Filmmaking: Horror meister

Rodrigo Gudino hopes to make a killing in the splatter industry with his own brand of horror.

Rodrigo Gudiño is into “extreme imagery.” Just check out The Demonology of Desire, the second short film from the 39-year-old horror writer-director. It depicts a high-school girl blasting her best friend in the face with a handgun and a young boy severing the sexual organ of a caged monster with a shovel. Clearly, this movie isn’t for everyone, but that hardly bothers Gudiño. “I don’t give a shit if people like it or not,” he insists, his lanky frame sunken into the leather couch of his Toronto office. What’s far more important to him is sticking to his creative vision. “As an artist, you realize very quickly that whatever you do there are going to be people who like your work and people who don’t.”

Given Gudiño’s anti-commercial sensibilities, it may come as a surprise that he’s the founder, publisher and former editor of Rue Morgue, one of the Canadian publishing industry’s greatest success stories. The cheeky horror mag, which is published 11 times a year and has a paid circulation of 25,000, celebrates its 10th anniversary this month. It boasts international distribution in places such as the United States, the U.K. and Australia. Warner Bros., Lionsgate and 20th Century Fox are among its advertisers. By 2004, Rue Morgue was generating enough cash for Gudiño to drop $800,000 on an 8,000-square-foot funeral home in the west end of Toronto, which became the publication’s office.

Over the past decade, the Rue Morgue brand has sunk its hooks into other media. The Festival of Fear, an annual horror convention in Toronto, attracts 40,000 fans. Roughly 65,000 people listen to Rue Morgue Radio’s weekly show over the Internet. The magazine’s website has 150,000 unique visitors per month. Rue Morgue Cinema recently began producing short films, with plans to move into full-length features next year. “ Rue Morgue is one of the best examples of brand extension in Canadian magazines,” says William Shields, the former editor of Masthead, a trade publication for the country’s publishing industry.

Of course, other people have contributed to Rue Morgue’s success, including Marco Pecota, the magazine’s financial controller and Gudiño’s business partner; marketing and advertising manager Jody Infurnari; and art director Gary Pullin. But Gudiño, who grew up in Mexico and emigrated with his family to Canada in 1977, brought more than just creativity to the magazine. It seems that within him exists a kind of business-savvy Jekyll to go alongside his artistic Hyde, one that seems well-versed in marketing’s classic 4Ps: price, product, promotion and place.

The pages of Rue Morgue teem with screaming scantily clad women, flesh-eating zombies and power-tool-wielding psychopaths, but the idea for the magazine comes from an arguably high-brow place. Through the publication, Gudiño, who holds a BA in literary studies and philosophy from the University of Toronto, wanted to uncover the psychological appeal of the horror genre. (The investigative nature of the publication is one reason Gudiño got the title’s name from Edgar Allan Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue, a detective story.) His theory was that “popular culture’s fascination with horror was somehow reflective of the 20th century’s interest in existentialism, alienation and anxiety.” Some horror fans weren’t ready for this scholarly approach to the genre. “I was accused of making the magazine too confusing for people,” he says.

Although Gudiño may have treated his magazine like an extended grad-school thesis, he was aware his product had to satisfy a need in the market. In the year leading up to the launch of Rue Morgue, he noticed existing horror magazines focused on movies, yet Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson and other bands with dark themes were gaining mainstream appeal. Suspect Video, his neighbourhood independent store, also sold toys, comic books and board games inspired by the genre. Horror even had its own fashion industry, thanks to Goths. Six months before the first issue, while browsing a store filled with Halloween merchandise, Gudiño decided Rue Morgue would address all of these aspects. (He had pitched the idea of stories on these untapped areas to New York–based Fangoria, the leading horror publication at the time. The editor turned him down, spurring Gudiño to launch his own periodical. Today, Rue Morgue and Fangoria are major competitors.)

Scope wasn’t the only way Gudiño differentiated his product from the competition. Before devoting himself full-time to Rue Morgue in 1998, he spent three years as the music and news editor for RPM Weekly, a now defunct trade publication for the Canadian music industry. There he saw that “entertainment journalism is just part of the promotional wheel.” Gudiño vowed Rue Morgue would be different; it would be critical of the genre — regardless of the consequences.

“I’ve pissed people off over the years,” Gudiño says with a smile. Among them: Eli Roth, the independent horror movie writer-director. In the January 2006 issue of Rue Morgue, Gudiño criticized Roth’s torture flick Hostel for its lack of imagination and suspense, insufficient setup to give the gore impact and “the most shamelessly juvenile antics ever put before a sober, post-graduate audience.”

Roth claims to be a big fan of the magazine, yet he still seems upset by Gudiño’s hostile Hostel review. “I think that with [the 2002 film] Cabin Fever I was the outsider who wanted to bring back a certain type of cinema that had disappeared for years and they were happy to support me, but once I had mainstream success you could see the jealousy start to seep through in reviews,” Roth wrote recently in an e-mail to Canadian Business. He went on to say that Gudiño only saw an unfinished version of the film and his “type of behavior is typical when a critic openly aspires to be a filmmaker.”

“We get criticized all the time for running too many negative reviews,” says Jovanka Vuckovic, Rue Morgue’s editor-in-chief. She insists it’s because “a lot of the stuff coming out of the genre is complete garbage.” While that may be true, Gudiño could be faulted for running harsh reviews to make a name for the magazine. After all, on the publisher-editor relationship, he says, “A lot of times I find myself pushing her further. I’m like, ‘You’re being too nice. We know this movie sucks, so why don’t you go further and piss it off totally?’”

Regardless of whether Rue Morgue’s reviews are fair, readers seem to be passionate about them. Take this letter to the magazine on a piece by a former longtime writer: “Chris Alexander, you complete me, dude. The Devil’s Nightmare has been on my favourite horror list for the last couple of years now, but I’ve never met anybody who’d even heard of it.…May you continue to shine the light of your dark love on the forgotten chapters of horror history.” Readers, however, do disagree, as shown by this letter to the managing editor: “First off, I wanted to say ‘screw you’ Dave Alexander for the comment you made about the movie Underworld, saying it’s a dumb, flashy teen flick. It is nothing like that; did you actually watch the fucking movie?” Nevertheless, the kudos far outweigh the criticisms. “ Rue Morgue has got one of the warmest and fuzziest letters to the editor pages I’ve seen in any Canadian magazine,” Shields says.

Aside from having a compelling product, Gudiño recognized he had to sell it in the right place. From the beginning, he knew that cracking the U.S. market was key. If Rue Morgue stayed in Canada, he believed its narrow appeal would cause it to quickly die — much like a secondary character in a horror flick. To impress distributors and advertisers south of the border, he printed on glossy paper and used high-quality stitching to assemble the magazine. Gudiño wrote articles under pseudonyms with different voices, hoping to disguise the fact Rue Morgue was then a one-person operation done at night on an old 386 computer. (To make this ruse more convincing, Gudiño hired a friend’s girlfriend to impersonate one of his pseudonyms at parties and other publicity events.) He also sent free subscriptions to the offices and haunts of his intended U.S. customers. “They thought it was everywhere,” Gudiño says. “It was my own form of special effects.” His efforts paid off. Rue Morgue landed U.S. distribution after only seven issues.

Although entering the U.S. was a huge financial win, money was extremely tight at the beginning. Gudiño had to reinvest practically all of the revenue Rue Morgue generated. “He was always wearing free T-shirts he got from film and DVD companies,” Vuckovic recalls. “I thought that’s how he dressed, but it was because he couldn’t buy himself clothes during those early years.” Pecota says that because it lacked bank credit, at times he had to put his personal money into the magazine to help its cash flow situation. “I was the line of credit,” Pecota says. The situation could have been worse if it weren’t for a stroke of luck. “My printer was a very bad accountant,” Gudiño says. “He didn’t invoice me for a number of years.”

Aside from place, Gudiño was also a big fan of another of the 4Ps of marketing: promotion. While considering the launch of Rue Morgue, he read a short article about a study on why Canadian magazines fail. The study revealed that content had little to do with their performance. “Right there it told me I was on the same footing as Maclean’s,” Gudiño says. The study suggested titles that tended to fail spent less than 5¢ per issue on promotion, while those that tended to succeed invested 18¢ or more. Gudiño decided he would invest the equivalent of $1 per issue on promotion. For example, when marketing for the 1999 film The Blair Witch Project began, Gudiño struck a deal where Rue Morgue would appear on the bottom of each movie ticket in exchange for advertising space in his magazine. This strategy is something Gudiño still practises. “Even to this day I get my marketing manager to write down every little thing we do in contra and promotion,” he says.

Finally, Gudiño made some conscious decisions about the price of the magazine, currently $8.95. For much of the past decade, he set Rue Morgue’s cover price lower than Fangoria’s to offer more value. Gudiño says some publications jack up their cover price when strapped for cash. But he thought that was backward thinking. “What a magazine does is it rents an audience to an advertiser,” he says. “If no one is buying your magazine, why would anyone want to put an ad in there?”

As for films, Pecota is convinced Rue Morgue Cinema will be a success. “I can put together a financial plan that practically ensures investors will not only make back their money but, within a few years, double, triple, quadruple it,” he boasts. Pecota says distribution is already set up. Gudiño’s short films have made the rounds on the festival circuit, and they show promise. His first film, The Eyes of Edward James, won the Citizen’s Choice Award at the 11th Annual Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival in Puchon, Korea in July. The Demonology of Desire was recently nominated for Best International Short at the Raindance Film Festival, the U.K.’s version of Sundance. What’s more, Gudiño doesn’t seem to have forgotten marketing fundamentals, namely choosing a product that’s differentiated from its competitors. “The horror genre, like a lot of genres, is prone to copying itself,” he says. “For example, when the The Ring came out, it was all about long-haired ghost girls in tubs. To come up with something a little left-of-centre is actually easier.”

These days, Gudiño can easily afford new clothes. In fact, he sometimes wears expensive Italian shoes. He also drives a 2003 sterling grey BMW M3 and lives on the 3,500-square-foot second floor of the Rue Morgue office. His foray into films may bring even more luxuries. “I don’t know what Rod’s secret is,” says Vuckovic, “but somehow the guy is smart enough to do what he wants and still make money from it.”