Miramax Meets Supreme: Deconstructing A24's Formula for Cult Relevance
Also: how content platforms are colonizing the last frontier -- your shrinking attention span -- and how we can avoid making WALL-E a documentary of our future.
1/ Who Owns an Idea? Creativity in the Age of “Content”
Elon’s takeover of Twitter has spawned a thousand takes, but chief among the noise was the outrage when it was announced that the platform would start charging star users somewhere between $96 and $240 a year to keep their blue checks.
“I’m probably the perfect target for this, use Twitter a ton, can afford $20/mo, not particularly anti-Elon, but my reaction is that I’ve generated a ton of valuable free content for Twitter over the years and they can go fuck themselves.”
— Nate Silver
To understand said outrage, you have to understand the Creator Economy underpinning the debate. There may not be a distinct date we can point to as the kickoff of the “Creator Economy,” but a key milestone came in 2007 with YouTube’s Partner Program — which allowed users to monetize their uploads with ads and keep 45% of the revenue generated. That initial concept for a relatively symbiotic relationship between creator and platform was groundbreaking. 45% may still seem like a ripoff to many, but it was at least a step forward from the glorified “tip jar” model of Web 1.0 where creators were mostly paid in exposure.
Partner programs created a monetization model the early internet was missing, and over the next 15 years, the Creator Economy blossomed into an estimated $100B+ industry — with over 50M people now considering themselves capital “C” Creators.
Bieber’s spectacular rise and fall (and born-again rise) is one of the original YouTube success stories, but unlike Bieber — who’s built enough of a following now that he can tour from town to town and sell out each venue to rabid fans — the average Creators are confined to just a few “stages.” Namely YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, and Twitch. Think of this platform model of distribution as a residency in Las Vegas. If your audience wants to see you, that’s where they have to go.
That’s because these web2 platforms own your profile and audience. And while they made it easier than ever to build an audience, once you’ve done the hard work of attracting eyeballs, your audience is theirs to monetize.
In that sense, none of these platforms are really free. You are the product whose attention is being bid upon by advertisers. It’s a key tenet of the web2 business model which has been optimizing how best to parcel off and sell your mindshare for well over a decade.
We’re at an inflection point, the public is wising up to these consequences and Creators are advocating for themselves — finding alternative solutions that harmonize with the philosophy underpinning web3 (even if they may not realize it):
It’s a phenomenon occurring across creative industries. For example, the subscription service you’re reading this on — Substack — has become a champion for journalists:
“We’re not into the idea of a handful of social networks utterly dominating the collective consciousness, but we’re very into the idea of millions of writers and creators having more control over the social internet, specifically in the form of their own spaces where they set the terms of engagement. That kind of dynamic represents the old promise of the internet, where power accrues to the people. That we have somehow reached the point where digital powers go exclusively to already-dominant aggregators, an almost irreversible rich-get-richer effect, is a perversion of all that was good about the early internet. This is not what we dialed up for.”
— Hamish McKenzie, “The problem isn’t that Elon Musk owns Twitter — it’s that you don’t”
By providing a platform to build an audience that excludes the web2 advertising model, their authors have reached a cumulative 500,000 paying subscribers.
The effect is also occurring in comedy. For years, comedians looking to make it big have been the background entertainment at bars, coffee shops, and clubs. The evening’s “free” entertainment for bad dates or awkward dinners. Now, comedians and podcasters that have cultivated fanbases are seeing success in breaking away from streaming platforms like Netflix. Instead, they are producing their own specials and selling them directly on their own websites or via channels like Moment:
None of these examples are blockchain-based, but the movement encapsulates the decentralized promise of web3. By adding an ownership layer to the internet, tomorrow’s platforms are already being built on web3 rails.
2/ Who’s Training Who? Hell is Other People
At this point, we’ve all witnessed how great AI has gotten at imitating the styles of artists. While this explosion of creative output may look novel, they are really just remixes. A collaboration between human creator and machine – pulling from a sample of specific curated datasets. None of them are perfect, but they are rapidly improving, and it’s not hard to imagine a world where AI is doing even more of the legwork. In a recent interview, Marc Andreessen mused on this exact potential future:
“If you have a computer that’s really good at writing Tweets… and it could be better at doing that then most people are… You can imagine a future internet where most of the interesting content is getting created by machines.”
A bleak vision – one echoed by many onlookers:
When you think back on the dystopian visions of AI we’ve gotten through sci-fi, it almost never ends well. Why? Because the machine (being a machine) will always try to Occam’s Razor it’s way to a solution. “Emergent sentience offers an overly pragmatic solution for humanity” describes Skynet, Hal, VICKI…just to name a few.
A future in which we are just regurgitating what we’ve created in the last 30 or so years for the rest of eternity might be a scarier prospect than Ava from Ex Machina. Even worse, if the ‘seed’ dataset for this endless loop begins with the internet as it currently stands.
Create-by-numbers is the worst kind of creativity. A race to the bottom for lowest-common-denominator “content” with the broadest four-quadrant appeal. It’s why Netflix has invested so much money in safe bets like Love is Blind or the Ryan Murphy expanded universe. Does Monster or The Watcher really deserve more seasons alongside American Horror Story, American Crime Story, and all the rest? It’s all starting to feel like empty, repetitive titillation. A Lifetime-movie-ripped-from-the-headlines approach that’s very bread and circuses. Soma for an increasingly complacent subscriber base willing to watch anything you put in front of them.
But as we’ve been seeing with communities like dallery gallery and PromptHero, these same tools can be used to inspire rather than replace us — and concept artists, fashion and interior designers, and architects are already using them to concept. DALL-E allows us to visualize an idea in seconds so that we can decide if it’s worth expanding on. Sudowrite could spark a new take on a topic (even if we’d have eventually gotten there ourselves).
AI learns and listens from us. And produces what we ask it to. To avoid turning the internet into the horror sci-fi version of 50 First Dates, we should use it in a way that enhances our creativity rather than cannibalizes it for clicks.
3/ A24’s Masterclass on How to Internet
Last Friday, the Hollywood Reporter released a peek into the “Making of Everything Everywhere All at Once,” the highest-grossing A24 film of all time and the first independent film to break $100M since the pandemic. A huge achievement for what the industry has been calling: “the little studio that could.” A24 has been building a cult following over the last decade -- for both the ways in which they champion daring storytelling and their non-traditional approach to reaching niche audiences. Part absurdist art-project, part creative superteam, part distributor, they’ve rewritten the playbook on critical, commercial, and cultural impact -- and the interview offers a compelling peek into the alchemy of how the sausage is made:
“There’s that scene in Apollo 13 where they throw the tools they have on the table and are like, ‘That’s what they’ve got up there, we’ve got to bring them home.’ That’s how we approach filmmaking: We have $14M, we have all this stuff, how are we going to squeeze it in and make a thing? I think that’s what leads to this emergent creativity that works for us.”
— producer Jonathan Wang
Here’s just a couple lessons from A24’s first decade:
LESSON 1: TRUST (+ INVEST IN) UNIQUE PERSPECTIVES.
From the outset, A24 positioned themselves as an “auteur distributor” -- with a bespoke approach for how people discovered their films. Rather than relying on the traditional studio method of producing one-hit tentpole films to finance the next, they set about creating culture through conversation. By shifting the goalposts, they established a “house style” that’s high-design and high-concept — but always focused on a singular perspective.
It’s the reason why Michelle Yeoh signed on to EEAAO. Originally, the directors had envisioned Jackie Chan as the star and Yeoh in a supporting role as his put-upon wife, but they quickly realized centering the story around a character most people would ignore on the street would make it hit a lot harder:
“What I need is to be challenged, to have directors look at me in a different way. Over the years, my [characters] have been strong, held together. So when I read the script, I was like, ‘Whoa, what?’ ”
— Michelle Yeoh
LESSON 2: KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE + ALWAYS LEAVE THEM WANTING MORE.
Every A24 release is tailored to a specific audience — rather than the blanket “18-34 year olds” most studios target. Roughly 95% of the marketing budget is spent online -- using analytics to get titles trending in order to trigger that sense of discovery that compels fans to pass on the message…and go to a theater to check out how that wild clip/ image they just saw could possibly make sense in the context of the film.
Constantly inspired by and in dialogue with online culture, the studio catfished brogrammers at SXSW with a Tinder bot profile of Ava (above), posted an image of the Spring Breakers cast in the style of Da Vinci’s Last Supper that reached 174M people, and invested in making one woman’s epic Tweet thread about a night-out-gone-wrong into a feature film (Zola). This advanced Internet literacy led to the creation of a an ownable aesthetic that you know when you see— which brings us to our next lesson:
LESSON 3: MAKE MEMES, NOT MARKETING.
From Marcel the Shell With Shoes On reporting live from the Westminster Dog Show, to creating an Etsy store for Hereditary’s Charlie, to launching A Ghost Store to prepare passersby for the afterlife, the ultimate goal of any A24 release is to deepen immersion in the realities and themes of it’s films.
But it’s not stunts for the sake of stunts. This is the same studio that chose to release Room by rolling out the film slowly across the country to ensure word-of-mouth preceded the film’s difficult subject matter, and the Everything Everywhere All at Once team got a full 11 months rather than the expected 5 to cut together their complex multiverse narrative — and there’s no doubt that extra time paid off:
“The version of the movie that we would have had to send to Toronto would have been fun, but a mess. The smallest tweaks in a movie this complicated have huge ripple effects. Because we had changed a scene in act one, the last scene of the movie wouldn’t work all of a sudden. A whole universe we cut was setting up this entire arc later in the film. How do we get that now? It took some creative problem-solving in the editing and some rewriting.”
— editor Paul Rogers
LESSON 4: COLLABS BRIDGE THE IN-FILM UNIVERSE AND THE IRL WORLD,
Rather than relying on brand sponsorships, A24 reimagined merch in the form of limited-edition IYKYK cult esoterica. Collaborating on drops with credible streetwear names like Online Ceramics, Brain Dead, and design studio Joya bumped up the “cult factor” of each item exponentially.
The vibe is very much: “literate, but not pretentious.” Each item, from the Hereditary Fire T-shirt, to a candle in the shape of the butt-plug inspired by Everything Everywhere All At Once — is beautifully-designed but very much “in on the joke.” If the resale value of some of A24’s most sought-after merch is any indication (nearly $1000 for that iced-out Furby from Uncut Gems), people will spend a lot of $$$ to appear cultured but not like they’re trying too hard. The aesthetic has become an aspirational lifestyle — to the point where many looking for love on dating apps describe their interests as simply: “A24.”
So what is the alchemy of A24? The magic formula for cultural, critical, and financial success? Producer of EEAAO Justin Wang sums it up the best:
“Empowerment with resourcefulness. We were like, ‘It has to be this for 25% of it, but the other 75%, go crazy.’ That leads to a certain flourishing on set, because you feel supported and loved for your craft.”