Hulu's New Creative Chief on the 'Handmaid's Tale' Halo, Netflix and His $2.5B U.S. Budget

Hussein Katz
Since joining Hulu in June, Joel Stillerman, photographed Sept. 6 at the streamer's offices in Santa Monica, says a top goal in the new job is "to get at this question of where the edge of television is."

Joel Stillerman also discusses next year's potential hit 'The Looming Tower,' battles over ‘Walking Dead’ in his AMC years and how the streamer is seeking "new forms of content."

When Joel Stillerman arrives at the Emmy Awards Sept. 17, he'll do so with divided loyalties.

A piece of him will be cheering on Better Call Saul, a best drama series nom that he greenlit and then shepherded as president of original programming and development at AMC, where he spent the bulk of that last decade. Though a prequel to another series (Breaking Bad) that predated Stillerman, Saul quickly became an integral piece of the networks' next generation of flagship hits alongside Preacher and The Walking Dead.

The other, likely louder piece, will be rooting for The Handmaid's Tale, a series that, in a matter of weeks this spring, helped elevate Hulu, where Stillerman, 56, began as chief content officer in late June. As he looks to lean more aggressively into original programming (along with acquired fare), the eerily timely dystopian drama could prove both a model and a calling card.

Indeed, Stillerman's move, to the newly created position overseeing content strategy and more than 40 employees, comes at a crucial time for Hulu, which long had been stuck in the shadows of deeper-pocketed rivals Netflix and Amazon. But with the heat of Handmaid's and a domestic-only content budget that now hovers around $2.5 billion, the 9-year-old service — a joint venture of NBCUniversal, Fox, ABC and Time Warner — seems to be shifting swiftly from an outlet better known for broadcast reruns to streaming's top tier. Up next: a cadre of high-profile projects from J.J. Abrams and Stephen King (Castle Rock), Alex Gibney and Dan Futterman (The Looming Tower) and House of Cards' Beau Willimon (The First).

In his early days on the job, the Chicago native, who's spent the entirety of his career on the east coast until relocating to Santa Monica for this position, has been busy parsing viewership data for Hulu's 47 million-plus viewers. "It's this treasure trove," says Stillerman, still trying to make sense of the engagement metrics. "Figuring out how to deploy it intelligently is going to be a huge challenge." (The company, which recently launched a live TV service, hasn't released a subscriber figure since 2016, when it touted 12 million.)

Now, in his first sit-down interview in the new job, the married father of two grown children opens up about Netflix's $6 billion budget, AMC's auteur battles and the post-Handmaid's plan for Hulu. 

In the past, I've heard you speak with pride about the fact that you've managed to have a lengthy and successful Hollywood career without ever living in Los Angeles. So, you caved. 

I did, it's true. But ask anybody who works for me: I'm a world-class caver. (Laughs.)

So what was it about this opportunity that convinced you to uproot your career and your life on the East Coast?

On a personal level, my kids are grown and out of the house, so it was a little easier to contemplate now. But there are very few opportunities — and given where I've sat for the last few years, I've known about what's out there — that could've gotten me to even think about leaving. Hulu was one of them. I'm genuinely impressed with their ability to build a programing slate from scratch, which I know firsthand is extremely difficult, no matter how much money or resources you have. It's really more about building up trust in the creative community. And here they were coming off a major high point with Handmaid's. I also love how Hulu's positioned from a business point of view — the fact that it's split between ad-supported and non-ad-supported. There's something advantageous about that.

Can your leap to Hulu be seen as a sign of how difficult it is for a basic cable net to stay competitive in a market dominated by streamers?

It would be disingenuous to sit here and say that there aren't challenges on the linear cable side, but, as I'm finding out firsthand, it's not all wine and roses on the streaming side, either. The challenge of how to grow and stay relevant in a linear space is very real, but it's no more or less daunting than waking up in the morning and thinking, "Today I have to find X number of people to subscribe to Hulu, to reach into their checkbook and make that decision." And then we need to keep them, which is something that never really entered into the equation in linear cable. I never woke woke up one day at AMC and thought it was somehow directly our responsibility to keep people in the cable universe. 

Now that you're at a streaming service, what's priority No. 1?

Creatively, I really want to lean in to the question of what it means to be making TV in the streaming world. There's this seismic change that's taken place in the way people consume content, and yet the way it's created is still essentially the same as it's been for the last however many years. I want us to think about it differentially. Maybe it's not all half-hours and hours, or cable orders and broadcast orders. In streaming now, [the model] is about finding people and keeping them, and there's a disconnect between those business objectives and the way content is created. Every time we put a show on the air, no matter how good it is, you are in some way highlighting one of the things that we're trying to overcome at Hulu, which is people coming in and leaving. So, what does it mean to create content where one of the objectives of that content is not just to get as many people [as possible] to show up, but to keep them there? That's a different set of challenges that the TV industry has not leaned into.  

What do you say when writers ask, "What should I bring to you?"

I'm trying to get at this question of where the edge of television is. Some people might say it's Transparent or a show like Black Mirror, but the edge of TV cannot be just excellent versions of things that we've been looking at for 20, 30, 40 years. There have got to be new forms of content. We talk a lot about our competitors but there's no bigger purveyor on the planet than YouTube, and there's something to be learned from that.

How important will it be to curate a distinct brand a la FX versus trying to be all things to all people a la Netflix?

No matter where you do this, if you're not asking, "Who do we want to be and how does that delineate us from the people down the block?" you're missing out on a fundamental part of the job. That work has been going on for a while here, and the early Hulu offerings on the originals side — character-driven comedies, genre — reflect the usage that they saw before originals were really around. Where do we go? We have a real challenge. I don't think we're going to wake up tomorrow and think we need to be all things to all people. It has to be more tactical than that. That will be one place where we'll start to delineate ourselves from [Netflix] and others.  

What opportunities do you see in the success of Handmaid's Tale?

Any time you can have a show that's functioning at an extremely high level unto itself but then is the beneficiary of some cultural relevance — even if that cultural relevance is a bit unfortunate — that's a good thing. But the most important thing Handmaid's Tale can do is prove that Hulu is a place that can create hit shows. That's a loaded word, I know. But I'm referring to it in the context of cultural impact because that's a real currency now.

So, how do you replicate that?

You're in trouble if you go, "We want to do TV that taps into the current mood of the country or the political climate." [However,] we have a very, very powerful piece of programming coming down the pike next year, The Looming Tower, which is based on a book [by Lawrence Wright about the rise of al-Qaida]. Sadly, terrorism is a subject that will still be in the news.

Where does your $2.5 billion domestic programming budget leave you standing against your competitors?

I don't wake up in the morning worried we don't have enough money to do what we want to do.

It's not Netflix's $6 billion, though.

Sure, but all the money in the world does not guarantee that you will spend it wisely and allocate it properly.

Unlike nearly every other company, Hulu doesn't seem to be focused on owning its shows. Will that change?

It was critically important and a huge part of transforming AMC's business. But here, we have no plans now to go into full ownership. And in fact, we see ourselves as having a bit of an advantage by virtue of offering opportunities to studios that might not be there at some of the other places. That's not going to be the tipping point for us, but in a world where people have tons of choices — particularly at a certain level of creator — I'm glad that we have the opportunity to say, "We don't want to own it outright. In some instances, we'd like to be your partner." It's going to be a situation that we keep a close eye on as we move forward.

Walking Dead's Robert Kirkman just signed a massive overall deal at Amazon. Shonda Rhimes made a huge one at Netflix. Will Hulu join this arms race for talent?

I don't think you need to be as focused on being in the talent business as you do if ownership is central to your business. That said, I wouldn't rule out Hulu looking at some strategic relationships.

In late 2015, your boss, Mike Hopkins, told THR he "wouldn't be surprised if we don't look around the globe in the next year or two." So where is Hulu with plans for international expansion?

In my first few weeks, I've been involved in a few discussions about what it might look like. The DNA of this company is to always be looking for new opportunities, and that's one of them, but there are no formal plans at this point.

Hulu's "team of rivals" ownership structure long has been cited as a competitive disadvantage. How much of those politics have you encountered?

I haven't. I've only seen the benefits ... but I come into this eyes wide open.

Looking back, there were some tense years at AMC, where you earned a reputation for being so cost-conscious that you fought publicly or parted ways with multiple showrunners. What did people not know?

Most of those stories were not fully representative of what was really going on behind the curtain. We happened to be at a moment when there were a number of high-profile shows on, and it's funny because when you're not the focus of people's attention, you want to be there. And then when you are, you go, "This is not as much fun as I thought it was."

In the case of Frank Darabont, who remains in a nasty legal battle with AMC, the emails that have since come out reveal he was no picnic to work with. How did you feel when those emails were made public?

I hope you respect this but I don't think I have anything to say about the emails or the Frank Darabont situation.  

When you're not at the office, where can people usually find you?

Well, I have an unhealthy obsession with bowling.

What do you bowl?

My average was 179 last season. It's impossible to not have a good time at a bowling alley. Throw in cheap beer, and you've got a pretty great antidote to all the stress and pressure of this job.

A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.