AMC Networks has always been in the horror game. Hell, they all but single-handedly moved the restrictive content goalposts for televised violence with their longstanding, super popular zombie series The Walking Dead. Gore became a selling point for that seemingly endless parade of head shot adventures, as Rick Grimes and his brood of post-apocalyptic misfits now enter their ninth season this October. In short, you tune in for the splatter, not the somewhat shoddy storytelling.
However, unlike Game of Thrones, there haven't been that many Walking Dead imitations attempted in the wake of that serial’s massive success, even by its owners*. Instead, AMC proceeded to re-jigger the way the genre’s most devoted even access spooky content, by launching their boutique streaming label Shudder. Over the past three years, Shudder has steadily grown into a premier destination for horror fans, via their mix of archive titles, original features – including this year’s NEON co-distributed critical juggernaut Revenge – and series from around the globe (make sure to check out their latest Brazilian shock episodic, Supermax). Just as they’d recognized the future of cable entertainment and bucked the ratings system via comic creator Robert Kirkman’s rotting flesh-eaters, AMC Networks accepted that the majority of content was being consumed by viewers paying monthly or yearly subscription fees for online collections.
Curators like former Shock Till You Drop editor and future Fangoria reboot contributor Sam Zimmerman, and TIFF Midnight Madness mastermind Colin Geddes were given borderline free reign to melt our brains with their ostensibly bottomless well of knowledge and questionable taste. What started as a means to capitalize on folks wanting to watch horror movies during the Samhain Season quickly morphed into an ever-evolving entity, guided by some of the best minds in the scare cinema business. Just a few weeks ago, Shudder launched a live-feed of The Last Drive-In, featuring legendary movie enthusiast Joe Bob Briggs, and their servers crashed due to the overwhelming demand. The streaming corner had struck a nerve with horror kids who grew up mainlining MonsterVision and dubbed tapes of Joe Bob's Drive-In Theater, and the positive response was so loud that they're bringing the wise redneck back this fall.
So, how does AMC – who both helped rework content standards and then entered this new phase of distribution – continue to grow and reach the furthest corners of the genre’s market? By beefing up both their VOD and repertory programming lines, of course. This week, the conglomerate paid $274 million to acquire RLJ Entertainment, after purchasing a stake in Robert Johnson's media company this past February. RLJ controls assets like subscription streaming services Acorn TV and Urban Movie Channel, which have accumulated nearly 800,000 subscribers combined (with a customer increase of nearly 50% over the last year). The company also owns a majority stake in the Agatha Christie Library, which would open up the doors for AMC to develop new spin-offs from the popular story annals.
Yet where the horror elements come into play is through RLJ's noted genre acquisitions. On top of Panos Cosmatos' upcoming Nic Cage-starring acid head heavy metal nightmare Mandy, the company also backed Cinestate’s Puppet Master rebootquel, The Littlest Reich (which will release later this month). AMC, Shudder and RLJ have already enjoyed quite a healthy relationship in terms of repertory programming – just look to the stream of Re-Animator that's featured on The Last Drive-In for one example – which will help beef up a catalogue that already showcases several selections from Scream Factory (John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness), Arrow Video (the brilliant Female Prisoner Scorpion franchise), and Blue Underground/Entertainment One (The Prowler). To wit, AMC and Shudder’s content selection is going to expand beyond existing subscribers’ wildest imaginations, potentially including new titles they’re dying to see.
Now, AMC has set a release date for the next installment in their Visionaries series (following James Cameron's Story of Science Fiction), titled Eli Roth's History of Horror. The noted gore-porn director has always made for a better schlock scholar than he has a filmmaker or actor (though Hostel II and his turn in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds remain all-timers), so seeing him return to guiding fans through scare cinema's long, checkered past in a six-part limited series should be a treat for both novices and former video store rats alike. From AMC's press release, which promises a premiere of October 14th:
“Featuring A-list storytellers like Stephen King, Quentin Tarantino, Jordan Peele, Jason Blum, Robert Englund, Linda Blair, Tippi Hedren, Rob Zombie, Haley Joel Osment, Jack Black, John Landis, Jamie Lee Curtis and more, Eli Roth’s History of Horror brings together the masters of horror – icons and stars who define the genre – to explore its biggest themes and reveal the inspirations and struggles behind its past and present.”
On the surface, this all may seem like nothing more than the company cashing in on Halloween; yet these developments continue the provider’s long, storied love affair with genre cinema that stretches back beyond The Walking Dead. Since 1996, AMC has been running their annual FearFest programming block every October, where the network is veritably taken over by Freddy, Jason and Chucky, all so murder aficionados can celebrate their favorite time of year in style. In a way, FearFest feels like the original seed that was planted, and over the last twenty-two years, has sprouted branches for the hardest core enthusiasts to climb. In the wake of Shudder, there have been other niche genre streaming providers established – including Nic Refn's impressively curated free archive, which just launched its own beta phase – yet AMC continues to fortify its position as the go-to destination for horror hounds, and it'll be intriguing to watch them continue to build on these already impressive content foundations.
*Though there's obviously AMC's own spin-off Fear the Walking Dead, as well as SYFY and The Asylum's Z Nation (which has nine episodes directed by co-executive producer John Hyams!).