Hulu Beyond 'Handmaid's Tale': Execs and Stars on a Promising Yet Uncertain Future  
Photographed by David Needleman

Hulu Beyond 'Handmaid's Tale': Execs and Stars on a Promising Yet Uncertain Future

by Natalie Jarvey
April 25, 2018, 6:00am PDT

As season 2 of the reigning Emmy champ debuts and the streaming service once nicknamed “Clown Co.” now nears 20 million subscribers, CEO Randy Freer and his team get candid on competing with Netflix and Amazon, tough boardroom politics and the looming takeover by Disney.

It looks a lot like any other major premiere. Hundreds of shrieking fans are lined up on either side of Hollywood Boulevard as stars work the red carpet and fans clamor for selfies. Except for the giant posters of Elisabeth Moss and the line of creepy handmaids in bright red dresses and stark white bonnets silently standing vigil on raised bleachers above the crowd, there is no indication that history is being made here tonight.

But on this cool April evening, for the first time ever, Hulu is debuting an original show at the TCL Chinese Theatre. "My heart is pounding," says Moss as she takes in the scene before entering the theater. "It's crazy. I grew up in L.A. I can't believe I'm at the Chinese Theatre."

Then a bus with a big picture of her face on its side rolls by.

For Hulu, the little streamer that found itself with a big hit, this April 19 premiere for The Handmaid's Tale's second season is a second defining moment, its biggest night since last September's Emmy Awards, when Hulu shocked the TV industry by becoming the first streamer to win a best drama trophy, something not even the mighty Netflix has managed. Hulu's dystopian series, set in an authoritarian nation named Gilead, where women are subjugated and forced to reproduce with powerful men, ended up striking a chord with viewers when it premiered in April 2017, three months into the Trump presidency. Overnight, a platform once best known for last night's episode of The Bachelor and reruns of The Golden Girls had become a zeitgeist-defining voice in the culture, not to mention a serious player in the prestige content arena.

Largely because of Handmaid's — and also Hulu's fledgling Live TV service — the company has been on the biggest growth spurt in its 10-year history, closing in on 20 million subscribers, per insiders, up 18 percent in just the past four months. Granted, that's still a fraction of Netflix's 125 million global subscribers or Amazon's 100 million Prime customers (the company doesn't reveal how many watch Prime Video), but then Hulu is strictly a domestic operation, at least for now. If its numbers continue to climb, it's not hard to imagine a not-so-dystopian future in which Hulu narrows the gap with Netflix's 55 million U.S. subscribers. "I'm not a surfer," says Hulu Ceo Randy Freer, 57, describing his strategy for the 1,800-person company since taking over from Mike Hopkins after his abrupt exit last fall. "But you want to ride that wave for as long as you can."

Still, it could be a bumpy ride. For one thing, Hulu's fractured ownership structure — with rivals Comcast, 21st Century Fox, Disney and Time Warner all holding a piece of the company — hasn't exactly made for a streamlined decision-making process. On the contrary, the slow pace of development is known to frustrate creatives. And the overheated market for content, with competing platforms climbing over each other to write massive checks has pushed up the cost of talent to a point where smaller players like Hulu often get priced out. Hulu's annual war chest is said to hover above $2.5 billion, enough to bankroll Handmaid's and some other high-profile upcoming projects (a George Clooney adaptation of Catch-22, a Reese Witherspoon miniseries based on Celeste Ng's 2017 novel Little Fires Everywhere, a Mindy Kaling anthology version of Four Weddings and a Funeral, which, THR can reveal, is nearing a series order). But it's chump change compared to Netflix's $8 billion global content budget for this year, or even Amazon's $4.5 billion for last year. "Money matters, and we are certainly capable of writing a big check," insists Hulu content chief Joel Stillerman, who arrived from AMC in June. "But that doesn't help you land a project every time."

By far the biggest hurdle ahead, though, is Disney's proposed $52 billion acquisition of most of 21st Century Fox, which, among other things, includes a buyout of Fox's 30 percent stake in Hulu (at an $8.7 billion valuation). That would give Disney a 60 percent majority share of the company (leaving Comcast, owner of NBC, with 30 percent and Time Warner with 10 percent). Nobody knows exactly how that would play out, or even if it will happen; the merger still needs government approval, or Comcast could swoop in with its own play for Hulu. But a Disney takeover could at least finally solve that ownership problem. "There's a benefit in having a controlling shareholder," says 21st Century Fox president (and Hulu board member) Peter Rice. "It's always easier to have one company saying, 'This is my strategic imperative. I'm going to invest deeply in that.'"

Freer takes a slightly more cautious stance about the merger, but still manages to put the happiest possible face on the future. "We can't predict what may or may not happen," he says. "But if and when something happens, you're going to look up and go, 'Holy crap, Hulu has how many subscribers?'"

Hulu has always been a team of rivals. In 2007, the owners of NBC and Fox put aside their competitive differences to deal with a mutual threat: Google's acquisition of the video streaming giant YouTube. In those days, few took the venture seriously. Even the partnership's highly public struggle to find a name elicited snickers (inside Google they called it "Clown Co."). But eventually the venture got a $100 million investment from Providence Equity Partners, found a strategy — distribute recent episodes of its owners' broadcast shows for free (but with ads) over the internet — and even got a name, which founding CEO Jason Kilar claimed was inspired by the Mandarin word for "holder of precious things." Then Disney joined — licensing ABC's shows as part of the deal — binding together three of Hollywood's biggest competitors in an unlikely (and often unruly) corporate marriage.

By 2013, Hulu had introduced a pay-subscription service (subscribers now pay $8 a month, or $12 to avoid the ads) and had attracted about 5 million members, but company infighting — particularly between Kilar and the board — was making growth difficult. After Kilar stepped down that same year, Hulu started getting serious purchase offers from the likes of DirectTV and Peter Chernin's company. For a minute, the board considered taking one. But around the same time Netflix dropped House of Cards, the $100 million Kevin Spacey-as-president drama, and the stakes in the streaming world got a whole lot bigger. Instead of selling, Disney, Fox and Comcast decided to double down and give Netflix a run for its money. They pumped $750 million into Hulu and installed one of their own, Fox Networks president of distribution Mike Hopkins, as CEO.

Hopkins got busy transforming Hulu into a more serious TV buyer, including picking up The Mindy Project in a deal that saved the Fox comedy from cancellation, as well as buying a dramedy from Jason Reitman (Casual) and a time-travel thriller from J.J. Abrams (11/22/63). Under Hopkins, Hulu more than doubled in size, to over 12 million subs and, in spring 2017, rolled out a $40-per-month live television service that would give it a toehold in the race to own the live streaming space. "Mike did a heroic job bringing some order back to the chaos that was Hulu," says Freer of his predecessor. Still, Hulu hadn't yet found its House of Cards.

Until, that is, the middle of 2015, when head of originals Beatrice Springborn got ahold of Ilene Chaiken's script for a TV version of The Handmaid's Tale that MGM had been shopping. A screen adaptation of Margaret Atwood's 1985 novel had been tried before — a widely panned 1990 film starring Natasha Richardson and Faye Dunaway — and the TV project wasn't generating much buzz (Showtime had already passed). But Hulu saw an opportunity and offered a straight-to-series order, contingent on talent, and beat out FX, the only other bidder.

A rewrite by Eureka scribe (and Atwood superfan) Bruce Miller was enough to attract the attention of Elisabeth Moss. But the now-35-year-old actress, fresh from her standout turn as Peggy on Mad Men (for which she'd been nominated for six Emmys), needed some convincing to dive back into another big TV commitment. That's when Warren Littlefield, who was working with MGM on FX's Fargo, got a call from his agent inviting him to join Handmaid's as a producer, his first assignment being to convince Moss to sign on. "He said, 'Lizzie Moss is in Australia doing Top of the Lake 2. She is interested [in Handmaid's]. You need to get on the phone with her, get her to approve you, get her to agree to do the series,'" recalls Littlefield. "And I was like, 'Oh, OK. That's all I have to do?'" After a two-hour chat, Moss agreed. Handmaid's got its green light.

Production began in late 2016 and in an alternate reality the show that got made might have been a dark critical darling that few people bothered to watch. But then Trump beat Hillary Clinton. Overnight, Atwood's 30-year-old dystopian story took on a new and, for many people, terrifying urgency.

At some point in the weeks that followed the 2016 presidential election, Hulu executives recognized that American voters had handed them a once-in-a-lifetime marketing opportunity. They nearly doubled the budget ahead of the Handmaid's premiere, a move said to push it above $10 million, and bought a Super Bowl ad at the going rate of $5 million. At the last minute, they added an overtime buy for a second spot — like that would ever happen. Then it did, with the New England Patriots recovering from a 25-point deficit to tie the game. The two Handmaid's ads were seen by some 111 million viewers. Within days, Atwood's novel was topping the Amazon best-seller list. Recalls head of content Craig Erwich: "Sometimes the universe sends you a signal, and that was definitely a signal."

With the January 2017 Women's March still fresh in the nation's consciousness, Hulu dropped the first three episodes on April 26. The New York Times praised the show as "unflinching, vital and scary as hell." While everyone had been focusing on Netflix and Amazon's battle for streaming dominance, Hulu had launched a sneak attack. Overnight, it became an Emmy contender. "They had the ambition and they had the talent, but they were still getting their sea legs," says Abrams, who has teamed with Hulu again for the Stephen King anthology series Castle Rock, which debuts this summer. "Now they're in this terrific rhythm. There's a threshold that gets crossed when you become galvanized. That's where they are."

Despite the Emmys coup, in October 2017 — just one month after Handmaid's won best drama and seven other awards — Hopkins announced that he was leaving to run Sony Pictures Television. Behind the scenes, he is said to have clashed with the board over the decision to launch the live television service; Hopkins had wanted to make an international push instead. Mounting costs (Hulu lost an estimated $920 million in 2017) were also a factor, per sources. In Hopkins' place, the Hulu board named Freer, a 20-year Fox veteran known for his skills as an operator.

Freer was only one week into his new role and still learning what was "under the hood" at Hulu when, on the morning of Nov. 6, a CNBC report began to make the rounds that Disney had been negotiating with Rupert Murdoch to acquire most of Fox. "We watched the process like everyone else," says Freer.

He coolly insists that little will change for Hulu if the deal goes through — "We're a joint venture today, we'll be a joint venture tomorrow," he says — but that assumes that Disney and Comcast will continue to play nice if Disney takes control. Although Disney would be in charge, Comcast, as a founding member via NBC, would have clout on the Hulu board (it will regain the three seats in September that NBCUniversal temporarily gave up when Comcast purchased the company in 2011) and it will be able to block fundamental changes to Hulu's business. Some analysts suggest it could even try to buy Hulu from Disney, which has plans to use the streamer as the missing piece of CEO Bob Iger's much-talked-about three-pronged strategy to enter the streaming biz, already underway with the April 12 launch of ESPN+ and a still-in-development Disney-branded family service. "Now we are looking for Hulu to provide us consumer growth in the future," says Disney's Kevin Mayer, chairman of direct to consumer and international, explaining the company's evolving interest in Hulu. "It is no longer a hedge, it is a strategic vehicle for us."

In a conference room at Hulu's Santa Monica campus, Erwich is holding his weekly meeting with his originals team. The question they're grappling with today as they crowd around a table: An A-list comedy duo has begun shopping for an overall deal and they're expected to have their pick of future homes. Should Hulu make an offer? "We need to have the conversation," Erwich says to his group, raising the bigger issue of how much Hulu should be entangling itself in overall talent deals. The platform has yet to sign a major name for more than a one-off project. "Do we want to be in [the overall deal] business? It's become apparent to me over the last two months we need to be."

Although Hulu doesn't have Netflix's access to cash (it recently wrote nine-figure checks to lure Ryan Murphy and Shonda Rhimes away from their longtime homes) and certainly not Amazon's bottomless pocketbook (it paid $250 million for just the rights to make a Lord of the Rings series), Hulu still has to attract top talent to be competitive. "We have kicked the tires and there are a couple of things percolating," acknowledges Stillerman after Erwich's meeting ends. Without providing specifics, he suggests that Hulu's version of an overall talent deal might look more like a nonexclusive first-look pact.

Still, working with Hulu has its advantages. Because it doesn't have a studio or international service, Hulu allows producing partners to retain ownership rights in their shows. Says Stillerman, "There's nobody in town that we cannot do business with."

If Hulu ever makes a bid for an overseas audience, it may need to hold onto those international rights. Freer admits that's something the company is actively considering but acknowledges that the moment may have passed, since most popular TV shows have already been sold internationally. Instead, he suggests Hulu could look for partners to help it go global in a faster, less expensive way: "I'm figuring out how we solve that puzzle in a way that is economically viable."

In the meantime, Hulu has gone into business with everyone from Lawrence Wright to make The Looming Tower, a Hulu original about the days leading up to 9/11 (the finale aired April 18) to Beau Willimon to make The First, a Mars-set series starring Sean Penn, to Clooney to make his Catch-22 miniseries, set to start shooting at the end of May. Not to mention Sarah Silverman, whose politically charged talk show, I Love You, America, has just been renewed in time for the midterm elections. "I definitely wanted to do this show someplace where I could do anything I wanted," Silverman says. "I was kind of like, 'Why would we pitch at a streaming network?' But we were charmed by Hulu's passion."

It turns out a little passion can be a powerful thing. It's a big reason why, earlier this year, Springborn was able to beat out Apple to land Little Fires Everywhere. When she pitched Witherspoon and Kerry Washington — in a power move that proves how competitive the landscape is for top TV projects, the two producers had buyers schlep to them at Witherspoon's production company — she made sure to emphasize that her own parents had grown up in Shaker Heights, Ohio, where the family drama is set, and encouraged Hulu execs to get just as personal. "We all wrote letters about our connections to the material," Springborn says. For Witherspoon, the letters weren't the only thing that sealed the deal. "They are not afraid to push boundaries," she tells THR.

Nevertheless, the perception around town is that Hulu's seven-person board of directors (which in addition to Rice and Mayer includes Disney-ABC Television Group president Ben Sherwood and Fox Television Group Chairman and CEO Dana Walden) is overly hands-on in programming decisions, which can slow down the creative process. In fact, multiple sources suggest the board played a role in Hulu's decision earlier this year to pass on Carlton Cuse's Locke and Key, which was said to be a favorite of Stillerman's. Despite financing a writers' room and expensive Toronto-based set for the graphic novel adaptation, Hulu ultimately scrapped the project. Freer denies board involvement, suggesting instead that it didn't fit with his strategy for Hulu. Though the board does approve big Hulu investments, Freer says that "in my five years of involvement, I can think of only one or two projects — actually only one project — where there was some board questioning."

Another knock against Hulu is that it doesn't produce enough content. Netflix released some 30 new shows in 2017. Hulu had only eight. Stillerman admits the pace of development may have slowed during the leadership transition, noting, "but I don't think we're worried about our volume of originals." What's more likely on Stillerman's mind — as well as everyone else's at Hulu — is what happens on April 25, when season two of The Handmaid's Tale starts streaming. How that show holds up a full year and a half into the Trump presidency — viewed now through the more complicated lens of the #MeToo and Time's Up movements — will have a big impact on how Hulu is perceived by the industry. After all, it's one thing to launch a hit; it's quite another to sustain it, let alone build an entire streaming empire from its success. That's something that weighed heavily on the mind of at least one Handmaid's producer when he traveled to Hulu last summer to pitch the upcoming season. Says Littlefield, "We were like, 'Shit, we'd better not drop the ball.'"

This story first appeared in the April 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.