Stewart Sparke and Paul Butler on bringing audiences into the world of Dark Rift Horror

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Words and interview by Simon Bland 

When it comes to movies, there are few fans as vivacious and loyal as the horror crowd. Splatter, gore and good old fashioned jump scares are their bread and butter and when it comes to showcasing their fondness of everything that goes bump in the night, they’re proud to wear their love of the genre on their blood-soaked sleeves.  

“We always say that horror is the only film genre that’s similar to sport,” explains Stewart Sparke, one half of the film-loving duo behind innovative new production house Dark Rift Horror. “If you like football, you wear your team’s shirt, shout at the television and scream at the players – horror’s the only film genre where you do the exact same thing,” he chuckles. “You wear your Friday the 13th tee while screaming at the dumb characters who are walking to their deaths.” 

He’s not wrong. In fact, together with his business partner and company co-founder Paul Butler, Sparke’s taken this spot-on dissection of horror nuts and built an entire company around it. Founded in York back in 2015, Dark Rift Horror styles itself as a production house specialising in ‘blood soaked popcorn horror’ with community at its core. Through various interactive initiatives, fans of the splatter-horror genre can actively participate in the movies the studio creates, deciding on the look of monsters, weapons, death scenes and much more.  

It’s an inclusive approach that quickly resonated. The studio’s crowdfunded 2018 feature Book of Monsters went on to become the third highest backed horror movie on Kickstarter, raking in over £45,000 and going on to win awards as far afield as New York. Meanwhile, fans relished in having a say in the world they loved so dearly – and with the studio’s dedication to giving so-bad-they’re-good shlock-horror titles (created by Dark Rift and other filmmakers) high-end physical releases, they even ended up with limited edition new releases to add to their ever-growing home collections when all was said and done.   

It’s this back-and-forth dialogue with fans that sits at the centre of Dark Rift Horror – and with the help of Creative England, the duo hope to take things to the next level. “Our whole emphasis is on the audience,” attests Butler, speaking to us mid-way through Creative Enterprise Evolve, a scheme designed to pair new businesses with industry mentors and prepare them for the world of investment. “I can’t really underplay just how key engagement is for us. Having the audience be part of our process is so important. The support we got for Book of Monsters, not only from the backers but the wider community, that’s more important to us than a trophy – and we’ve got some really nice trophies so far,” he laughs. “Being able to connect with the community we’re part of is our biggest success and we’re hoping to ramp that up and give the audience even more chance to engage.” 

It doesn’t take an investment guru to see the potential this niche holds. After all, while much of the movie industry has made the shift to digital, it’s the die-hard genre fans that have kept physical releases, collectables and the nostalgic ethos of the 80s and 90s alive. That’s not to say Dark Rift’s releases won’t get a life on streamers, but as Sparke and Butler rightly point out – you’d hardly want a Netflix holding page framed and adorning your wall. “In industries like music, this is quite obvious,” explains Butler. “Vinyl collection never really dipped. Similarly, the physical DVD/Blu Ray market has been consistent for hardcore fans – and there’s a significant number of them,” he says. “We pride ourselves on providing a very high-end physical product.” 

 Sparke offers his thoughts: “The horror, fantasy and sci-fi genres specifically are such a huge market. Having something that can take pride of place on your shelf that not only looks amazing but is a film you enjoy with better added  features – it’s so crucial for independent film. It’s really important that we maintain that throwback feel too, especially to the days of the popcorn horror movies of the 80s and 90s,” he smiles, referencing the eye-catching box art you’d often see adorning the shelves at your local cigarette smoke-filled video store. “Physical media is a huge part of that culture.” 

Circling back to the studio’s filmmaking process, Sparke and Butler have big plans for how they’d like to bring audiences closer to the action. “We want to create an atmosphere where, from the start of a production, the audience is voting on the movie – right through to bringing them on set via actors walking around with live-stream cameras. They’ll be involved in the little decisions, like what colour blood we should use for monsters,” smiles Sparke. “They get to own that.” Plus, as Butler highlights, backers’ enthusiasm also has an unexpected benefit: “When people are wearing our tee shirts and shouting about the products they’ve got, they become little advocates for Dark Rift Horror. It’s like free marketing because people enjoy it so much.” 

With Evolve’s help, Sparke and Butler are hoping to get where they need to go faster, catalysing their business and taking it to the next level with the help of new investors. “Who wouldn’t want to be involved with Evolve?” smiles Butler. “It came at the exact right time. It’s been really amazing and the individuals working with us have been fantastic. Travis’s [Baxter] weekly mentorship and the tasks he sets us behind the scenes are great. They’re exactly what we need,” he explains. “We knew the amazing advertised benefits going in but what’s been really beneficial is all the additional support and guidance which can’t be advertised because it’s very bespoke.”  

 Sparke echoes the sentiment, highlighting the importance of being able to learn more about the business-side of running a business in a supportive and nurturing environment. “We came in as creative people and they’ve told us how to really run a business,” he tells us. “We’ve done it on the films we’ve made – but Evolve has made us think: ‘Okay, how do we put this into a real-world perspective for potential investors and other financiers who aren’t clued up on how film works?’ You need to talk their language and that has been key for us,” says Sparke. “How do you do a pitch deck? How do you present it to investors? How do you talk about profit-loss ratios and corporation tax? All of these things weren’t really in our headspace and Evolve got them into our headspace, so it’s incredibly valuable for that reason.” 

When it comes to future plans, the duo are keen to explore all the dark, creepy corners offered by mixing horror with new digital media – and audiences will be with them every step of the way. “We’d like to become a well known international horror community known for making high-quality popcorn horror that people love to watch with their friends,” says Sparke earnestly. “Also to keep innovating and finding new ways for the audience to be involved. We’ve got a great team of developers making a tie-in game that fits into our new film, alongside comic books – and of course there’s amazing potential for VR and immersive storytelling.” Butler sums things up nicely: “We hope to be a model that others can look to and say ‘That’s how you engage’,” he says. “When people think of horror, we want their next breath to be Dark Rift Horror.”