Shudder Insiders Discuss How Niche Service Survives The Night Amidst Horror Story In Streaming

Since launching in beta in the U.S. in 2015, the horror-focused streaming service Shudder has developed a unique reputation for quality in streaming, even as its parent company AMC Networks has grappled with the same financial ills affecting the landscape at large.

One of the most well-known and celebrated brands in AMC’s portfolio of niche streamers, Shudder was conceived as a destination for horror consumers of all kinds, from the most seasoned to the most nascent. Per VP Global Acquisitions and Co-Productions Emily Gotto, one of the platform’s principal architects, the hope has been to be very intentional in onboarding new titles, programming in such a way as to cultivate an appreciation of the “length and breadth” of the genre.

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Like more deep-pocketed services, Shudder ramped up on exclusive acquisitions and originals after building its foundation on a slew of library titles. But given its relative lack of resources — in comparison to, say, Netflix — Shudder got creative in the kinds it pursued, generally identifying those that could be licensed for a reasonable price, while at the same time bringing maximum value to horror fans. An obscure title, for example, like the Vanessa Redgrave starrer The Devils (1971) or Andrzej Zulawski’s Cannes prize winner Possession (1981), that was heretofore impossible to track down elsewhere.

Many of the titles that can be found on Shudder mean far more to its diehard horror fanbase than to the average viewer of a larger streamer. That has enabled VP Programming Sam Zimmerman — another key steward of Shudder’s creative vision — to build out the service without fear of being outbid. In addition to library titles of yesteryear, Zimmerman routinely scours festivals in hopes of bringing the best in contemporary filmmaking to the service. Further elevating the appeal of Shudder are more iconic, and expensive, premium titles such as John Carpenter’s Halloween, which are brought onto the platform in short windows, in a practice known as stunting.

As previously alluded to, Shudder isn’t immune to the severe headwinds buffeting the entertainment business. Much as at other major media companies, the understanding at its parent AMC is that “the current mechanisms for monetizing content are not working,” as chairman James Dolan said back in February. Besieged by cord-cutting, which has decimated the pay-TV bundle and put pressure on distribution and advertising revenue, AMC Networks has over the last year been forced to cut back its U.S. staff by about 20% and has also seen management instability, with four CEOs in the past two years.

AMC no longer breaks out Shudder’s stand-alone subscriber tally, keeping its data on subscribers and revenue in a black box, as is common practice in streaming. So all we really have, as a gauge of its commercial success, is the previously disclosed fact that the service surpassed 1M subscribers in September 2020. As AMC drives toward its goal of 20-25M subscribers across the portfolio by 2025, the company should find the brand to be among its most consequential. But what should be highlighted as a certainty is the degree of trust and community that Shudder has come to foster amongst filmmakers and everyday consumers, alike, as a rare kind of alternative to the services that are for the most part available.

Zimmerman tells Deadline that the goal has been to make Shudder “an experience” not quite like any other in the streaming world. In a world of wholesalers, he says, the service is a boutique that truly prizes quality over quantity.

Courtney Thomasma, AMC Networks’ EVP Streaming, says programming with a sense of context and taste is accomplished through “human touch curation,” decisions made by humans rather than by algorithms. She attributes much of the platform’s success to the fact that those on its small team not only know their audience, but are fans of genre filmmaking themselves. Their strategy is thus informed by their “appreciation, adoration and interest in” both the storytelling and those behind it.

Apart from its notion of fans programming for fans, part of what’s quietly radical about Shudder is the care given to presentation. Whenever Shudder debuts new originals or licensed titles, a concerted effort is made to ensure that they don’t get lost in the shuffle. “We don’t want people to endlessly browse,” says Zimmerman. “If you are in one city versus another in the U.S. and you sign on the morning we’re releasing a film, you’re not seeing different films presented to you. You’re seeing that film we are releasing that week. That’s what we believe in, what we love, what we want you to watch.”

Organizational tools helping to drive engagement for the service are themed collections, like “Found Frights” and “Essential 80s,” which are routinely freshened to spotlight new titles entering the library, while at the same time encouraging viewers to delve deeper. Gotto explains that Zimmerman might say to himself, “Okay, we’ve got a great creature feature. What are my favorite either cult, or obscure, or just criminally underseen creature features?” He’d then “put up a row that month, and anyone who’s coming in to watch this monster movie will have a chance to discover all of these hidden gems.”

Shudder has, for years, embraced theatrical distribution as well via AMC-owned sister companies including IFC Films and RLJE Films, in much the same way that Amazon and Apple believe theatrical can serve as marketing for the service while generating revenue in its own right. Shudder went down this route with titles such as Coralie Fargeat’s debut feature Revenge, in partnership with Neon, before going on to solo successes with the likes of the experimental animated film Mad God and the viral supernatural pic Skinamarink. It also has plans for more.

Maximizing the reach of each film is key, Zimmerman points out, because “there are worlds,” as recent years have shown, “in which there are movies that can sit on services, and if they are not contextualized and they’re not eventized, and if you don’t say there’s a reason to watch it, no one’s going to watch it.”

Further underscoring Shudder’s unique strengths, in relation to other streamers, are David Bruckner and Jennifer Reeder, a pair of veteran horror filmmakers, who recently took to Shudder with V/H/S/85 and Perpetrator, respectively, following other collaborations. Also known for directing Hulu’s reboot of Hellraiser, Bruckner finds the overall streaming landscape “extremely confusing.” He compares the major services to “carmakers” that offer “a version of every standard vehicle that you could possibly want,” but with no “consistent aesthetic taste or point of view.” He compares Shudder, in contrast, to an old-school video store, like Videodrome in his city of Atlanta, which has earned the approval of cinephiles with its stack of “staff favorites.”

Reeder echoes Bruckner’s sentiments, equating Shudder to “a tiny European grocery store with just a perfect amount of some really good things.” The providing of “endless choices,” she says, “doesn’t feel like freedom. It just gunks everything up.” As a consume, her desire is simply for “high-quality storytelling” and the knowledge of where to find it. Her hope, as an artist, is for her work to have “a particular and special kind of life.” And as a fan turned partner of Shudder, she’s been able to meet every objective.

In terms of the establishing of community, what Shudder’s done differently is lean further into opportunities for appointment viewing — a kind of experience for the consumer that has become less prevalent amid the dwindling of linear and cable. One key contributor has been Shudder.TV, a set of linear channels built into the app which has brought fans together for livestreams of everything from the Fangoria Chainsaw Awards to surprise screenings of forthcoming Shudder Originals.

Perhaps the most influential member of the Shudder family, though, who has been essential in the forging of its rabid online fanbase, is John Bloom, the veteran film critic better known by his alias Joe Bob Briggs, who hosts its variety series The Last Drive-in. The Friday night show is the third of its kind for Briggs, following Joe Bob’s Drive-in Theater on The Movie Channel and MonsterVision on TNT, and sees him intercut a B-movie double feature with colorful commentary, trivia, and special guest appearances.

To the surprise of Briggs, The Last Drive-in generated such excitement from launch, given his personal fanbase built over the course of decades, that when the show debuted with a 24-hour movie marathon in 2018, it crashed Shudder. The show is closely followed by online fan communities like the so-called “Mutant Fam,” and continues to expand as one of the service’s flagship programs. “Those Friday night Last Drive-in broadcasts drive the biggest number of simultaneous active users on platform, and trend nationally on X [formerly known as Twitter] every Friday,” Thomasma says. “It really has become sort of its own engine within Shudder.”

As a broader course correction in entertainment unfolds, questions remain as to the to the sustainability of both Shudder and the niche streaming model, more generally. AMC Networks’ Chairman Dolan has acknowledged that leadership will have to be “open to all…ideas,” going forward, in the pursuit of financial stability — including, perhaps, some form of M&A. It’s unclear what would happen to the likes of Shudder, should AMC be absorbed into another company. Still, following the installation last year of his ex-wife Kristin Dolan as CEO, the family-controlled conglomerate has appeared intent on cementing itself as a stand-alone business for the long haul.

In any case, despite stresses on the company and industry, and uncertainty as to what the future holds, Shudder’s execs find plenty of reasons to be bullish on the service, including the fact that it has come out “ahead” of its financial targets, quarter after quarter, per Gotto.

Described by Thomasma as bringing value to the new bundle AMC+ as “a great engagement driver” alongside series from The Walking Dead Universe, Shudder has also recently had more presence than ever on the linear AMC network, as with the company’s programming of the 2023 edition of Fear Fest, AMC’s annual fall horror marathon. Thomasma says that the service will only continue to evolve going forward, as its parent works to “uncover new points of connectivity with Shudder and with audiences across the portfolio.”

Any future that turns out in Shudder’s favor will be one in which it finds ways to scale. The service has taken further action on that front just recently, by introducing its first FAST channel, Scares by Shudder, on Plex.

But for now, Gotto takes comfort given the fact that churn, or customer turnover, at Shudder is “very low.” The company declined to provide specific figures, though Gotto emphasizes that the low churn typical of niche services generally, given the more focused offerings they tend to afford, “is actually incredibly important” for their survival. The future of streaming, she contends, will not be about the “quantity” of projects presented, but rather about the “best use of time and having the trust in the brand…as the [consumer’s] time becomes less and less.”

Also supportive of Shudder’s place in the future of streaming is that horror, as a genre, has never been bigger. Says Briggs, “Horror is triumphant in this age. 20 years ago, nobody thought horror was a major genre. Thirty years ago, people thought it was a despicable genre. Today, there are $50 million movies, $80 million movies that are horror movies.”

“The fact that people are spending that kind of money on them means that horror has emerged as the genre of this generation,” Briggs adds, highlighting Guillermo del Toro’s 2018 movie The Shape of Water, which won four Oscars, including Best Picture, as a turning point. “Fifty years ago,” says the horror host, “if a guy released a rubber suit monster movie, nobody would even know his name, much less give him the Academy Award.”

Horror, to Briggs, is now “beachfront property,” rather than something made only by and for “B-movie people.” In other words, it’s “not going anywhere.”

The hope, for creatives working within the space, is that the same can be said for Shudder. “The irony is that the people that make horror, they’re all a bunch of softies and sweethearts. It’s a very warm community of creators,” says Bruckner. “I think everybody kind of rallies around the idea of what the service can be. I generally think we’re all kind of fighting for it, in one way or another, to succeed.”

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