S hudder itself can feel like a secret, too. Along with sites like FilmStruck, Seeso, and Brown Sugar, the service is part of a wave of streaming platforms that cater to a post-Netflix consumer who wants to burrow into a specific obsession. Horror, with its long cultural history and intense fans, might be the genre that's best suited to this type of micro-programming. Shudder, which launched in 2015, isn't even the only horror streaming service you can subscribe to -- a site called Screambox promises "fresh new horror every week" -- but it's the only one bankrolled by a cable network still riding high off the success of the Walking Dead.
Shudder Labs was conceived as a genre-specific alternative to the Sundance Institute Lab, the long-running indie film program that helped launch the careers of filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Miranda July. But here the unstated but likely goal is to find the next Sam Raimi, John Carpenter, or George Romero. More than anything, Zimmerman says they're looking for stories with new perspectives -- like Richard's project or Switcher, a DePalma-sounding thriller from director Kristen Hansen about a man who murders a "promiscuous" woman and then wakes up the next day as her -- and they want to connect these artists to industry folks who can help them realize their visions.
"I wish there was something like this when I was coming up," says Mike Flanagan, one of the event's guest speakers and the director of films like Oculus, Hush, and Ouija: Origin of Evil. "It would've saved so much time. Just getting that kind of authentic feedback, especially at that stage where a lot of writers are, where you don't have reps and you don't know where you're going to get financing and you're operating blind. You're trying to shape what you think will be an interesting movie without any context of how it would fit into the market place. Something like this is an invaluable thing."
According to Zimmerman, this year Shudder Labs received around 800 submissions from filmmakers all around the country. Potential fellows submit short pitch videos for their projects and from there applicants are chosen for an interview process and eventually whittled down to a final 10. Where last year's reward was just having the chance to attend the Lab -- where you get to hang out at Mohonk, attend lectures from filmmakers, catch a couple screenings, and get one-on-one feedback for your project -- for this year's contest Shudder has teamed with Project Greenlight Digital Studios to inject a little competition into the proceedings. One lucky filmmaker will be selected to have their project produced at a $300,000 budget. (The eventual winner, Wither from Chicago-based director Danny DelPurgatorio and writer Anthony Williams, is about a doctor who grows tired of being haunted by ghosts and decides to bring them back to life.) But Zimmerman doesn't want the directors obsessing over the prize money. This isn't supposed to be like a reality show or a cut-throat competition, and most of the contestants I speak with don't seem obsessed with walking away with a bag of money. They're after something more elusive: a career as a horror filmmaker.
It's worth asking what is going on here exactly? Specifically, why would a big company like AMC fund an event like this? The Sundance Institute is a non-profit organization founded by millionaire Hollywood actor Robert Redford. Television networks like NBC, ABC, and Comedy Central offer writing programs and scholarships to aspiring talent, but it'd be odd to find out Spike TV was whisking away potential action filmmakers to a spa resort to dream up the next John Wick. HBO doesn't have anything like this. Neither does Netflix.
Zimmerman acknowledges the Shudder Labs isn't purely an altruistic endeavor. "At some point we’re going to start having an eye going, 'Are there any of these that are right for us?'" he explains. Shudder has recently gotten into releasing original content like Primal Screen, a documentary about fear from Room 217 director Rodney Ascher, and Kuso, a hallucinatory thriller from the musician Flying Lotus the company picked up out of Sundance. "I think that would be silly of us not to do. At the same time, when Shudder started, the idea of a platform is that it's curated and we wanted it to be hand-made and reachable. Not faceless... For my bosses, it was important to do something that was supportive for the community of the genre we’re entering into."
He smiles in the shade of the quaint (and not at all sinister) gazebo we've been sitting in just outside of one of Mohonk's free coffee-filled conference buildings. "That’s really cool because I come from that genre," he says. "I love it more than anything."