If you used the Tinder dating app in Austin, Texas, during the 2015 SXSW film festival, you may have been catfished by a movie studio.
Some people there matched with a woman named Ava, whose profile said she was a 25-year-old from New York. But it became clear that Ava wasn’t who she claimed to be when, after a back-and-forth text conversation, she directed people to an Instagram page promoting Ex Machina — a science-fiction movie about an AI robot so lifelike that it passes for a human named (you guessed it) Ava.
Turns out, the person behind the account worked for A24, the startup movie distributor in charge of promoting Ex Machina.
5 Breakthrough Marketing Lessons from A24
- Experiment with new channels.
- Collaborate with other brands.
- Delight influencers and press.
- Focus on what resonates with early adopters.
- Leverage experiential marketing.
The stunt exemplifies the buzz-building, boundary-pushing marketing that has helped A24 punch above its weight and infiltrate the zeitgeist, helping small movies stand out amid an increasingly content-saturated market.
When You Don’t Have a Big Budget, Make Big Noise
Since 2013, A24 has released over 100 movies — including titles like Moonlight, Lady Bird, Hereditary, The Witch and Uncut Gems — many of which have garnered significant critical acclaim and cultural attention, despite having a marketing budget much smaller than those of the big studios.
Loren Schwartz, a marketing executive who’s held leadership positions at Warner Bros, Columbia Pictures, Screen Gems and Open Road Films, told Built In that because A24 has fewer marketing dollars than its competitors, it has to spend money much more strategically in order to compete for visibility.
“When you don’t have a lot of money, you need to make more noise somehow.”
“When you don’t have a lot of money, you need to make more noise somehow,” Schwartz said. “Where [A24 does] very well is in publicity, garnering articles and attention for the marketing it does.”
Tearing a page out of A24’s playbook could be useful for marketers working at bootstrapped startups that compete with bigger-name companies.
Of course, just because a campaign worked for A24 doesn’t mean it will work for everyone. Even so, the five lessons below might inspire marketers to think outside the box and turn their companies into brands people cheer for.
5 Marketing Lessons From A24
Experiment With New Channels
A24 released the movie Spring Breakers in theaters in March 2013, where it grossed more than $30 million on a $5 million budget — a huge success by indie film standards.
And it’s not because Spring Breakers had mass-audience appeal or because A24 had lots of money to spend on television commercials and highway billboards. It’s because A24 found a way to break through the noise by creating eye-catching and highly shareable social media content.
In early 2013, A24 uploaded to its Facebook page an image of Spring Breakers star James Franco, hair braided into cornrows and seated next to the rest of the movie’s cast in a way that evoked Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper.” The photo got 600,000 “likes,” and the movie earned 174 million impressions in the weeks leading up to its release, nearly half of which were organic.
Taking a targeted, social-first approach to marketing seems fairly common now. But back in early 2013, leading with organic social was not something other distribution studios considered.
“I’m not sure they get enough credit, but Spring Breakers really was the first social media-promoted film,” Gary Faber, co-founder of a marketing strategy firm specializing in film and theater, told Yahoo. “[A24] figured out a way to use social to talk directly to their customers — in their language.”
John Hodges, A24’s then-head of acquisitions, told the Los Angeles Times that, for most studios, digital campaigns were typically offshoots of main campaigns. But for them, “it was the spine of the campaign.”
A couple of years later, in the run-up to its 2015 release of The End of the Tour, A24 launched a pop-up magazine on Medium, publishing articles and essays about the life and work of author David Foster Wallace, the film’s subject. The niche publication likely reached literature enthusiasts in ways a Super Bowl commercial or highway billboard never could — and at a fraction of the cost.
Facebook and Medium were newer at that time, but the principle holds steady, even if the channels have changed. To stretch a dollar and make an outsized impact, experiment with the channels where your audience already lives but your competitors have yet to invest.
Collaborate With Other Brands
Ahead of its 2014 release of the small horror film Tusk, A24 partnered with a Los Angeles cannabis retailer to create two specially branded strains of marijuana for a cross-promotion.
A24 marketing strategist Graham Retzik told the New York Times that Tusk was “right at the intersection of art and stoner culture,” so the brand crossover made sense.
It’s why, for example, Uber worked with Spotify to offer riders personalized playlists, why the hemp-infused seltzer company Recess made CBD dog treats in collaboration with pet food supplier Maxbone and why rapper Travis Scott partnered with McDonald’s on a meal named after him.
Collaborations allow one brand to drive its fans to the other, with both parties benefiting from the extra exposure.
Delight Influencers and Press
To convince Spring Breakers producer Megan Ellison to sell A24 the film’s distribution rights, the team sent her a gun-shaped glass bong with the movie’s logo engraved on it. The gesture was meant to demonstrate that they were the ones who best understood the ethos of the outrageous guns-and-drugs movie. It worked.
A24 has a track record of sending swag to bloggers, journalists and fans, not just potential business partners. This includes things like a Lady Bird gift set full of nostalgic stickers, buttons and lighters, and a haunting greeting card teasing its horror film It Comes at Night.
These gestures created conversation and attention where none previously existed. That’s the essence of word-of-mouth marketing: Giving people reasons to talk about your brand, and making it easier for the conversation to take place.
Because odds are, when people receive gifts, they’ll share their excitement on social media. It’s free publicity — and effective publicity too, since it comes authentically from a regular person’s account, rather than a branded one.
Focus on What Breaks Through
Movies are typically tested with sample audiences before they are released so that studios can make any tweaks necessary before the theatrical rollout.
When he worked on marketing for the teen comedy Superbad, Schwartz said the McLovin character — a tertiary character in the film — was an even bigger hit with test audiences than the filmmakers anticipated. Since the character resonated with audiences, they decided to focus more of the movie’s marketing on McLovin and inject the character into the cultural conversation whenever possible.
The same logic may have been at work in A24’s decision to play up James Franco’s over-the-top character in Spring Breakers, or create a tongue-in-cheek Twitter profile for Black Phillip, the name of an evil billy goat featured in the 17th-century-set horror film The Witch, before even releasing the film’s trailer.
When marketers pay close attention to and solicit feedback from their early audiences, they can double down on what resonates — be it a meme-able movie character or an unassuming software feature.
Leverage Experiential Marketing
To promote its 2017 supernatural drama A Ghost Story, A24 opened a pop-up shop in Manhattan called A Ghost Store. There, patrons were draped in thick white bedsheets before being led into a room playing ethereal music and invited to have a “meaningful reflection.”
And to market its 2019 movie Uncut Gems, A24 opened another pop-up in New York City’s Diamond District. The weekend-long event, where the movie’s soundtrack was for sale and a zine edited by the movie’s filmmakers was given away, was promoted on social media by Adam Sandler’s character from the movie.
“Companies are trying to find ways outside of just making a poster and a trailer and buying media ... “[They’ll ask:] ‘What else can we do that fits into what now is the definition of a marketing campaign?’”
“Companies are trying to find ways outside of just making a poster and a trailer and buying media,” Schwartz said. “[They’ll ask:] ‘What else can we do that fits into what now is the definition of a marketing campaign?’”
Using this sort of experiential marketing — and working with publicity and pushing it to social media for amplification — is an increasingly common answer, one that A24 uses to generate buzz and start a conversation.