the streaming wars

Shudder Knows What You’ll Stream This Summer

“People think they want a huge library of classic monster films available to them at all times. But they really don’t. What they want to watch is new films, and occasionally classic films.” Photo: Josh Stringer/Shudder

At a time when conglomerates such as WarnerMedia and ViacomCBS are consolidating their streaming brands into one-size-fits-all megaplatforms, AMC Networks is trying to scare up smaller sums of subscribers with Shudder, a super-focused horror streamer aiming to be the final destination for viewers seeking chills and thrills not found elsewhere. While the company hasn’t ignored the consolidation trend — its newish AMC+ platform targets a broad audience — AMC is also betting there is still success to be found through targeting audiences passionate about particular kinds of programming. There are early signs it’s working.

While AMC has stopped giving out specific subscriber numbers for individual services, as of last summer, the five-year-old Shudder boasted just over 1 million subscribers. That’s a tiny number for Netflix or Disney+, but for a smaller, independent company such as AMC, it’s a solid base on which to build, particularly since Shudder programming no longer lives just on the stand-alone service. Its highly curated content is also being used to fuel growth for AMC+, the company’s somewhat broader streamer, which mixes ad-free originals from the AMC cable channel with the full slate of programming found on Shudder, as well as offerings from AMC brands IFC, Sundance, and BBC America.

The approach lets AMC continue to super-serve specific fan bases (through Shudder as well as sister streamers like Acorn and ALLBLK), even as it goes after cord cutters with the virtual bundle that is AMC+. “The targeted businesses … have really exceeded our expectations,” AMC Networks chief operating officer Ed Carroll told analysts during the company’s most recent earnings call. “The model is a lot more efficient than we originally thought, and the efficiency is holding as we scale.” What’s more, AMC is finding that stand-alone streamers that don’t try to have something for everyone — and actually lean into specific fandoms — manage to do better at holding on to subscribers, and getting them to engage more frequently with programming. Services such as Shudder “represent not only a destination for the viewers, [who] tend to form a community around the content,” Carroll said. “And as you would imagine, that’s helpful on churn.” Between Shudder, AMC+, and the other niche streamers, AMC Networks said in February it had signed up a total of 6 million streaming subscribers and expects to increase that to at least 9 million by year’s end.

Right now ’tis the most wonderful time for the folks at Shudder, and not just because of those subscriber numbers. While most of us are still polishing off the last of the Easter candy, Shudder execs are in the middle of a monthlong celebration of Halfoween, the social-media-inspired “holiday” created to mark the midpoint between the last and next annual occurrence of Halloween. Much the way Hallmark Channel has gotten mileage out of its Christmas in July stunts, Shudder loads up on high-profile premieres and promotional content every April and labels the whole event “Halfway to Halloween.”

It seemed a good time to check in with the three top execs involved in running Shudder: general manager Craig Engler, program director Samuel Zimmerman, and global acquisitions/co-productions director Emily Gotto. Vulture recently spoke with the trio about Shudder’s less-is-more philosophy, how horror programming actually has pretty broad appeal and what it’s like competing against streaming giants such as Netflix. What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation.

So I’m curious about the origin story for Shudder. Was it as simple as someone at AMC saying, “Hey, we’re the network of The Walking Dead and the FearFest movie stunt — let’s lean into that?” What made the company go big on a streaming service for horror fans?

Samuel Zimmerman: It is not dissimilar from that. I think AMC, looking at the future of direct-to-consumer, really did want to lean into genre because of the success that they had been having in terms of FearFest, in terms of The Walking Dead. And when I was brought on, it was really to lead the programming and realize what the ambition of Shudder could be as something of a highly curated and very inviting service focused on genre, focused on horror, and showcasing the depth and the breadth of the genre.

Most big companies are moving toward broad, all-encompassing platforms. Shudder is clearly more of a niche play. Why can that work?

Craig Engler: I think it’s two things. First of all, when we say niche, we might mean targeted, but we don’t mean small. When you talk about the horror genre, it is incredibly broad, incredibly deep. It encompasses everything from Aliens and Silence of the Lambs to Psycho, The Birds, and traditional slashers like Friday the 13th. So I think that sometimes people think of the genre as being relatively small, when in fact, it’s huge.

I think there are only so many everything services that people want to subscribe to. Obviously, right now Netflix is the king of, “Hey, we have something for everyone.” But a lot of the streamers are coming out with something for everyone. And what we provide is something you can’t get anywhere else. We always say, if you only want to watch one or two movies that are horror, thriller, supernatural, you’ll probably be happy with Netflix or Amazon. They’ll have a couple movies or a couple shows that you might want to watch. But if you want anything beyond that, then their offerings become very shallow, very quickly. Whereas we continue to have this pool that is not only very broad, but very deep. There is literally a movie for everyone’s taste on Shudder.

You’ve been expanding the number of originals on the platform, first with movies and more recently with scripted series such as Creepshow. What’s your budget for originals, or at least, what are your ambitions?

Craig Engler: Our content budget, while we don’t give it out, is very healthy and it’s growing. Every year I’ve been here, our budget has grown, and that’s allowed us to do bigger and better things. Right now we’re in the middle of a push into more originals, be it series or movies or specials. We also have a lot of success in the documentary/docuseries space.

Emily Gotto: In terms of acquisitions, we’re bringing in, on average, 50 to 56 original or exclusive films per year to the service, and then also the tentpole TV series and then the library content. That makes up at least 850 to 900 playable hours.

Are these movies that are already made, and you’re simply the distributor? Or are you getting involved earlier in the development process and putting your creative mark on projects?

Emily Gotto: We’re coming in at different phases, [including] festivals and marketplaces. And we’re now broadening our reach … coming in to fully finance films. That lets us really be part of the collaborative process of making content available to our subscribers [rather than] letting the market dictate to us what we can show. It’s us bringing stuff to the consumer.

Craig Engler: A great example of an original was Host last year. We had seen a short film by a director we knew on Twitter [Rob Savage]. We reached out and said, “Hey, is there a feature version of this?” And they came back and said, “Yes, there is.” They sent us a pitch deck. It was actually relatively short, six pages long. But we green-lit the movie based on two words: Zoom séance. We had the film up on the service in three months last year, during the pandemic. I think that that just shows we’re willing to move very quickly, very decisively. We don’t want to be beholden to what’s available to us.

Would it be safe to say that Host cost you under $500,000?

Craig Engler: It would be safe to say that it was not a very expensive film, and we were more than happy to take the risk.

Do you repurpose a lot of titles from AMC and the AMC Networks for Shudder? I know Discovery of Witches is a co-production with your sister streamer Sundance Now.

Samuel Zimmerman: At the moment, we have both seasons of NOS4A2 and The Walking Dead: World Beyond.

Craig Engler: We’ve had more shows go to AMC that we’ve had shows from AMC go to Shudder. We premiered Creepshow on Shudder in October 2019, and it ran on the AMC linear network in May 2020. We separated those windows out over time, because we did want to drive you to subscribe to Shudder, because it is our series. Even when it runs on AMC, it’s a Shudder original.

Even though you’re a horror-focused platform, you’re clearly not trying to be nonstop shopping for horror movies. Is that because, as a smaller company, you don’t have the budget to snap up all the usual suspects, or maybe you simply can’t get all the Universal monster movies because Comcast wants them for Peacock? Or is it more about being choosy, or even snobby, about what you program?

Samuel Zimmerman: I am not necessarily snobby. To me, what’s more significant is being contextual. We have had the Universal Monsters on Shudder, for instance, and we will have them again. What we find is, when you create urgency around the titles on the service, it will push people to watch. What we want is less browsing, and more of our members actually finding things to discover, to watch, to revisit, to love. If a film is sitting around for a year or two — and this is mostly with respect to higher-profile classics — they won’t be engaged with as much.

Right now we have the Val Lewton collection. He’s a very influential and historical producer in the genre, with Cat People being his first film. If you create a collection, it gives a reason to really discover the work of the studio, of a producer, of a filmmaker, and create a discussion around it, not only within Shudder, but around the Shudder community, rather than just letting things languish. We really want to be curated and contextual in our programming. So I’m less concerned with elitism, and more concerned with giving people a reason to care and to watch.

Craig Engler: We’re not elitist, or snobs in any way. I think what we would say is we are passionate. We love to go find films and present them in a way that gets people excited about them. You can go to — whatever, Hulu — and you can see Friday the 13th: Part Four. If you happen to be in the mood for that film, and you happen to come across it, that’s fine. We’re more about saying, “Hey, this month, we’re going to have all eight films of the Friday the 13th franchise.” Then we’re going to tell you why each film is supercool, and why you should watch them. They’re not just going to sit in our library. People think they want a huge library of classic monster films available to them at all times. But they really don’t. What they want to watch is new films, and occasionally classic films. So we bring you a new film every week, and then we also give you reasons to dive into these old films. Sam is constantly finding amazing films that people may not have heard of, or may have overlooked, and then presenting them in context.

And it really hasn’t gotten more difficult to get library content for the service from the big studio conglomerates, even as they’ve launched their own platforms?

Samuel Zimmerman: It hasn’t. I haven’t hit any hard walls. I would say more than anything, it’s just about creative windowing and finding the right time. So if it’s a Warner or if it’s a Lionsgate or a Paramount, sometimes you’re sharing windows, sometimes you’re not. But I have not run into walls with things like HBO Max happening. We have a Warner deal this year. Some of the older titles, you’ll find that the rights are tied up or split. Like, one studio might own films one to three [in a franchise], and another studio might own films four and five. Or sometimes people don’t know who owned the rights, or those rights are currently being contested in court. People ask us, “How come you don’t have like all 12 of these films?” And we say, “No one will ever have all 12 of them together because it’s impossible, with the rights structure.”

What about originals? You may be the main horror-focused streamer, but all of these other new services are competing for projects to fill their schedules, too.

Emily Gotto: I can tell you that the market is really aggressive, because horror is very popular right now within the consumer market. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be scary in order for it to be termed “horror.” It can also just talk about society, or the “other” or deeply emotional and shocking subjects within our sphere of human nature. So it is very competitive.

Has it gotten easier to compete for content and make deals as Shudder has become better known and added subscribers?

La Llorna. Photo: Shudder

Emily Gotto: So I’ve seen a dramatic shift from us having to be very nimble, and very entrepreneurial, and very aggressive [to] now we have a lot of repeat business. Filmmakers want to work with us again, because they’ve had a really enjoyable experience, number one. But also our model is so bespoke in the sense that we’re offering something that other streaming platforms are not. We’re offering a curated approach, not just to how the content appears on the platform, but how we distribute the content. There’s an opportunity for back end for the filmmakers, an opportunity for profit participation. So it gives us an edge because people feel confident in us … When we first went into the marketplace, it was very much about talking to people about what the intentions of the brand were.

Craig Engler: There’s also a real fear, when you’re a creator, of films getting lost on the bigger streamers. A great example is a film that Emily and Sam found, La Llorna. We put our heart and soul into promoting that film. It got a Golden Globe nomination. It was shortlisted for the Oscars. And quite frankly,  if it had ended up on another streamer, I don’t think that would have happened. You might have access to a theoretically bigger audience. Netflix has more dollars than Shudder; I don’t think that’s a surprise to anyone. But I think if you want people to see your film, enjoy your film, talk about your film, I think that we have a leg up.

Back in February, you and AMC ordered an untitled anthology series which will focus on “stories of Black horror from Black directors and screenwriters.” Like so many genres, horror has often suffered from a lack of diversity among which showrunners and directors get hired. What’s your strategy to address that problem?

Emily Gotto: It’s actually a very, very active part of acquisition strategy at the moment, to make sure that we are going out and representing the length and breadth of not only what the genre does in terms of narrative constructs, but also the voices that are telling the story. We do have a huge, huge amount of female directors coming to the service, which we’re very proud of. And it’s just going to continue to develop as we are coming in on projects earlier in their production.  We’re very conscious that in order to bring fresh, exciting, original horror to the service that a lot of times it comes from underrepresented voices, that haven’t yet had the opportunity — and should have had the opportunity — to bring their voices to the fore in the genre.

Samuel Zimmerman: When Emily and I are seeking out programming, either from a library or an originals standpoint, we’re aware that so many experiences and perspectives have been historically underrepresented, and that we should be giving a platform to those. We were hopefully keenly aware from very early. Some of our earliest Shudder exclusive releases were really exciting films by Mattie Do, who’s Laotian American, and Alice Lowe with Prevenge. We’ve tried to keep that in our brains from the beginning.

Even though you’re not looking to get to 100 million subscribers, horror is something that a lot of folks don’t like, or at least they say they don’t like. Are you ever afraid that some folks won’t even bother checking out Shudder because they assume there’s no way they’ll like what’s on it?

Craig Engler: We want to open the doors to everybody, because everybody likes a horror movie, whether they think they do or not. Stephen King isn’t just one of the best-selling horror authors. He’s one of the best-selling authors of all time. I don’t know anybody who doesn’t like Stephen King. That’s how broad this genre can be, and that’s how broad we think Shudder could be.

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Shudder Knows What You’ll Stream This Summer