It should mean something when the writer of this article, a red head, refers to Hulu as the red headed step-child of the streaming services.
As we discussed last week, it’s tough for anyone to compete with Netflix at the moment, but it becomes even tougher when the operation interested in doing so can’t really decide what it wants to be or how it wants to become it. What began as an entity for its owners to screen its programming has of course evolved beyond that to a purveyor of original content of its own, and while there have been some successes, there have also been some shrug-inducing decisions that make it tough for anyone to honestly mention it in the same conversation as either Netflix or Amazon. So far, anyway.
The owners in question are Disney, Fox, and Comcast, which owns NBCUniversal, and they collectively realized, not too terribly long after creating the site in the first place, that while the online outlet for their shows, both new and old, was a draw, to truly compete in this day and age, you need to have your own material. There are a few issues with that, however, the main one being that, unlike Netflix and Amazon, Hulu’s development funds are not unlimited, Exhibit A being the fact that it simply doesn’t release nearly as much of that original programming. The ownership trio have spent billions on licensing the second-run programming on the service and doesn’t have the necessary dough it needs to keep up. Another is that, to this point in time, the decision makers behind that programming are still trying to figure out exactly what it is they want that programming to be.
The site got things rolling four years ago with East Los High, a bold move that appealed to both Latino and teen viewership. Unfortunately, nothing on the site has followed in the former vein, and just one in the latter (with the horror show Freakish), which means that Hulu didn’t follow up on the audience it had established. The first adult show was the supernatural comedy Deadbeat, which lasted three seasons but never attracted either large viewing numbers or any kind of critical acclaim. It made a move to the mainstream when it plucked The Mindy Project from cancellation after Fox decided it didn’t want a fourth season. Now, through the fifth season, there is a reasonable chance the show will get a sixth.
More ambitious have been moves like the Bill Eichner-Julie Klausner comedy Difficult People, which just completed its second season and has been renewed for a third and the dramedy Casual, a show that began as lighter fare until it found some soul and gravitas and turned into one of the more interesting ones on the air, joining the FXX comedy You’re the Worst as one of the best at addressing depression. That would seem like a good start but, again, nothing like either has followed since they’ve been on the air. Instead, there have been more attempts at, shall we say, prestige projects. That’s how we ended up with the Stephen King adaptation 11/22/63, starring James Franco,and the cult drama The Path, with Michelle Monaghan, Hugh Dancy, and three-time Emmy winner Aaron Paul. Both shows were met with solid but unspectacular critical response, and while there is going to be a second season of the latter (11/22/63 was only an eight-episode miniseries), both the quality and viewer numbers probably need to improve to get a third.
So we’re clear here, Hulu is not exactly broke. Nor, for that matter, is it in trouble. On the contrary, the company is worth about $25 billion at the moment and is growing. Sure, it’s not growing as quickly as it was (as of this summer, it was up to 12 million subscribers, up from 9 million the year before but that jump wasn’t as large as it had been from the year prior), but analysts believe it could be turning a profit within the next two years. Now, for comparison’s sake, this pales in comparison to Netflix’s 80 million subscribers, but Netflix did have a head start of several years. Also, Netflix doesn’t actually make any money. Additionally, it’s a mostly global company, while Hulu is still primarily available only in the U.S. Still, that leaves a ton of room for further growth and demonstrates that it’s okay to be bullish on the company’s prospects.
Unlike both Netflix and Amazon, Hulu is a completely privately held company, with Disney, Fox, and Comcast each owning 30 percent, and Time Warner (through TBS) taking the last 10. With no other investors to whom they need to answer, it’s easy for the three corporations at the top to decided how they want to proceed with Hulu’s direction. Senior Vice President and Head of Content Craig Erwich doesn’t have to deal with stockholders who might be impatient about what the company is or isn’t doing. Instead, he’s dealing with three major corporations (okay, technically four), who are the ones holding the purse strings, and if they’re spending all their money on licensing the TV shows that fill out most of the site’s programming, then it’s not really the content division’s fault if they can’t afford to really keep up with Amazon, much less Netflix.
Which is not to say they’re standing pat and not actually getting anything done. That actually couldn’t be further from the truth. There are projects awaiting air, projects shot and ordered to series, in development, all exactly the way it should be. It’s possible that, perhaps, there aren’t as many titles in these categories as the other services might have, but the cupboards are certainly not bare.
First up is Shut Eye, a twisty dark comedy about the underground world of Los Angeles storefront psychics and the organized crime syndicate that runs them, starring Jeffrey Donovan, Emmanuelle Chriqui, and Isabella Rosselini. That hits the airwaves in three weeks. There’s also the gamer comedy Future Man, from Seth Rogen and Adam Goldberg — a pair becoming more and more ubiquitous in the TV world — and starring Josh Hutcherson; the Aussie drama Wonderland; the pre-9/11 drama The Looming Tower from Oscar nominated writer Dan Futterman and Oscar-winning documentarian Alex Gibney; and a new take on the classic sci-fi novel The Handmaid’s Tale, starring Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss, all of which have been ordered to series. That’s a solid lineup of upcoming shows that has more than a little prestige behind it.
Additionally, Hulu has at least four other completed pilots about which the decision has not yet made to take to series, including the superhero drama Citizen, from Me and Earl and the Dying Girldirector Alfonso Gomez-Rejon and show runner Josh Pate; the family drama Crushed, which stars Regina Hall and Colm Feore and used to be in development at HBO; the prehistoric drama Dawn; and the coming of age thriller When the Street Lights Go Down. All of them are awaiting word, and while there’s nothing that necessarily ties them all together in any way, what’s interesting about them is they all seem to put a different spin on an old theme. Citizen is a street-level take on the costumed character genre. Crushed offers the backdrop of the winemaking industry. Dawn follows a family of Neanderthals who come across some of the first Homo Sapiens. When the Street Lights Go Down follows Stranger Things down the rabbit hole of the 1980s, but with a murder mystery bent, instead of a sci-fi/horror one.
Which is perhaps something on which to hang the proverbial hat: all sound like they’re smarter, more upscale forms of entertainment, which is maybe just the thing that Hulu is shooting for. Sure, there are straightforward genre pieces in the development roles — like an ongoing series based on the late ‘70s cult classic novel and film The Warriors, and a drama series based on the Marvel comic book, The Runaways — but there is also more thoughtful fare like a sci-fi take on Graham Greene’s novel Our Man in Havana, called Our Man on the Moon. There’s the redemption tale Postal, about a town populated and run by fugitive criminals, a conspiracy thriller called Obicera One, a drama about a disaffected homeless kid living on the edge of society called Rule of the Bone, and the Casey Wilson comedy Unhinged, about a suburban woman with rage issues.
While none of this last batch of projects have moved out of development into the actual pilot stage, all have that same adventurous spirit that the others ahead of them in the process appear to share, and that might be just what Hulu needs to set it apart and to draw in viewers. Netflix tries to appeal to everyone. Amazon, for the most part, appeals to its viewers to help it choose its programming, but has so much money that it can afford to take risks on just about anything. Hulu, then, can attract audiences by appealing to the more discerning viewer, while casing it in a more commercial concept. There’s something subversive about offering a superhero show that deconstructs the genre while also adhering to its tropes. Obviously, not having seen the pilot, this is only speculation, but looking at what information is available, that’s what seems to be the case, and until it actually premieres, there’s no reason not to give it the benefit of the doubt.
Has Hulu really earned that privilege? Probably not. Not yet, anyway. But the fact that it’s clearly striving to put out thoughtful, interesting and entertaining fare shouldn’t be so easily dismissed. In fact, a person could actually point to one of its own programs to use as a microcosm for the streaming service itself. Casual began as a fairly mundane, standard sitcom that, on first blush, didn’t really do much to differentiate itself from any number of others in its genre. But somewhere along the way, it found its voice and embarked in a different direction, one that was thought provoking and emotional and which took a large step towards telling a story very few other shows are telling with any skill.
Now, use that as an analogy for the company that puts it on the air, that it is in the process of finding its own voice and that it might just be on the road to doing so, and you have yourself a success story in the making. Obviously, a whole lot has to go right for this to happen, and without the resources of those services it’s chasing, but you take enough small steps in any one direction, eventually, you will get to where you want to be.
It might take longer than you thought or hope it would, but you will get there. You just have to make sure those steps are going the right way. More than one operation has faltered in this venture, but Hulu seems to be confident that it won’t be one of them. I guess we’ll see.
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Neil Turitz is a filmmaker and journalist who has spent close to two decades working in and writing about Hollywood. Feel free to send him a tweet at @neilturitz. He’ll more than likely respond.