Whoever thought that lovers of gore-splattered, demon-possessed monsters were a valuable target audience? Or that a series called Ash vs. Evil Dead—about a middle-aged stock boy fighting an army of drooling “deadites”—could be a key show in a cable network’s niche strategy?
“We talked to a lot of places about this show, met with a lot of high-falutin’ suitors,” says Ash vs. Evil Dead star Bruce Campbell, a fixture in the films on which the show is based and also a producer of the new series, which debuts on Halloween. “But Starz is the only place this could have worked. They got it.”
And it looks they’ll continue to get it—before the show has even premiered, Starz said it would renew Ash vs. Evil Dead for a second season. The network could use a hit. Earlier this week its quarterly results fell short of expectations.
Targeting groups that other networks have overlooked—and then using those communities to reach millions of other viewers—has been the plan at Starz (STRZA) since Chris Albrecht became CEO in 2010. “We really needed to come up with a point of view about where we were serving in the marketplace,” Albrecht told Fortune.com recently. “How we were differentiating ourselves? That took me awhile to figure out.”
Since Albrecht joined Starz, the network has added 7 million new subscribers to become the second-most-distributed premium cable network after HBO (TWX). And one way Starz did that, says the network’s managing director Carmi Zlotnik, is to “super-serve the underserved,” by delivering shows that grab an appreciative audience and then push beyond.
Power and Survivor’s Remorse are Starz series that have connected with African-American viewers while The White Queen and Outlander have brought in women. Now the network is going for horror-movie fans, with the latest addition to the venerable Evil Dead fear franchise.
“We’re huge fans,” Zlotnik says of the Evil Dead franchise. “And that includes people like me who grew up with it, it includes the assistants in the office who are just getting into it.”
The Evil Dead is the epitome of a cult classic, collecting millions of fans over the last 30-odd years—with loyalists supporting the original trilogy of films, a 2013 reboot, videogames, comic books, and even a musical. But the horror/comedy hybrid can take some getting used to.
Like Campbell, Evil Dead creator Sam Raimi is a big Three Stooges buff and it shows in scenes that routinely mix slapstick comedy and over-the-top gore. Campbell’s character, Ash, had to amputate his own demon-possessed hand in the second film. His stump is now outfitted with a chainsaw, and in the Starz series, he uses it to slice and dice the monsters whom he’s, once again, unwittingly unleashed.
But even with Ash vs. Evil Dead’s push-the-envelope horror, Campbell says no one at the network has told them to pull back.
“We have complete freedom of carnage,” he brags. “That’s why I think Starz is the only place this could have worked. On most cable, Evil Dead would have been denuded. Even if we were doing this for theaters, we’d have to worry about getting an R.”
Still, Campbell promises TV viewers, “We’re not going to abuse the freedom we’ve been given and destroy people’s psyches. It’s still entertainment, you know. It’s all about the tone. You can have a joyful beheading. You can have a celebratory shot to the head.”
Always pushing things just a little bit further is part of the Starz brand Zlotnik says, and he encourages fans to spread that passion.
“It’s all about targeting each show to a certain demographic and psychographic and trying to hit that white-hot core,” he says. “And igniting a phenomenon where social media and word of mouth starts to bring out another audience. The fans become part of our outreach.”
So far, Evil Dead disciples are excited. Anticipation has been high, Internet chatter has been steady, and a cast appearance at this year’s New York Comic Con drew long lines.
“Starz got something like 15 million views just for the first trailer,” Campbell says. “Twice as many hits as they’ve gotten on anything else, and this is a new show … I’ve worked with plenty of studios who didn’t get it, or didn’t want to, but [Starz knows] what they’ve got. They’re doing it for real.”
Zlotnik says it’s not only about knowing where you can go—an action-oriented series like Ash vs. Evil Dead has huge international possibilities—but knowing where you’ve come from. Keep the hard-core loyalists happy, and then build on that.
“With an existing franchise, I think you take a Hippocratic Oath: First, do no harm,” Zlotnik says. “Honor the fan base, peel back the layers, understand what it is about the franchise they love and then deliver on that. That’s what we did with Outlander, and part of what we try to do with everything. Deliver the sort of show that would give a person a reason to subscribe—and the kind of show that, if you took it away, there’d be rioting.”
Stephen Whitty is a two-time past chairman of the New York Film Critics Circle. He writes for The Star-Ledger, The Daily News and other magazines and websites. Follow him @StephenWhitty.