In April, as everyone was just getting used to conducting affairs through Zoom calls, director Rob Savage had an idea: Set up an elaborate video-conference prank in which he explores the source of creepy footsteps coming from his attic, ending in a horrifying jump scare for his friends. The two-minute video, now viewed over 220,000 times on Twitter, immediately sparked the interest of executives at horror streaming service Shudder.
“We said, ‘Let’s talk right away.’ What sold us was ‘Zoom seance,'” Shudder general manger Craig Engler recalled of the timely concept. “It was 12 weeks from the time we were pitched the movie to the time it ended up on Shudder.”
The 57-minute film based on Savage’s video, “Host,” released in July, exemplifies why AMC Networks’ Shudder has been able to find success in such a crowded streaming landscape. The service, which launched in 2015, crossed 1 million subscribers in September thanks to its nimbleness, deep familiarity with what its audience wants, and commitment to the kind unique programming horror hounds can’t get anywhere else.
While that number might seem quaint next to Netflix’s 193 million members, Shudder is a leader in a rich field of specialty streaming services whose objective is not to kill Netflix, but to be an accompaniment to the streaming king; offering content to audiences who crave deeper libraries of their favorite genres. In the horror space alone, there’s Screambox, Full Moon Features, Midnight Pulp, and FrightPix. BritBox and Acorn TV specialize in British programming, Crunchyroll is the biggest name in anime and manga, and UMC focuses on Black TV and film.
Services like Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu’s “primary objective is to include enough good content to satisfy everyone’s general needs. They need to own the big needs, they need to be the big-box stores,” said Brett Sappington, VP at the media and tech consultancy Interpret. “Shudder and other niche services survive in the same way specialty stores survive today: They need to be close to their audience, know their customers, and give them what they want.”
Horror services traditionally have seen bursts of subscribers and use around Halloween, only to see numbers trickle down afterwards. Shudder has been able to buck that trend by building up a base of customers, offer recognized franchises that keep people coming back, and use its intimate knowledge of its customers to effectively market to them, Sappington said.
For its part, Shudder plans for a three-month long Halloween season that begins in August, and it sees among customers “nine months where they’re interested and three months where they’re super, duper interested,” Engler said.
An example of Shudder’s customer-knowledge: Its subscribers are a near 50-50 split of men and women. Men gravitate toward slashers, while women are more interested in supernatural titles. And Shudder is sure to offer something for everything: Customers may avoid certain sub-genres but will embrace many others, according to Engler.
Among Shudder’s most successful endeavors is the original series “Creepshow.” After its September 2019 premiere, 54 percent of Shudder subscribers watched at least one episode of the anthology series, which is a continuation of the George A. Romero and Stephen King 1982 movie. Its showrunner is Oscar-winning special makeup effects supervisor Greg Nicotero, best known for “The Walking Dead.”
The series was greenlit without a script. “We place what we think are very smart bets very quickly,” Engler said.
The second season of the series, which offers one-hour episodes with two stories each, is currently in production in Atlanta, producer Mitchell Galin said during a FILM-COM/Filmolution panel this week.
Engler said he and his team are focused on growth at all times. “Doing more original movies, more original series, finding more things that people are overlooking or can’t find elsewhere,” he said.
The service premieres between two and five originals or exclusives every month in the form of acquisitions and, increasingly, commissioned projects. Among its most notable acquisitions are “Tigers Are Not Afraid,” Issa López’s magical-realism take on Mexico’s drug wars that earned 10 nominations and two wins at the Ariel Awards. Shudder gave that film a theatrical run last year as a means to spread word-of-mouth buzz, Engler said.
“A lot of other streamers wouldn’t take it up. It’s not in English, it’s set in Mexico. They’re broadening now, but they tend to want something that’s more traditional,” Engler said. “We’re not worried about people being afraid of a subtitled movie. We embrace the entire depth and breadth of the genre.”
Other recent pickups: Josh Ruben’s horror-comedy “Scare Me” ahead of its Sundance premiere this year as well as the Venice Days, TIFF, and Sundance pick “La Llorona” from Guatemalan director Jayro Bustamante, which, like “Tigers,” is also in Spanish. Another high-profile exclusive will come early next year when “Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula” premieres on the service. The Cannes 2020 selection is the sequel to Korean director Yeon Sang-ho’s 2016 hit horror thriller.
Meantime, a second season of “Cursed Films,” a docuseries that explores myths and legends behind Hollywood “cursed” horror film productions, is also in the works. Engler said the first season, which covers ‘The Exorcist,” “Poltergeist” and more, is Shudder’s second-most popular series after “Creepshow.”