The Ambitious 11.22.63 Is the Beginning of a Brand New Hulu
Last Thursday night, Hulu rented a parking lot. The massive concrete expanse was a few doors down from the Bruin Theater in Los Angeles’ Westwood neighborhood. Hulu rented that theater too, for the premiere of its first original drama, 11.22.63. But the parking lot was for the afterparty. A crew erected a massive tent and decorated it to look like the diner that plays a central role in Hulu’s new time-travel epic, its decor equal parts aughts and 1950s. There were crowds and there were Hollywood types; the crowds watched the Hollywood types walking from the theater to the parking lot. Inside the tent-diner, roaming waiters served margaritas and a drink called the Kennedy Kooler.
Hulu has produced original shows before; it threw premieres and parties for them as well. But the streaming service never rented a parking lot. 11.22.63, which you can watch starting today, is by a wide margin the most ambitious and expensive project Hulu has ever undertaken. The company hopes it marks the beginning of a new era, as it tries to be more than just a way to watch last night’s TV. It has big owners, but until now has been small potatoes in the streaming world. Now, after nearly a decade of tumult, Hulu is taking aim at the biggest and most prestigious of its streaming competitors. And it’s hoping that a kick-ass show about time travel starring James Franco and produced by JJ Abrams might be the bullet it needs.
The story of 11.22.63 begins more than two years ago, when everything at Hulu started to change. See, Disney, 21st Century Fox, and Comcast own Hulu. These are giant conglomerates with every interest in preserving the TV industry as it existed 15 years ago, and they’ve always seemed to regard their digital child with a wary side-eye. It was as if they couldn’t tell whether this upstart outfit with an office full of game rooms and micro-kitchens was trying to save traditional TV or kill it. They even tried to offload it twice, most recently in 2013; that July, at an annual conference for the mightiest in the media, Disney CEO Bob Iger said they were “committed to selling” Hulu. DirectTV was supposedly offering a billion dollars. Eventually they decided not to. Rather than sell Hulu, they decided to fix it.
The first step was hiring a new CEO, Mike Hopkins. The original CEO was a tech and product guy, but Hopkins knows TV. Hopkins, in turn, brought in Craig Erwich from Warner Horizons as his head of content. The Silicon Valley guys were out; the Hollywood guys were in. They got an additional $750 million to invest, and one instruction: Grow. Fast.
“We put the gas pedal all the way down,” says Lisa Holme, the company’s head of acquisitions, “and said okay, let’s be more aggressive than we’ve ever been. License more content, better content, exclusively, all of that.” Holme and her team hammered out deal after deal for shows from AMC, FX, Viacom, Turner, and others, scoring rights to stream South Park, Seinfeld, and the Epix catalog of big-name movies. Meanwhile, a new head of originals, Beatrice Springborn, set out to try and turn Hulu Originals from an also-ran into a powerhouse.
Building the House of Cards
Quick: name the first Hulu original show. Name any Hulu original show before six months ago. You probably can’t, and Springborn doesn’t blame you. Hulu’s approach to buying and creating content had always been timid. And that’s putting it kindly. The service’s primary appeal was still as the place you’d go to catch up on the shows you missed last night. “We were known for acquisitions,” Springborn says flatly. It bought shows from its parent companies plus a few others, and dabbled with originals around the edges. With shows like The Awesomes and East Los High, Springborn says, “the brand for Hulu was lower-budget comedies.”
About two years ago, the new leadership team at Hulu decided to try to go from bit player to big kahuna in the world of original programming. Why? Because unlike even the biggest acquisition, good original content gives a company an identity, and establishes it as a serious player doing serious work. Things changed for Netflix when House of Cards came out. It was no longer a storage house for old ABC sitcoms, but a creative force, a place you go (and pay) to see Kevin Spacey and David Fincher’s work. Same for Amazon and Transparent, the first streaming-only show to win the Golden Globe for best series.
Once you prove you’re serious about enabling (and financing) good stuff, you hope that good stuff starts to find you. “Dramas help define a network,” Springborn says. “You can point to those for AMC: Breaking Bad and Mad Men. For FX it’s The Shield and Sons of Anarchy.” Those shows redefined what viewers expect from a TV show, and elevated their producers to new heights.
Popular originals would also give the beleaguered Hulu staying power in its ever-changing industry, where new players with deep pockets come in all the time. Brian Wieser, a senior analyst at research firm Pivotal, calls it “the need to differentiate on an ongoing basis.” Hulu can’t rely on its good relationship with its parent companies forever. Hulu’s had huge problems with subscribers leaving the service as rights expire and new shows come out on other networks. One study found that nearly 50 percent of its subscriber base had cancelled in the last year, compared to just nine percent for Netflix. “I think they all know that if they want to be a viable standalone entity,” Wieser says, “they need something that doesn’t render them permanently dependent on their owners. Because the owners might not own them forever.” They’ve already nearly sold the company twice, after all. Owning your own stuff is the only way to control your fate.
Early on in the reinvention, the leaders of Hulu asked each other a question: What kinds of shows does Hulu make? They figured out they didn’t want to be like Netflix, with lots of programming for small audiences; Springborn says Hulu wouldn’t have been interested in reviving Arrested Development. They didn’t just want to win awards and please people with lensless glasses and skinny jeans. “We don’t want to convince you what good TV is,” says Ben Smith, Hulu’s head of experience, “or what edgy is. You love it? We love it.”
When you’re interested in making broadly appealing shows, you approach things a more traditional way. “Netflix and Amazon’s approach seems to be, we’re just going to throw stuff out there,” says Todd VanDerWerff, culture editor at Vox. They give creators lots of money and lots of freedom, and hardly meddle in the process. “Some will work, and some won’t. But people are going to watch, so it’s fine.” Hulu, on the other hand, seems to have a much more traditional TV development process. It means Hulu won’t fail often, since the process tends to smooth edges, polish everything just right. But it also means “the upside for Netflix and Amazon is probably higher,” VanDerWerff says. “The great thing about a Netflix show is, if it’s brilliant it’s like nothing else. You’ve never seen anything like it.” Netflix didn’t know it had a hit on its hands with Orange is the New Black. Hulu’s hoping it can see the next one coming.
Everyone at Hulu seems to be in love with the notion of TV as an event, a spectacle that captures everyone’s attention. “I feel like there’s almost been a shame built into being popcorn-populist,” Springborn says, “but we embrace that.” At the same time, they wanted to do better: to have a different tone, a surprising story, something you’ve never seen before. They came up with a mantra: “A Hulu show is a New York Post story with a New Yorker cover.”
Hulu’s development team bought and began developing two comedies, Casual and Difficult People, each with big names attached. They launched in 2015 and were immediately successful: Casual received Hulu’s first-ever Golden Globe nomination only a few months after its release. (It lost to Amazon’s Mozart in the Jungle.) Difficult People, which Amy Poehler produces, has won some critical acclaim. Still, both were just better, more expensive, bigger-name versions of the shows Hulu had always done. They needed something splashier.
Long Live the King
Springborn and her team met in late 2014 with Bridget Carpenter, a producer whose credits include Friday Night Lights and Parenthood. She pitched them on 11.22.63, a Stephen King time-travel novel that JJ Abrams owned the rights to. Carpenter laid out a plan for a nine-hour miniseries, and Hulu immediately bought in. They probably overpaid for the project, according to one source, but that was okay. “You can tell people that you’re making premium content, but you have to put your money where your mouth is,” Springborn says.
Internally, Hulu refers to 2016 as “the year of the drama.” After 11.22.63, it has The Path, starring Aaron Paul and Michelle Monaghan, ready to go. Chance, starring Hugh Laurie and directed by Lenny Abrahamson (Room), is coming later this year. The company spent as much as $1.5 billion on content in 2015, and that number will surely be higher this year. The originals team is thinking about developing movies, kids content, and anything else that might serve its purposes. While they’ve been working on 11.22.63, Holme has also been systematically acquiring the kinds of complementary content they think viewers might want to see: JFK-related programming, documentaries, and more, which they’ll release in bursts as the show goes along. “If someone has watched the show and gets curious about Kennedy,” Holme says, “we have something else that they can get into.” Because it’s only eight episodes and nine hours long, it may not be the category-redefining, House of Cards moment for the network, but it’s the first capital-E Event the company has ever attempted to produce.
11.22.63 isn’t like House of Cards in one other important way: It’s not dropping all at once in a binge-friendly bundle. The show will air on Mondays for the next eight weeks, one episode at a time. You know, like how your parents watched TV. Creating Event Television means making people dissect every episode and guess where things go next; you get none of that during a bleary-eyed 13-hour binge. Hulu’s other shows are also released an episode at a time, and Springborn says it’s worked beautifully. “We’ve created a sense of anticipation from week to week. That’s why Serial worked so well! You’re building anticipation, and people are questioning what’s going to happen next week.”
There’s no way to ever guarantee a hit show, of course. Even Stephen King and JJ Abrams produce duds. If this one doesn’t work, Hulu hope maybe Aaron Paul can entice you to watch The Path instead. Or whatever comes after that. VanDerWerff, for his part, is particularly curious about the prospects for Chance. “Hulu…still awaits its first breakout original hit,” JP Morgan analyst Alexia Quadrani wrote in a recent report, “though its expanded slate means it’s like a matter of time before an original hit debuts on the service.” Springborn admits that you can’t engineer success, and Hulu’s free-spending ways can’t last forever. Not only do their shows need to be good, they need to be exciting enough to claim hours of your time you could otherwise spend on thousands of other shows. And then, don’t forget, Hulu has to figure out how to turn spending money into making money.
Yet even before the first 11.22.63 episode drops, the show seems to have already been a success for Hulu. Simply by acquiring a project of this magnitude, with this budget, with this many stars attached, Hulu got into the game. In the space of a week after the announcement, Hulu got 120 submissions for new projects. People they were working with started referring their famous friends and favorite colleagues.
At the premiere on Thursday night, as the first 11.22.63 episode ended and the credits began to roll over loud applause, Hulu’s logo lingered on screen a little longer than the others. The event wasn’t just for 11.22.63. It was also for the new Hulu: a place where big names come to make big shows, where everyone comes to watch TV. The company now has JJ Abrams, Stephen King, and James Franco on its roster. It has swagger, it has money; it has ambition. On the day we meet, Springborn is actively involved in 12 different shows at various stages of the development process, including Hulu’s first slate of pilots. She hasn’t taken a vacation since she started at the company. And that might not change anytime soon, she says: “I’d say 11.22.63 is going to turn the volume way up.”