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Disney+ has Marvel, Star Wars, Pixar and National Geographic. And as Hulu’s recently promoted head of originals Jordan Helman sees it, his platform is a home for other curated content from across the Disney fold — including FX on Hulu, ABC and Freeform — as well as its own with awards players The Handmaid’s Tale and Pen15.
Helman, who has served as head of drama and developed such shows as Emmy winner Handmaid’s and The Act since joining Hulu in 2015, was promoted in June to head originals at the streaming platform. In the role, Helman oversees all scripted drama, comedy, animation, limited series and international co-productions as well as the streamer’s current originals slate that also includes Ramy; Pen15; Wu-Tang: An American Saga; Love, Victor; Handmaid’s; and forthcoming series Pam & Tommy, Conversations With Friends, The Dropout, Dopesick, Only Murders in the Building and Nine Perfect Strangers.
Helman is simultaneously competing with such rivals as Netflix, Apple and HBO/HBO Max for top producers and showrunners and navigating Hulu’s many internal mandates. The streamer, which Disney landed full control of a few years ago, is the next-day home for ABC and Freeform originals, has first-run of most FX originals via its branded FX on Hulu channel and has its own comedies and dramas joining FX’s entire catalog and scores of other acquired library fare including Family Guy, Modern Family and ER. Within his originals department, Helman is targeting two distinct areas: the flashy (read: expensive) packages like the star-studded Nine Perfect Strangers and breaking new artists with such sought-after talents including Ramy Youssef and Pen15 creators and stars Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle.
As Disney learns more about the differences between Hulu and Disney+ subscribers, a handful of scripted originals (High Fidelity, Love, Victor and Mysterious Benedict Society) have jumped back and forth between the two platforms. Further building bridges within Disney, Hulu’s president of originals Craig Erwich added oversight of ABC Entertainment last year as part of a restructuring that prioritized streaming.
So, how does Hulu fit into the Disney fold? And how do all the various Disney brands fit in with Hulu and its own originals? In his first interview since taking on oversight of scripted, Helman talks with The Hollywood Reporter about whether brand matters, Hulu’s “curatorial function” and the futures of Handmaid’s and newly minted Emmy nominee Pen15.
How do you see Hulu’s ability to compete in a market where Disney doesn’t seem as willing to shell out unless it’s a Marvel movie?
If you look at the history of Hulu, our strategy has always been viewed from a portfolio level. Nine Perfect Strangers is a good example. When it’s David E. Kelley and Nicole Kidman, with a book by Laine Moriarty (Big Little Lies), you know it’s exciting and that it will perform on the platform given some past successes of ours. And it’s going to cost money to land it. We are still engaging on those high-profile, big, sexy packages in a meaningful way. If you look at what we’re launching over the course of the next year and a half, it speaks to that desire. But I also think we’ve had a tremendous amount of success in the past by platforming first-time artists who may not have been big, established names when they walked in the door but are now talent that a lot of our competitors are chasing. In certain respects, the strategy continues to be twofold. It’s ensuring that we’ve got the big, flashy auspices for projects that feel creatively in sync with what we do at Hulu. But it’s also about serving the curatorial function and finding that next wave of artists. Particularly on the comedy side with the success of Pen15 and Ramy, that has become part of the DNA and bread and butter of Hulu and I don’t think that is going to change.
What’s the difference between Hulu and Disney+ content given the platform jumping that’s happened with Mysterious Benedict Society, High Fidelity and Love, Victor?
Often times projects are commenced and ultimately based on creative on screen, determinations are made in regards to which platform would best benefit from those shows and from where the shows would best benefit. Mysterious Benedict Society was developed at Hulu and we felt bullish about it, but given the nature of the Disney+ brand and demo, it felt like being on that platform would best service the success of that show. As we’re in a very artist-first business, ensuring the success of the show and the artists was most important to us. You could say the same about High Fidelity. That was greenlit at Disney+ and while I can’t speak to the creative specifics of the conversations that were had there, you look at the final product and it’s evident that it was a show that would have been platformed and was platformed much better on Hulu given the creative aspirations of the piece.
And yet it didn’t get renewed for a second season.
As a failed musician, I have a deep fondness for that show as well.
How do you define what types of content you’re interested in at Hulu and how does it differ from what John Landgraf and his team is doing for FX on Hulu? How much is brand confusion a concern?
There are two north stars that guide us in regards to overall program strategy, be it comedy or drama. First, what is most important to us, is that our shows be deeply watchable, super entertaining, really addictive. We’re not in the slow burn business; we’re not in the business of making shows in the absence of audience.
— so content with a broad audience?
Our audiences. We’re not necessarily targeting one certain audience. There are a number of different audiences on Hulu. What is most important to us is that the shows, from moment one of episode one, grab me by the throat and don’t let go. Second, what distinguishes us from a lot of our competitors — and something we talk a lot about — is the need for everything we program to feel deeply modern and contemporary. Some of our biggest hits have been deeply relevant — Handmaid’s Tale chief among them. That’s a buzzword that a lot of curators use. What’s equally important to us is that our shows feel like they could only be made today. Often, when we’re having conversations about what to develop and greenlight, we ask ourselves, “Would this have been made five or 10 years ago?” And if the answer is “yes” then it’s probably not for us. Regardless of genre, those two pillars are what informs what makes a Hulu original.
And what about brand confusion? There are still a number of people who don’t understand that FX programs a channel on the Hulu hub that is exclusively content developed by Landgraf and the FX team.
I view it through the prism of what is best for the viewer. Ultimately, when a viewer logs on to Hulu, they have not only the large library of licensed content, but they have an incredible portfolio of shows from Hulu originals, an incredible portfolio of shows from FX on Hulu, and recently we announced Onyx, which is going to be another curated part of the Hulu portfolio. At the end of the day, giving the consumer more choices is a good thing for everyone. Are there pieces that could theoretically live on Hulu or FX? The answer to that is yes. But what’s more important is the combined strength of the two of us, and the portfolio offering for the viewer is second to none.
How much are you in contact with the FX team about what shows you’re both working on? Do you wind up bidding for the same thing?
I’ve known Gian Balian [FX president of originals] for years, and we are in constant dialogue about what we’re up to and what they’re up to. It’s rare we find ourselves chasing the same projects. But it’s a fluid dialogue.
The other overlap here is Craig Erwich, who in addition to Hulu, now also oversees ABC. Does it matter what platform something launches on? Even with a show like Cruel Summer, which aired first on Freeform, most viewers watched and believed it to be a Hulu original.
At the end of the day, it’s all additive and it’s the viewer who wins. The most interesting proposition about Hulu as a destination for original fare is that you have a number of curatorial teams — one at ABC, one at Freeform, one at FX, one at Onyx and those of us at Hulu Originals — are all feeding into a larger content offering. One of the guiding principles of Hulu from the moment I arrived is we start with the viewer. That broadly curated collection of genres and series that can speak to a number of different audiences, all with the quality bar that the Walt Disney Co. ensures — is a win-win for the viewer. Is it what’s best for the viewer? I believe the answer is yes. One of the best things about being at Disney is you have so many curatorial outlets that it allows you to flex a lot of different muscles.
Does Craig’s role help open the door for more of ABC’s linear misses to wind up on Hulu? Amazon’s IMDb TV is kicking the tires on both For Life and Rebel. As you talk about working in tandem with execs at FX and ABC, when does it become a conversation about moving shows like that to streaming vs. just walking away from shows owned by Disney outright?
There is a storied history at Hulu of taking on broadcast fare that didn’t find itself having subsequent seasons. Look at The Mindy Project and The Orville. We make decisions on a number of different criteria sets. Often, these are shows that live on Hulu as a library. We have a strong sense of the viewership — and lack thereof — on the platform. That often informs those conversations about whether or not it makes sense to keep making seasons of a show that didn’t originate here.
Are you still in the business of saving shows, be it something that aired on ABC or a Freeform show?
It’s taken on a case-by-case basis. We’re not opposed to it, philosophically. But we have to have a strong belief that it’s a show that will resonate from a viewership perspective or it’s additive to the overall brand.
When is The Orville coming back? It hasn’t aired since spring 2019.
It was impacted by the industry-wide production shutdown. Cuts are starting to come in. But it’s premature to announce a premiere date.
Hulu’s content pipeline was thin for a while there. How confident are you in what you have on deck to keep high-profile releases coming at a time when Netflix, Apple and others are doing the same?
We have always taken a very curatorial approach. “More is better” has never been the rallying cry at Hulu. Look at what transpired at the beginning of quarantine, with the success of launches of Little Fires Everywhere, The Great, Normal People and Solar Opposites, we had this banner period where we were launching successful, critical and commercial hits on almost a weekly or monthly cadence. Then we hit the pause button since then as a result of COVID shutdowns. If you look at what is going to begin to transpire starting in the next couple weeks — Nine Perfect Strangers, Only Murders in the Building — it feels like a continuation of this expansion into new audiences, new genres, while maintaining that authored, curatorial bar we’ve become known for.
Hulu embraced Hillary when you did the documentary with her. Now you have Impeachment followed by Rodham, both of which lean heavily into Bill’s philandering past…
I can’t speak to Impeachment because that’s an FX on Hulu show and I haven’t seen it. Rodham is not something we’ve committed to making. Whenever you’re telling a non-fiction-driven story, the nature of how and why you’re telling that story is always at the forefront of the conversation. Hillary was a major pillar of our unscripted launches and we want to continue being sensitive and thoughtful in terms of when and how we decide an approach nonfiction subjects.
Where are you in castings for it?
We haven’t announced a green light on Rodham. We are continuing to have conversations with Sarah Treem, who has done some incredible work with it. But we’re not at a place where we’ve made any offers yet. We’re discussing who we think best embodies Hillary at different points in her life.
How much life is left in Handmaid’s Tale beyond its previously announced fifth season? There have been rumblings that season five could be its last.
That hasn’t been determined. The Handmaid’s Tale remains the crown jewel of the portfolio. Year after year, we see significant growth among viewership. We landed more Emmy nominations than we had in any other year. The conversation around the future of The Handmaid’s Tale is one we take seriously. Warren [Littlefield] and his team are breaking season five; we’ve had the writers’ room open for a number of weeks. There are conversations being had with Bruce [Miller, showrunner], Warren and Elisabeth [Moss] about how and when is the right time to bring the story to a close. What’s most important to us is maintaining the creative integrity of the story we’ve been telling for the past four seasons. That’s ultimately what’s going to determine how much life there is left in the show. There is also a conversation about how and when we introduce The Testaments into the larger world of Gilead on Hulu.
When Dan Fienberg and I spoke with the Pen15 creators on TV’s Top 5, they mentioned the challenges and uncertainties about filming during the pandemic with kids. It’s coming back for the second half of season two — and got a pandemic-era animated special. Now that it’s cut through with Emmy nominations, will there be a season three?
I think Anna and Maya are geniuses. I’m a massive fan of the show. One of the most exciting parts of being in this new gig is getting to work with artists like Anna and Maya and Ramy. What I can say is in the few conversations that I’ve had with them over the course of the past several months, they know that there is an openness and desire to explore what Pen15 looks like moving past what they’ve already broken. It’s really on Anna and Maya to determine whether or not they think that’s what the story necessitates. I believe Pen15 is a deeply special show and no one is the steward of that more than the two of them.
So season three is up to them if they have a pitch for it?
We would be very open to that conversation.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
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