Hulu Content Chief Joel Stillerman Unveils His Post-‘Handmaid’ Programming Strategy

Joel Stillerman
Michael Buckner/Variety/REX/Shutterstock

Hulu chief content officer Joel Stillerman outlined the company’s originals strategy going forward,  admitting that there’s pressure to produce another big hit after “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

“The expectations are there, and you have to keep that in mind when you make your next round of choices,” said Stillerman, speaking at Variety‘s Entertainment Summit at CES 2018.

“Handmaid’s Tale” preceded Stillerman’s arrival at Hulu last summer, after he spent nearly a decade as head of original programming at AMC Networks. “If there’s a career tip in this session, it’s to take a job at Hulu after ‘The Handmaid’s Tale,'” Stillerman quipped.

Stillerman described Hulu’s approach to originals as being in “three lanes”: 1, continuing to “double down on big, broad, hopefully event-series television in both comedy and drama” — which Hulu loosely calls “core content”; 2, “brand elevating” content aimed at garnering critical acclaim and awards recognition; and 3, “emerging content,” which is shorter-form content with digital talent.

The “emerging content” bucket is aimed at lower-cost, shorter originals that will help Hulu “incubate new talent” and “doesn’t blow the nest egg,” Stillerman said. It’s also intended to get people to use the Hulu app in ways they don’t currently with snackable content that will bring them to the service throughout the day.

So, he said, “If you have 15 minutes in your day, it would be things you would open and look at in a ways not different from Facebook and YouTube.”

“The Handmaid’s Tale,” Hulu’s first bona-fide breakout hit, is based on the Margaret Atwood novel and stars Elisabeth Moss. The show has won major awards, picking up best drama series laurels at this year’s Golden Globes and the 2017 Emmy Awards. Season 2 of “Handmaid’s Tale” is set to debut in April.

According to Stillerman, “Handmaid’s Tale,” hits the first two lanes well: It “really was creatively excellent” but also “a bit of a lightning strike” in terms of capturing the zeitgeist and becoming widely popular.

Stillerman, interviewed by Variety co-editor-in-chief Andrew Wallenstein, was asked his thoughts on what Hulu’s next breakout series could be.

He first cited “Castle Rock,” a J.J. Abrams-produced series that borrows character from Stephen King’s bestselling oeuvre, with a premiere date TBD for 2018. He also called out “The Looming Tower,” set to debut Feb. 28, which traces the rising threat of Osama bin Laden and how it figured into the rivalry between the FBI and CIA; it’s executive produced by Dan Futterman (Showrunner), Alex Gibney, Lawrence Wright, Craig Zisk and Adam Rapp.

“‘Castle Rock’ is a show that’s teed up beautiful – just by virtue of its pedigree and the talent behind it,” Stillerman said. “Predicting hits is an awful dynamic… but that’s one I would point to.”

Meanwhile, Hulu this week announced a pact with Blumhouse Television for a 12-episode monthly horror anthology, with the first installment slated to hit in October. That was the first project Stillerman greenlit as content chief, and it “in some ways epitomizes a very central question we’ve spent a lot of time talking about: What does it mean to make content in the world of subscription on-demand?”

The partnership with Blumhouse plays creatively, because it’s targeted at a very passionate and “activatable” audience, Stillerman said. In the streaming space, providing fresh content is difficult — and spacing out the content over the course of a year helps keep a steady flow of material to attract and retain subscribers, he said.

As for competing with Netflix and Amazon in the streaming space, Stillerman said that having the biggest content budget isn’t the only factor for success. “You have to have a lot of money to play meaningfully,” he said. But, he added, “I don’t think you need to have the most money to win – I think that’s a fallacy.”

This week Hulu announced that it had surpassed 17 million subscribers for on-demand and live TV packages — the first update it’s provided on this front in a year and a half. Stillerman said Hulu benefited from partnerships with Spotify and Sprint in boosting its sub count.

In 2017, Hulu expanded its on-demand library to more 75,000 episodes of television across 1,700 titles, more than twice the number of episodes available on any other SVOD service including Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, according to the company’s internal data and research firm Ampere Analysis.

Among Hulu’s additions last year were all existing episodes of more than 600 series, including most recently exclusive subscription VOD rights to ABC hit “Lost” (which previously was on Netflix).