Hulu’s Craig Erwich on What ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ Emmys Mean for Streaming Service

Handmaids Tale
Courtesy of Hulu/Vimn

With a win for “The Handmaid’s Tale” Sunday night, Hulu became the first streaming service to win a best drama series Emmy — beating to the punch larger competitors Netflix and Amazon.

“Handmaid’s,” based on the feminist dystopian novel by Margaret Atwood, dominated the drama categories, taking eight Emmys this year, including best actress for Elisabeth Moss. Hulu senior VP of content Craig Erwich, who greenlit and shepherded development of the series, spoke with Variety about the history-making Emmy run and what it means for the company.

What was your reaction Sunday night when you won series?
Numbness, surprise, and then just elation, because we’ve just been working toward this for three-and-a-half years since I got here. It was a profound moment for us and for the show.

Were you really surprised?
Yes, I was really, really surprised. When you sit in that auditorium and you look at the reel of shows, every show makes you think, “Yeah, that could be best series. And that one could be best series. That’s a good one, too.” Every scenario is a reasonable one. So I was surprised. There’s not one award we won that I thought was a lock, which speaks to the quality of the television business right now.

How much more competitive is it now than it was a few years ago?
I know a lot gets written about the volume of shows, but I think the quality keeps increasing every year. What I like about that is it’s an organic increase in quality. The benchmark for creativity, quality, innovation just gets higher and higher every year. So not only do you have to consistently aim as high as possible every year, but then more people are inspired to do good work. Ultimately as a business we rely on the inspiration of the creative community and them seeing what’s possible on television in terms of storytelling. That’s good for us. You want people coming off the sidelines into the game.

Could this show have won at the Emmys five, 10 years ago? Could it have even been on television?
I don’t think television was in a place to make a show like this 10 years ago, and I think that you could probably say that about almost all of the nominees in best series and best comedy. But here’s the thing — the book has existed for 30 years. They made a movie out of it. It’s not like this thing was foreign to popular culture.

What does it mean for the TV business that a streaming service has won the best drama Emmy?
I don’t know that there’s that much importance to the fact that we’re a streaming platform. I think the importance is that there are a lot of new players in the scripted business and there are a lot of people doing really good work. Quite frankly, I’m not sure it means a lot to the consumer that it’s a streaming service versus a linear subscription service with a digital option, versus a broadcaster. That’s an industry distinction. Ultimately the consumer just turns on the television and watches the shows. The demand for channels or apps is based on the quality of the shows.

What does it mean for Hulu?
It has been enormous for every single person who works here. The excitement and the recognition and the validation that goes with it hits you in your gut personally, and that’s where we all experienced it. It’s motivating and galvanizing. I think, more strategically, we have been on this path of producing shows that have a really large canvas for storytelling, that are provocative, that hopefully provide a conduit and fodder for conversation, and that feel like events. We started with “11.22.63,” and it was really the success of that that led to us becoming interested in “Handmaid’s Tale,” because it felt like they had some similar qualities. Then before we greenlit “Handmaid’s Tale” or saw the first episode, we put into development or started down the path on shows like “The Looming Tower” and “Castle Rock.” So you can start to draw a straight line. [The Emmy] tells us we’re on the right path.

What is the brand identity for originals at Hulu now and how does “Handmaid’s” represent that?
We’re looking to tell intimate character stories against large worlds and large canvases that have really strong, resonant, and permanent dramatic underpinnings. “I can’t wait to see that. I know that story, but I’ve never seen it on television before.” That’s the reaction we want from people from the moment they see the billboards.

Is the Emmy a useful tool for you as buyers out there talking to studios, talking to talent?
Yes, because ultimately we’re sellers. Our business model might be that we’re buyers, but functionally, on a practical level, we’re really sellers. It’s incredibly competitive for the top talent, and we are out there on a daily basis trying to create a home that they want to come to, and use our passion and our culture to attract them. The Emmy is good marketing for that.