With Hulu’s top Emmy win for ‘The Handmaid’s Tale,’ a streaming underdog comes of age – Los Angeles Times
All that changed this year with “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Hulu’s feminist sci-fi series that became a national conversation starter and its biggest success to date. On Sunday, the series, based on the Margaret Atwood novel, took home five Emmy Awards — including the award for outstanding drama series — tying HBO’s “Big Little Lies” for the most wins of the year.
“The Handmaid’s Tale” is the first streaming show to win the drama series award — a feat that neither Netflix nor Amazon could accomplish — and signals Hulu’s ascent to the top ranks of TV. At the same time, its victory represents a win for traditional media, since Hulu is a joint venture between 21st Century Fox, Walt Disney Co., NBCUniversal and Time Warner. “Handmaid’s” was produced by MGM Television, a division of the classic Hollywood studio.
With its big victory, Santa-Monica-based Hulu now looks as if it has finally come of age and is ready to go up against its larger streaming rivals in the fight to land coveted scripts and A-list talent.
“We are competing with them on a daily basis,” said Craig Erwich, senior vice president of content at Hulu. “It’s not that you’ve won an Emmy. It’s that you’ve created a place where people can win Emmys – that’s how you compete…When you’re in line at Starbucks and people are talking about your show, you know you’ve succeeded.”
It has been a long and, at times, rocky journey for Hulu. The venture launched in 2008 with big ambitions to change the TV business by providing free online access to popular TV shows. It was viewed as a legal alternative to piracy, which had been eroding studio profits for years.
But there were struggles early on as investors clashed over strategy. At one point Hulu’s owners even contemplated selling off their stakes in the venture. In 2013 Fox, Disney and NBCUniversal opted to hold onto Hulu and instead agreed to invest $750 million into the service as consumers ditched cable and turned to streaming services — posing a threat to their business. Time Warner took a 10% stake in the company last year as the pace of cord-cutting accelerated.
A new leadership team led by Chief Executive Michael Hopkins, a longtime Fox distribution executive, helped turn things around. Erwich, previously of Fox Broadcasting and Warner Horizon, pushed to lure top Hollywood talent and ambitious original shows.
As the streaming industry becomes more cutthroat, companies such as Hulu are trying to win “by creating tent-pole originals,” said Peter Csathy, founder and chairman of consultancy Creatv Media.
“With the ever-increasing amount of spending by Netflix and Amazon, it’s harder and harder to break through, and that’s why a big win like this is a big deal for Hulu,” he said.
Hulu expects to spend about $2.5 billion on content this year, compared with Netflix’s projected $6 billion. But Hulu, which was valued at more than $5.8 billion as of last year, operates only in the U.S. (except for a service in Japan), while Netflix has a larger global reach. Netflix did walk away with 20 Emmys this year, though not the coveted prize for outstanding drama series.
Although its lineup is still small compared to Netflix, Hulu is beefing up its slate of original programs, including a range of comedies and dramas. Upcoming shows include “The Looming Tower,” a 9/11-themed dramatic series; “Castle Rock,” a horror series based on stories by Stephen King; and the superhero-themed “Marvel’s Runaways.”
As part of its growth, Hulu recently lured Joel Stillerman from AMC Networks — where he headed original programming and oversaw shows such as “The Walking Dead” and “Better Call Saul” — to the role of chief content officer.
Hulu currently partners with other studios for its original shows. MGM, for example, owned the rights to “The Handmaid’s Tale” and had shopped the idea around to other outlets with little luck. Showtime took the project on but eventually passed, and later FX showed interest.
Hulu, which was looking for a signature project, ultimately sealed the deal by offering a straight-to-series order if the producers could find the right screenwriter to adapt Atwood’s dystopian novel. At the time, Hulu hadn’t tackled many ambitious series other than the King adaptation “11.23.63.”
“Their willingness to take the time to tell a 10-hour movie and slow it down was key to the success of the series,” MGM Television executive Steve Stark said.
Being on a newer platform such as Hulu also allowed the show to make unconventional creative choices, such as having a budding director, Reed Morano, helm the first three episodes.
“I don’t know if [other, more established networks] would have given us the ability to take a chance on an untested pilot director,” Stark, MGM’s president of television production and development, said.
They also launched an unconventional Emmy campaign, with women in the series’ signature red dresses appearing at events and in public places throughout L.A.