Like a proud parent, Jack Davis has covered the refrigerator in his Wilshire Boulevard office with artwork. But these aren’t crayon-drawn stick figures of Mom and Dad. They’re the stuff of nightmares—a demonic entity with shark teeth, a cannibal with thorns sprouting from his head, a tree that likes to disembowel its victims.
The gruesome creatures crawled out of the imagination of Davis’ Crypt TV, a digital studio that aspires to become the Marvel of monsters for mobile. Davis, 27, has raised $11 million from investors including Hollywood producer Jason Blum (Us, Ma), media mogul Shari Redstone’s Advancit Capital, Huffington Post cofounder Kenneth Lerer and NBCUniversal. The four-year-old Los Angeles studio, which creates horror videos for social networks, is on track to bring in about $20 million in revenue this year through production deals, running ads for films like Crawl and selling merchandise.
When he started, “no one was doing scary for mobile,” Davis says. That signaled a missed opportunity. “This is a huge genre. It has a solid fan base, and scary movies are very, very big.”
The Golden Age of streaming has birthed Netflix competitors that cater to nearly every genre, from U.K. shows on Britbox to anime on Crunchyroll and, yes, horror on Shudder and Screambox. At the same time, studios like Elisabeth Murdoch’s Vertical Networks have built audiences that are reached primarily through mobile-first social networks such as Snapchat and Instagram, which more than a billion people visit each month.
Davis and Crypt TV cofounder Eli Roth, the film director and producer who developed Netflix’s first horror series, Hemlock Grove, bet that an audience who loved films like Jordan Peele’s Oscar-nominated Get Out would snap up suspense and horror on the small screen, too.
It’s an intuition that’s paying off. Crypt TV said on Friday that it had reached a deal with Facebook to develop five series exclusively for Facebook Watch, its on-demand video service. The deal extends a partnership started in 2018, when Facebook green-lighted a 15-episode series based on Crypt’s short film The Birch.
Facebook has been paying as much as $25 million for these original shows, though the bulk of them cost $3 to $5 million, according to a person familiar with the matter. Forbes estimates the new Crypt TV deal is valued at less than $20 million. Neither party would disclose the terms of the partnership.
Facebook might seem an unlikely place to screen monster movies for Generation Z and younger Millennials, who make up nearly half of Crypt TV’s audience. One Pew Research Center survey last year found that the world’s largest social network is no longer the most popular hangout for teens, a big drop from earlier in the decade. Plus, Facebook Watch has struggled to gain traction. A year after Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg launched Watch to better compete with Google’s YouTube and Snapchat’s Discover, only half of Facebook users had ever heard of it, says The Diffusion Group, a media research consultancy.
Still, momentum is gathering for shows that capitalize on the network’s power to amass communities to talk about shared interests—say, Jada Pinkett Smith’s talk show, Red Table Talk, or Sorry for Your Loss, a drama on grief starring Elizabeth Olsen. Facebook says more than 140 million people each day spend at least a minute viewing Watch videos.
“It’s very hard to say that a platform … (of) two-plus billion people on it doesn’t have young people on it,” says Matthew Henick, Facebook’s head of content planning and strategy. “What Crypt does incredibly well is—because they’re able to tell their stories through many different modes or, in this case, products—they’re able to find those audiences and pull them in.”
Crypt TV taps into a community that likes to be scared. Horror has been reeling in fans on the big screen: The genre brought in a record $1 billion in box office sales in 2017, according to Comscore.
Some fans want to get their goose bumps for free. Thanks to The Birch, which was viewed 26 million times on Facebook, the studio now has 9.75 million followers, or more than triple its YouTube audience. On Davis’ fridge hang mementos from fans. One shared a photo of her tattoo—it’s of the Look-see, a creature with no eyes and flesh that’s been stitched together.
“Young people have so much emotion,” Davis says. A scary story “provides an amazing, permissive structure to take on deep emotional issues.”
A fortuitous encounter at a dinner party hosted by his parents in West Los Angeles led to the creation of Crypt TV. Then a student at Duke University, Davis found himself sitting next to Roth and began reciting dialogue from Roth’s portrayal of the bat-wielding Nazi killer Donny Donowitz in Inglourious Basterds.
The conversation turned to Davis’ career plans. The sociology and political science major said he hoped to launch his own company, capitalizing on the dramatic shift in media viewing habits he’d observed during his four years in college. Roth had a suggestion.
“I said, ‘You know that audience that’s going to see horror movies now’—because obviously now horror has exploded—‘They’re all on their phones,’” Roth recalls. “What is the next generation of characters? Who is creating the new Freddy Krueger? Is there a way to launch a Freddy? A Jason? A Michael Myers? A Chucky? Just on your phone?”
Roth introduced him to Blum, who became Crypt TV’s earliest investor and served as a mentor to the company’s 23-year-old founder.
An early success was #6SecondScare, an October 2014 online competition that encouraged users of Vine, Twitter’s six-second video service, to upload their scariest videos.
Roth lent his name to the contest and coaxed Hollywood celebrities including Quentin Tarantino and High School Musical’s Vanessa Hudgens to promote it and serve as judges. #6SecondScare attracted 20,000 submissions and ended up featured on ABC’s Good Morning America.
In the summer of 2015, Davis’ team launched Snapchat Murder Mystery, a show that gathered ten social media influencers to a mansion party, then killed off their characters in an Agatha Christie-styled whodunit. A year later came Crypt TV’s breakthrough moment with The Birch. The four-minute video follows a terrified schoolboy who summons an ancient being in the woods to dispense a particularly bloody form of retribution on the boy’s tormentor.
Davis faces his own monster lurking in the dark: Quibi. The mobile video subscription service comes with a Hollywood pedigree, a $1 billion cash horde and some of the best-known filmmakers in horror, Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water, Pan’s Labyrinth) and Sam Raimi (Evil Dead), as well as Blum, producing original content.
Quibi launches in April—though Crypt TV, in classic horror film fashion, has gotten a running start.