Stage 13 is telling the stories that would get screenwriters thrown out of traditional television studios.
That’s not because the content is offensive or controversial. Quite the opposite, actually: Since launching in 2017, Stage 13 has carved a niche for itself in the increasingly crowded television industry by championing the diverse individuals and social issues that larger studios tend to shy away from.
The Burbank studio, part of Warner Bros. Digital Networks, creates short-form scripted and unscripted television shows that feature inclusive casting and hone in on a variety of topics relevant to millennial and Gen-Z audiences. Although television studios are gradually beginning to pay more mind to diverse audiences, Stage 13 has hit the ground running, and its success hasn’t gone unnoticed; it received five Emmy nominations last month.
Stage 13 is looking to keep its momentum going with “Two Sentence Horror Stories,” a horror anthology series that will premiere its first two episodes tonight on The CW at 9 p.m. Each half-hour episode of the series, inspired by viral fan fiction that originated from a Reddit thread, features standalone stories that examine various topical social issues filtered through common horror themes.
For example, one of the episodes in the series will focus on the ghost of an abusive husband who continues tormenting his family after death, touching on the issues of the cycle of violence and the long-lasting impacts of domestic abuse. Similarly heavy themes are examined in other episodes, but for series creator Vera Miao, filtering such topics through horror is a healthy and constructive way to analyze them.
“Horror is like a refracted mirror, giving us the opportunity to look at fear without directly mimicking it or reenacting our darkest actions,” Miao told IndieWire. “It’s harder for me to watch a film that’s a faithful, dramatic retelling of a war crime than a horror movie. I’d rather use horror as a psychological lens to look at issues, such as not having agency over your own body.”
“Two Sentence Horror Stories” premiering during primetime on a major network is something of a milestone for the burgeoning studio. Stage 13 senior vice president and general manager Diana Mogollón referred to the series as the studio’s first big franchise, and though she and Miao aren’t sharing details about future plans for “Two Sentence Horror Stories,” Mogollón noted that the studio had plenty of ideas on how they could continue building up the series.
Social critique has long been part of the horror genre and although the subgenres “Two Sentence Horror Stories” leans into will be familiar to horror fans—demonic possession, body horror, and home invasions are among the themes that drive individual episodes—genre skeptics may be pleased to hear that the series rarely relies on a litany of obnoxious jump scares. Much of the horror stems from the dark social issues each episode dissects, but the writing is smart enough that the topics aren’t handled in a heavy-handed or ignorant manner.
While token nods to diversity and topical social issues have become more common in mainstream films and television shows recently, those ideas are core to Stage 13’s modus operandi, which makes them feel genuinely authentic in the finished products the studio creates. Stage 13’s “It’s Bruno!” received one Emmy nomination last month, while the studio’s Jim Parsons-produced “Special” earned four nominations. The latter show, a comedy based on series star Ryan O’Connell’s memoir about life as a gay man with mild cerebral palsy who rewrites his identity to pursue his dreams, has been particularly well-received.
“Special” was anything but a surefire hit. O’Connell, who hadn’t planned on starring in the series but eventually took the role due to budget constraints, unsuccessfully pitched the show to a variety of networks before Netflix agreed to debut the series. A show about a gay lead character is already a tough sell for many studios, especially when said character is also disabled, O’Connell told IndieWire.
While other studios balked at the concept, O’Connell’s vision for the series and life experiences made him a natural fit for Stage 13, according to Stage 13 senior vice president Christopher Mack, who heads the studio’s scripted development.
“We told our creative team to find emerging artists for us that have these authentic stories where if we took them to a traditional broadcasters office, we’d get fired,” SVP of Scripted Content Christopher Mack told IndieWire. “If we’re going to tell an LGTBQ story, we don’t want to tell the coming out story, because that’s very familiar. Instead we got ‘Special,’ where you’re telling a story about someone who is out as gay but closeted as being disabled.”
Stage 13’s focus on fostering undiscovered talent and telling inventive stories has helped the studio carve a niche in the industry, according Mogollón. She noted that last month’s Emmys nominations were particularly validating and said they were proof that the studio was on the right creative track.
“We’re a new IP and the odds were against us, which is why the Emmy nominations are so exciting,” Mogollón told IndieWire. “Newer brands need to make their mark quickly and we want to service specific audiences we know are out there. The question is, ‘What can we do that is different to appeal to mass global audiences?’”
Though the studio may be a relative newcomer in Hollywood, its executives have years of experience curating the kinds of edgy, inclusive content that can answer that question. Mack previously headed the Warner Bros. Television Workshop and covered shows such as “Two and a Half Men” and “Smallville,” while Mogollón and Stage 13 vice president Shari Scorca, who heads the studio’s unscripted content, served in executive roles at NBCUniversal’s mun2 cable network—since relaunched as Universo—which featured sports and lifestyle entertainment programming targeted at Latino millennials.
Now that Stage 13 has made a splash in the industry, Mogollón is confident that the studio will begin to work with talent on bigger and more ambitious projects in the coming years. If actors or other creative types have something genuinely interesting to say, Stage 13 wants to be a part of it, she said.
“As an industry we need to do the multicultural piece better and we came in with a lot of expertise in that arena,” Mogollón said. “Any idea, if it fits our mold, we have the track record now to figure out how to take it to the next level. In the future we’ll hopefully be working with a bigger swath of the industry and with anyone who wants to partner with us.”