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How horror streamer Shudder keeps killing with original content

The horror-focused streaming service that caters to every type of horror fan could teach the be-everything-to-everyone streamers a lesson or two.

How horror streamer Shudder keeps killing with original content
[Source Images: Shudder; Cavan Images]

No movie recommendation is as much a letdown as a bad horror movie recommendation. Even if it’s not so bad that it packs the betrayal punch of a bad blind date setup—you thought I’d like that?—even if it just bores, is too gory, isn’t gory enough, is cheesy, isn’t cheesy enough. Whatever it is or isn’t, it feels like a special kind of being led astray. It feels personal.

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Somewhere in the endless pursuit of worthy suggestions—and hard-core fans will scour every fiber of the internet for them—one might end up at Rotten Tomatoes’ annual best horror movies list. It’s an imperfect indicator of watch-worthiness, given the idiosyncrasies of horror critics, but at least it shows where there’s some consensus. Anyone checking the list recently, though, might have noticed another, more subtle pattern in its composition.

Of the aggregator’s top 10 best-reviewed horror movies of 2021, six were Shudder Originals.

Is that surprising? Probably not to anyone aware of the 7-year-old streamer’s rising reputation. But to horror fans who still have not heard of Shudder—a dying breed, frankly—or those who tried it out early on and found it wanting, it is roughly as shocking as Samuel L. Jackson’s Deep Blue Sea death.

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“I’ve been subscribing to Shudder from the beginning, basically, even though the options were sometimes less than stellar,” says writer and horror authority Louis Peitzman. “Even back then, it had a wider variety of existing horror titles that are actually good than the major streamers like Netflix and Hulu. But what’s been great to see more recently is Shudder investing in new movies, and the quality of those films has notably increased.”

Shudder Originals run the gamut in breadth, depth, and, it must be said, quality. There’s La Llorona, a sociopolitical ghost story; The Beach House’s trippy eco-body horror; the subversive humor of Scare Me; and a hit fourth installment of beloved found-footage franchise V/H/S.  The range and hit rate suggest a restaurant that sources from all over the world to cater to the particular tastes of several kinds of extremely picky eaters. Shudder has now so firmly established itself that upstarts like Screambox have virtually no chance of competing with, let alone overtaking, it any time soon.

But how the hell did that happen? How did AMC Networks’s Hail Mary effort at an SVOD turn into the premiere streaming destination for horror?

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“You Didn’t Get Me Yet.”

When Craig Engler came on board as Shudder’s general manager in 2018—fresh from the Syfy channel, where he created the zombie series Z Nation—he had a target audience in mind: himself.

“I had heard about Shudder before, but I was never a subscriber,” Engler says. “I wanted to turn people like me into subscribers. ‘You didn’t get me yet.’ Why not? Let’s talk about that.”

During the previous three years, Shudder largely reflected the sensibility of one person: Sam Zimmerman. A former editor for horror bible Fangoria and programmer of the odd film festival, Zimmerman consulted when AMC started cobbling Shudder together, and stayed on as official curator. (He’s now VP of programming.) As Zimmerman began building Shudder’s library, he sought out titles that would tempt both the horror cognoscenti and horror curious. He tore through catalogs from studios and distributors, majors and boutiques—and chose with surgical precision.

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“I would typically go in with an idea of some of the stuff I knew they had, especially when it’s a major studio, but I would also know going in there are some hidden gems in here,” Zimmerman recalls. “There are some films they either don’t license that much or that other streamers aren’t going for, and I’d get excited to bring them to Shudder. Beyond crowd-pleasers, we love providing these movies that deserve more—whether they’ve been underrated in the passage of time or never got the proper acclaim in the first place.”

If a film like, say, the 1983 folk-horror freakout Eyes of Fire appears to have slipped through the cracks, never making it to any medium beyond VHS, Zimmerman might hit up the distributor, along with a restoration company, and try to work something out. When the desired film arrives on the platform, it comes captioned with commentary, charting its place in horror history. The story behind the story. (Shudder’s crown jewel, in terms of restorations, is George Romero’s “lost” 1973 film, The Amusement Park, which premiered last fall for the first time anywhere, as a Shudder Exclusive, after extensive talks with Romero’s estate.) The team further sculpts cinematic context by grouping its inventory into perusable micro-collections. Eyes of Fire, for instance, lives in Folk Horror among 41 other titles.

But if a well-curated selection hadn’t been enough to snag Engler as a subscriber, something still had to be missing.

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Shudder 2.0

Engler arrived at Shudder while the platform was mid-metamorphosis. It was an AMC Networks initiative known internally as “Shudder 2.0,” which involved wading into original content and possibly zooming out to other genres. Engler ran with the first idea, shepherding Shudder’s first-ever original series, Creepshow, into production later that year. (It recently got picked up for a fourth season.) But he pushed back against the second idea. Horror is a big enough sandbox to play in, he reasoned, that Shudder need not include Asian action flicks and other movies that fall into the genre broadly known as genre.

“What I did [was] validate a lot of their earlier thinking that they were unsure about, because they didn’t have the sort of tenure in genre that I had,” Engler says. “They’d been having some success, but it was a very small service at the time. They were casting about in other directions to see if maybe they should push one way or the other. Really what I did is say, ‘Listen, you guys are doing it. We just need to do more of it: bigger, better, faster.'”

After paring down any trace of genre expansion, Engler and company ramped up original productions. Zimmerman was taken at the time by a book called Horror Noire that focused on how and which Black filmmakers had contributed to the genre historically. Engler encouraged the curator to turn the book into a documentary, and he made it happen, with filmmakers Xavier Burgin, Ashlee Blackwell, and Phil Nobile Jr. The film premiered in 2019, and later spawned a narrative anthology of the same name. Cursed Films, a documentary series about productions so troubled they border on supernatural—think: Poltergeist—followed in 2020. (Its second season premieres in April.)

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The real surge, however, was in original movies.

First came Revenge, which was already in the works when Engler arrived. Before a rough cut of the French film was even assembled, footage made its way to the Shudder team, which by then included Emily Gotto, London-based VP of global acquisitions. It was a brutal, stylish chiller whose themes resonated with the #MeToo moment, which was then in full bloom. Shudder splashed out on acquiring the title, teaming up with Neon Films (Parasite) to get it in theaters before moving to the platform. On its release, Revenge proved a hit with Shudder viewers, and continues to be a draw to this day. Its director, Coralie Fargeat, is now working on a movie for Universal called The Substance, starring Margaret Qualley, Demi Moore, and Ray Liotta.

“Branching out into original films was our way of being able to reverse engineer the marketplace and not allow the market to tell us what could or should be produced,” Gotto says. “But really it’s a way for us to take the lead and make sure that we’re financing those films we wanted Shudder subscribers to see.”

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All that she and Zimmerman had to do now was follow up Revenge with a string of equally impressive hits.

How Your Acquisition Sausage Is Made

The first step to beefing up a portfolio of killer horror movies is keeping eyes on everything.

“We see pretty much every movie out there that’s in development, a lot of times at the script stage,” Engler says.

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Sometimes, they have eyes on a movie even before the movie’s creator does. Or at least that’s what happened with Host.

Early on in the pandemic, ideally named horror filmmaker Rob Savage posted a two-minute short on Twitter. In the video, Savage appears to fall to his death while investigating a strange noise in his attic, all while some friends watch along on Zoom. It was a mischievous bit of horror vérité that perfectly captured the doomed mood of the moment. Gotto and Zimmerman loved the video and reached out to its creator immediately after watching. Did Savage have a feature film-length version in him?

“We essentially bought it on two words: Zoom séance,'” Gotto says. “We were all in lockdown on Zoom at the time and thought it was the best idea we’d ever heard. We greenlit the movie and had it on the service in . . . I think it was three months.”

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It was closer to four months, but still: impressive turnaround. Host ended up being one of the platform’s biggest hits to date. Savage is next directing an adaptation of Stephen King’s short story The Boogeyman for Twentieth Century Fox.

Shudder also likes to cast a wide international net, bringing in films from Finland, Ireland, Indonesia, Scandinavia, Africa, and wherever else. The quality is there but, crucially, so is the audience. Between breakout hits such as Train to Busan and Parasite, Americans now generally seem more open to seeking out more international horror movies, especially if those movies are already waiting there, the potential thrill of discovery a click away.

Sometimes Gotto and Zimmerman find these films on the festival circuit and related events. They search genre-focused markets, such as Ventana Sur in Argentina or Frontières in Montreal, looking to find some of the 50 originals and exclusives that Shudder now puts out each year.

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Deals happen in a heartbeat at festivals, so you have to move fast. Before Gotto and Zimmerman arrive, they will have already done a comparative analysis of the marketplace and figured out possible calendar dates to release the films they’re going after. At a large festival like Sundance, they may have to decide on—and bid on—four to six films within the span of 48 hours. Ideally, every outing would unfold as smoothly as the 2019 Venice Film Festival, where they acquired La Llorona.

“We just went in, knowing straightaway that the film was gonna be an exciting one to bring to Shudder,” Gotto recalls. “And because we were super fast, we actually bought it prior to the announcement of the award it had won. [La Llorona won Best Film at Venice Days, the independent competitive section of the festival.] When that announcement came through, I think there was a lot more attention from other buyers, but we had already swooped in.”

La Llorona went on to win a Peabody Award and get shortlisted for Best International Film at last year’s Oscars.

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Every Different Shade of Horror

At some point in the last couple of years, around the time Shudder gained its millionth paid subscriber, the platform passed some imperceptible threshold and came fully into its own. It became a known quantity, with an aesthetic as variable, yet often identifiable, as A24.

Gotto and Zimmerman noticed a pivotal difference that occurred over that time. Now whenever they try to convince a talented filmmaker to sell their movie to Shudder, they no longer have to explain what Shudder is.

“I was a fan prior to V/H/S/94,” says director Chloe Okuno, who directed a segment of that anthology before Shudder acquired her new film, The Watcher, at Sundance earlier this year. “I liked that their collection is not just horror but sort of every different shade of horror. I also like the way they always feature certain titles right up front, which feels closer in some ways to going to a video store in person.”

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Part of the pitch the team makes to prospective filmmakers is that unlike the major volume-driven streamers, Shudder will never let one of its films wilt on the vine. The big release of the week will get in front of the eyeballs of every subscriber who visits. It’s an attractive quality in an era when so much content comes and goes, seemingly every day—often before its target audience is ever even aware of it.

“When Shudder approached us about acquiring Scare Me, what cinched it was their passion for the movie and respect for me as a filmmaker,” says director Josh Ruben. “They just fucking got it. They embraced us head-on and set us up for success with festivals, artwork, PR—all of it.”

This level of care isn’t just about protecting the investment. Sure, if too few subscribers watch a Shudder Original and neglect to talk it up to their nonsubscriber friends, that’s bad for business. Another reason the platform heavily promotes all of its Originals, though, is because it drives the team bonkers to imagine a banger of a horror movie going unseen by its optimal audience. Engler is still haunted by a film Shudder lost at auction to a major streamer in 2019, only to see it get buried with a quiet release and never really heard from again. (“We wouldn’t have let that happen,” Engler assures me.)

Fortunately, he and the team have a bustling slate of films beyond The Watcher and Sundance hit Resurrection, starring Rebecca Hall, and they will do everything they can to make sure the right people see them. That’s Shudder’s premium offering: something for everybody and everything for several somebodies. Whoever you are, however wild your horror tastes, there is a movie coming soon that’s just for you.

At this rate, one day the scariest thing on Shudder will be the FOMO it gives off to nonsubscribers.

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