There’s nothing revolutionary about the short films-to-features path many filmmakers take to reach the mainstream. Getting your short shown at Sundance or Tribeca has long been a viable method to build the buzz and industry support necessary for a theatrical release. But the world of horror filmmaking has recently seen a seismic shift in how ideas originate and from whom. And as with so many things in entertainment, it’s all coming from YouTube (and TikTok). Over the last two years, up-and-coming horror auteurs have built cult followings on social media and now, thanks to some forward-thinking studios and executives, many of these filmmakers are getting the chance to scare the shit out of us for 90 minutes plus.
Great short films can be made in any genre, but horror is uniquely suited to the format. An effective filmmaker can establish the mood quickly, and there’s often less focus on the slow-burning character development typical of dramas or the pricey setpieces necessitated by action flicks. The lineage of creepy shorts dates back decades, perhaps most notably to Rod Serling’s original Twilight Zone, and horror is arguably tailor made for the way we consume content at home now: alone, in the dark, stressed out, headphones on, face pressed against a small screen. The thrill of seeing a scary movie in a crowded theater is undeniable, but it’s also probably the genre that loses the least in the translation to streaming. It may even gain new meaning from isolated on-demand viewing.
One of the biggest names to emerge from this burgeoning paradigm is the production company and platform Alter. At more than 2.6 million YouTube subscribers, and with a growing presence on Instagram and TikTok, it’s the format’s preeminent home. Plenty of others swim in ,the same waters from Social House Films (Aaron Fradkin and Victoria Fratz), to ACMOfficial (Alex Magaña), and Grimoire Horror (Sam Evenson), but Alter has a rare level of reach and notoriety, in part because it functions as a hub for different filmmakers, rather than serving as the platform of a single creative voice. Its recent releases have starred Georgina Campbell, (who headlined 2022’s breakout horror hit, Barbarian), Marisa Tomei and Minnie Driver in a sci-fi tinged twister, and The Last of Us standout Bella Ramsey in a 1600s period piece akin to The Witch. Yet many Alter projects have racked up millions of views without the benefit of brand-name stars, and even more have done it without known quantities behind the camera. Which is partly why it’s coming to be seen as such an effective springboard. Kelsey Bollig, a horror short staple whose “Kickstart My Heart” is one of Alter’s bendiest and best, is getting her first shot at a feature, working with Olivia Cooke and Adam McKay.
Important context: Alter is the provenance of production company Gunpowder & Sky, the independent studio behind Her Smell, The Little Hours, and Hearts Beat Loud, among others. G&S has produced a number of acclaimed scary movies, several of them billed as “Alter Feature Films” including the teen flick Summer of 84, and the grimly humorous Villains. (They also operate a similar sci-fi shorts umbrella called Dust.) While G&S haven’t had a hand in all of the Alter shorts that became features, like Carlota Pereda’s Piggy or Bollig’s upcoming Breeders, they’ve arguably cultivated favorable relationships with more young filmmakers than any competitors. And because of the success of Alter and Dust, these shorts are actually being seen widely.
Many of the brand name film festivals out there like Sundance, Tribeca, and Cannes have existing rules that limit accepted shorts from having been streamed or broadcast prior to a potential debut on their screens. It makes sense for cache preservation, and, at the moment, there is probably still more value in getting your film shown to the biggest industry decision-makers than debuting it in the YouTube or Vimeo content void. There are iconic horror-centric festivals around the country–Telluride Horror Show, Screamfest, and Fantastic Fest, for example–but these entities don’t have massive social media footprints to get projects shown to fans who don’t attend. (And, frankly, there isn’t a huge financial incentive for them to do so unless they want to build out a paid programming service like the Angelika Film Center did.)
There’s still relatively little proof of concept for these films translating into mainstream hits–2018’s maligned Slender Man movie was profitable, and prescient for turning an internet horror trend into a theatrical release film, but still a pretty bad movie, and was directed by an established industry figure in Sylvain White. (Jane Schoenburn’s archival footage Slender Man doc on the other hand? Very good.)
Kyle Edward Ball’s terrific, polarizing Skinamarink is perhaps the most emphatic evidence that this whole thing can work. It grossed $2 million against a microscopic $15,000 budget this winter, having been shot entirely in the director’s childhood home. Those aren’t Paranormal Activity numbers, but it’s clearly a positive return in an industry facing financial uncertainty. Before making the film, a homespun horror feature that became a TikTok sensation and received an 800-theater release, Ball was the proprietor of Bitesized Nightmares. The channel developed a committed following, and Ball’s videos from the last few years highlight many of the filmmaking choices he makes so effectively in Skinamarink. 2020’s Heck is the most direct precursor, telling a similar story of a young boy waking up in the middle of the night to find something uncannily amiss. Like Skinamarink, it uses unconventional angles and lingering shots of darkness to put the viewer in the mindset of the scared child, giving us the opportunity to frighten ourselves by focusing on amorphous shapes in the darkness.
A24’s big summer horror swing, Talk To Me, is the feature debut of Danny and Michael Philippou, whose YouTube page RackaRacka has more than 6 million followers, thanks to viral videos that turned characters like Ronald McDonald and The Cookie Monster into gleefully campy Jason Voorhees-style villains. The Academy Award-winning studio is doubling down on this emerging trend with its support of Kane Parsons (a.k.a. Kane Pixels), a teenage director and visual effects artist whose stellar short “The Backrooms” accrued more than 48 million views on YouTube. Blooming from a social media frenzy around the eeriness of liminal spaces, “The Backrooms” builds tremendous tension through its Nintendo 64 first-person shooter aesthetic, a savvy update on the now standard found footage model. Parsons ultimately turned “Backrooms” into a successful series, building his profile in the process.He’ll reportedly direct a feature-length adaptation during his upcoming summer break, with assistance from industry figures like James Wan, Alayna Glasthal, and Shawn Levy.
Betting on filmmakers like the Philippous, Parsons, and Ball, who have organically developed their own audience, is an interesting Hollywood parallel to the way the music industry has shifted its focus to young stars building brands for themselves on TikTok. Done correctly, it can be a faster, cheaper way to build buzz, potentially setting a higher box office floor than hiring a total unknown. The replies to RackaRacka’s video announcing Talk To Me and Ball’s update about Skinamarink and the future of Bitesized Nightmares are filled with loving, long-time fans eager to see their favorite content creators jumping to the theatrical world.
Anytime the entertainment industry perceives a potential goldrush, there’s going to be downside, particularly for horror fans who are probably 18 months away from an unending deluge of YouTube shorts padded out into 80-minute “movies.” There’s also the possibility of the industry falling too in love with these viral talents. Plenty of directors plucked from obscurity have become legendary filmmakers, and having strong social media numbers shouldn’t be a prerequisite for getting a director’s chair on a feature film. But the potential for new voices to emerge outside of the traditional industry framework and develop their own fanbases is an undeniable positive. Plus someone could make a really good movie out of “My sugar daddy asks me for weird favors.”