Thanks to its reimagining of The Handmaid’s Tale, the US streaming service is moving centre stage. Stuart Kemp investigates
Sometimes, a single show can change the way a broadcaster or a platform is perceived. For the US streaming service Hulu, The Handmaid’s Tale – based on Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel – has been one such show.
The 10-part series was made for Hulu by MGM Television (Hulu does not have in-house production capabilities) and quickly became water-cooler viewing on both sides of the Atlantic. It went on to win multiple awards, including a Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series and a brace of Golden Globes.
The series did for Hulu what House of Cards achieved for Netflix and any number of shows have been meant to do for Amazon: drive subscriber numbers and interest in the platform.
“Amazon would kill for a hit like The Handmaid’s Tale,” says one industry observer. “The Man in the High Castle didn’t deliver that kind of marquee success.”
In January, Hulu posted an eye-catching 40% advance in subscribers, to reach 17 million. While that may be dwarfed by the 54.8 million who pay to watch Netflix in the US, the growth is impressive and appears to be ongoing.
John De Simio, director of the Broadcast Television Journalists Association, host of the Critics’ Choice Awards, describes Hulu’s entry into original programming as a “real leap forward” in the world of television. “Hulu needs to appease its constituency with original programming to keep it fresh and attractive,” he says.
Hulu was launched in 2008, when the competition for viewers and subscribers was a lot less fierce than it is today and before the rise of streaming services and cord cutting. Its shareholders were drawn from the top of the US entertainment business: Disney, 20th Century Fox and NBC. Each took a 30% stake in the service; Turner Broadcasting held the remaining 10% slice. Hulu CEO Randy Freer is a former COO of Fox Networks Group.
The platform began life as a linear TV catch-up service for programming provided by its owners, before evolving into a service offering ad-free content packages and then complete series for subscribers.
Last year, Hulu added live news, entertainment and sports from 21st Century Fox, Disney, NBCUniversal, CBS, The CW, Turner Networks, A+E Networks and Scripps Networks Interactive.
The result is that Hulu now lays claim to being the only US television service that brings together live, on-demand, originals and library content all in one place, across living room and mobile devices. In other words, Hulu is well placed to take on Netflix, YouTube Red, Apple TV, Amazon Prime and the US cable operators.
Now, all eyes are on what Disney’s proposed $66bn takeover of Fox’s entertainment’s assets will mean for Hulu, once Disney owns 60% of it. Industry chin-wagging about friction between the shareholders is on hold until the deal is done.
Disney is due to launch a branded, family-oriented streaming platform in the US in 2019. But a controlling stake in Hulu will give Disney a space on which to stream its R-rated and more adult content, including Fox movies.
Hulu also provides Disney with an established on-demand video streaming service in the US market, where cable TV is shrinking and streaming services are growing.
As of last month, Hulu claims that it offers the biggest collection of TV series: 1,267 titles – well ahead of Netflix’s 1,042 and Amazon’s 872. Hulu also says that it offers more TV episodes – a total of 75,000 – to subscribers. It spent $2.5bn on acquired and original content for the US marketplace in 2017.
"A service cannot be defined by just one series"
Netflix claims to spend around 25% of its $8bn global content budget on original programming. However, Amazon Studios is reported to have put more than $4.5bn aside for original content.
Enders Analysis senior researcher Tom Harrington predicts that Disney’s purchase – provided that it is approved by regulators and not derailed by Comcast’s bid for Sky – is likely to bring more clarity and stability to the Hulu boardroom and the decision-making process.
“With a dominant owner in Disney, Hulu will have a more cohesive strategy,” he says. “The question will be whether Hulu continues to look like a linear-schedule service offering series to subscribers.”
Inspired by the success of The Handmaid’s Tale, Hulu is betting up its original shows. A second, 13-episode, run of The Handmaid’s Tale arrives on screens in April.
Created, executive produced and written by Bruce Miller, the new season will project the story beyond Atwood’s source material.
The cast, however, remains the same with a few high-profile additions, including Veep star Clea DuVall and Oscar winner Marisa Tomei. Elisabeth Moss returns as the central character, Offred, as the storyline concentrates on her pregnancy and her fight to free her coming child from the horrors of Gilead.
Craig Erwich, senior vice-president of content at Hulu, accepts that “a service cannot be defined by just one series”.
Hulu’s new productions certainly look high-end. They include an adaptation of Joseph Heller’s seminal novel, Catch-22, regarded by many film-makers as extraordinarily difficult to adapt. George Clooney and Grant Heslov’s Smokehouse Pictures are producing the six-part Hulu Original with Paramount Television and Anonymous Content. Clooney will star as Colonel Cathcart, the commander of central character Yossarian, and will direct the series with Heslov.
Another one to watch out for is The Looming Tower, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning non-fiction book that examines the run-up to the 9/11 attacks, and launched last month to ecstatic reviews. It is penned by Lawrence Wright and examines the alleged rivalry between the FBI and CIA that apparently hampered America’s ability to counter the rising threat of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda.
The Hulu adaptation is co-written by a team that includes Dan Futterman, Oscar-nominated for Foxcatcher and Capote. One of the series’s directors is Alex Gibney, the Oscar-winning documentarian, and the others are Craig Zisk and Michael Slovis.
The muscular cast includes Jeff Daniels, Alec Baldwin, Peter Sarsgaard, Tahar Rahim and Michael Stuhlbarg.
“In terms of number of Hulu Originals, we don’t have a set number in mind,” says Erwich. “The important thing for us is to be home to the next generation of TV.”
Also in the Hulu Original pipeline is Castle Rock, produced by JJ Abrams’s Bad Robot. The series, created by Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomason, will blend characters from the fictional town of the same name created by Stephen King. The ensemble cast includes Sissy Spacek, Melanie Lynskey, Scott Glenn, and Bill Skarsgård.
“Since Hulu is an on-demand platform, we recognise the need to offer a comprehensive library of premium programming,” says Erwich. “That includes strategically acquiring hit series and films, as well as producing our own content.”
Erwich is also assembling a library of licensed content from various studios around the world, including ITV and the BBC (ITV’s Harlots, originally shown in the UK on what was then a pay-channel, Encore, is one such title).
While Hulu has no plans to launch in the UK or, indeed, anywhere outside the US (it sold the Hulu name in Japan to Nippon TV in 2014), it will continue to act as a partner overseas for producing content.
“We strongly believe in working with international producing partners, because it is a great way to gain access to the large pool of international talent, both behind and in front of camera,” says Erwich. “As both content providers and content developers, we are always looking to support the visions of the producers we work with, so tapping into the international community makes sense for us as a business.”
Euston Films’ Hard Sun is a co-production between the BBC and Hulu. Andrew Eaton, the producer of the first season of Netflix’s The Crown, is one of those international film-makers who welcomes Hulu to the fray. “Hulu really set the bar high for itself with The Handmaid’s Tale,” he says. “I really hope it stays in that space.”