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20th Digital Studio’s David Worthen Brooks on Horror, Hulu, & ‘Appendage’

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20th Digital Studio, which is a division of 20th Century Studios, creates shows and movies for streaming outlets like Hulu with a focus on the horror genre. Since 2008, they have made award-winning content that has played in festivals like Sundance and Cannes.

Some of the work that 20th Digital has produced includes short-form content for “Huluween.” In recent years, they have begun adapting some of these short films into features such as Grimcutty, Matriarch, and Appendage, which just premiered at South by Southwest and will stream later this year on Hulu. 

We spoke with the founder and head of 20th Digital Studio David Worthen Brooks at this year’s South by Southwest Film & TV Festival about discovering emerging talent and their new feature Appendage (directed by Anna Zlokovic). 

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Hadley Robinson as Hannah in 20th Digital Studio's new feature “Appendage.”

Matt Davis: As a person that watches a lot of Hulu and a lot of horror, I've seen different projects that you've had a hand in developing. To start out, could you tell me a little bit about your work with 20th Digital Studio and how it got started?

David Worthen Brooks: 20th Digital Studio before was Fox Digital Studio. It went over in the acquisition of Fox by Disney. And before it was Fox Digital Studio, it was a boutique production/promotion/we did digital compositing, we did editing, we did, you know, a number of different things. And one of our clients was [Fox] Searchlight, for whom, in the early Aughts we did some sort of digital marketing campaigns when everyone wasn't even looking at that.

It was right as Fox acquired MySpace I pitched an idea of okay, well, for your film we could put a bunch of characters together, you know, character profiles together, and then we can do some videos that are going to be on this thing called YouTube, and then we we can send traffic back and forth that can interact. These character profiles can interact with other people on MySpace, and then make them aware of video content that is going to promote you.

And so it was a kind of ad hoc grasping of what what the opportunities were, that were available in this new media, and when I think when we did some post-campaign wrap-ups, the value proposition of “we got all of this media exposure that would on basic cable have cost you this much, and we just charge you this much.” And everybody got excited about that. And then the proposition was put to me that maybe we should come inside of the company [Fox].

It took a little while to actually be convinced that that was a good idea. But now it's been 15 years. Whereas, particularly for social [media], we were making promotional material back then. As soon as we got in, we started making original content as well. Which has led us through all of the various opportunities from emerging platforms, has led us to this short to feature development process, particularly for horror.

The thought behind that is that horror works best because you don't really need big stars in it. And by kind of necessity from the very beginning from 2008 onwards we were hiring emerging filmmakers. So people who were just sort at the right moment in their career to kind of embrace a limited resource opportunity and go “wow, this is great! I'll make the most out of it.”

And so we're dealing with lower-profile filmmakers who are emerging-profile filmmakers who maybe can't attract a big name cast, but have incredible talent to to display.

So walk me through that process of what's that like to discover and foster that emerging talent.

So every year we scout. It would be me going up to Sundance [Film Festival], and going to as many shows as possible and seeing everything live and introducing myself to filmmakers and telling them what I was doing. And now we go to all of the film festivals. And actually, with Arbi Pedrossian who leads the development team, he and his team scout out, and we get screeners beforehand. And he's actually on the jury of one of the programs here at South by Southwest now. He's very well-known and connected.

We take a look at 300 different filmmakers every year and of whom maybe we have asked 150 of them to pitch from whom they each pitch four ideas. And so it's with 600 ideas from which we choose between 10 and 20 to make. And so the funnel, it stays a pretty wide funnel at the top, and then comes down to 20. And from those 20 shorts that we make we probably commissioned three or four feature scripts, of which one or two get made.

Then on the operations and production side Jenna Cavelle runs a production team. Pretty much everyone in the studio come from a maker background. Jenna's team is very skilled at oversight of the filmmakers' shorts and then their features. We basically give a filmmaker a budget of $35,000 which they get to use as they see strategically most fits and Jenna's team oversees that.

I think only one time did somebody kind of take the $35,000 and go out and shoot 20 minutes and sent us back some rubbish cut. And then we had to go through the process of actually turning that short into something. But overall, the opportunity is less about a payout at that stage. It's more about getting into the pipeline and with the possibility of going all the way to producing a feature film.

And these horror shorts are great because the concept of that larger world can be embodied inside of the short. As we're hearing these pitches, we're thinking about three things: is it a good standalone short? Does it evoke a larger world that we're gonna want to see more of? And is it sponsor-able? Which doesn't always need to apply. There's a certain number of them that a sponsor can get behind. And really that's the way we support the program.

So with the Appendage, which of course is at South by Southwest, what was that like to adapt that from a short film? And what was it about that project in particular that you wanted to see adapted into a feature?

The short film was this incredibly entertaining body horror, that managed to get its hands around the neck of an issue being, namely, a mental health crisis in a 20-something. The short achieves this execution in a kind of a loving and amusing way. And also it was done very beautifully.

Anna [Zlokovic] and her team have been working together for probably seven years previously on music videos and short films. And they formed a very sort of cohesive filmmaking team, to the extent that we already knew as we saw the first day's dailies of the short that this team could really sort of deliver something beautiful and polished, with the limited resources that are at hand, which sort of prompted us to commission the script very quickly.

Then Anna had the challenge of working out how to find greater depth in the issue that she met in the shorts. And I think that she achieved it really quite well.

You really were ahead of the curve by a few years before Hulu and Netflix and Prime Video took off, in terms of creating web series. So what was that process like in seeing the evolution of television as streaming has really taken off?

I mean, it's been fantastic. I was just saying that there was this sort of inflection point in… was it '11 or '12 that House of Cards came out? And then all of a sudden when we were talking to managers, agents, other reps, they weren't dodging our call because we were “the web people.” They were going, “Oh yeah, my client actually wants to get into that.”

So there was that inflection point and then it's extraordinary how much great content there is out there right now. And it's being produced at the highest level.

An area that we specialize in is the emergent voices. And working within the economics that make sense for taking a roll of the dice on somebody new or comparatively new. So we were ahead of the curve in that this was the area we're working in [but] I don't think I would characterize us as being ahead of the curve of any of these massive productions. They just took all of their knowledge from big-budget features and big budget TV shows and applied it there.

It's going to be interesting to see as now, in every way, the economy is sort of taking a beat and trying to work out what the way forward is. How is this next transformation going to take place?

Appendage is playing the festival circuit before hitting Hulu in October this year. For more on 20th Digital Studio, go here.

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Matt Davis
Matt Davis
Matt Davis is a writer, entertainment critic, and content creator that hails from the Kanas City area. He has been featured in various publications, including and CNET. As the founder of Shall I Stream It? he has helped it grow into a multi-platform media outlet that reaches over 100,000 viewers each month.
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