks like print zines and screening perks to fans willing to pay.

Wang’s observation of A24’s brand-building prowess isn’t lost on, well, anyone. The studio’s robust online store sells everything from zines to screenplays and coffee table books, along with streetwear and objets in the realm of its extended cinematic universe. A 76,000-strong Reddit following dissects the movies, merch, and studio updates each day, as well as insights into the value of A24’s virtual members’ club. Dubbed A24 All Access, or AAA24, it promises peeks behind the curtain of its films, VIP treatment at IRL screenings, merch discounts, and a quarterly zine, for a fee of $5 a month.

The voracity of A24’s fandom—its apparent demand for talismans that grant some degree of proximity to the workings of a film producer and distributor—appears to be what draws the ire of those who consider the studio itself to be all hype and no substance. A write-off like that could be substantiated if the studio had completely lost sight of its films in the process. But judging by its reception at Cannes, TIFF, and Venice this year, A24 doesn’t seem to be making sacrifices on either front. 

While the combination of a literal fan club and a merch store that stocks $48 ‘genre’ candles might be a bit cringe, it’s looking likely that A24 will be laughing its critics all the way to the bank—and probably awards season too.

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