EXCLUSIVE: Even colleagues of Jordan Helman have noticed an uptick in his mood lately. The head of scripted content at Hulu Originals can’t seem to hide his optimism about the upcoming Emmy season and how, for once, the conversation won’t be laser focused on whether The Handmaid’s Tale takes home another trophy. With its robust slate of originals, Hulu could earn multiple nominations for series such as Only Murders in the Building, Dopesick, Pam and Tommy, The Girl from Plainville and Nine Perfect Strangers.
“I’d be lying if I said we didn’t feel immensely bullish and proud of where we are and what we’ve accomplished, particularly over the course of the last year,” Helman tells Deadline. “We have curated a steady slate of critical and commercial darlings that have not only performed on the platform, but in several cases have really found themselves at the center of the cultural conversation. Within a matter of months, specifically on the limited side, we launched Dopesick, Pam and Tommy, The Dropout and The Girl from Plainville, all of which found sizable audiences and all of which broke through the noise of an uber-crowded landscape. We’re launching Candy this coming Monday and we’re launching Conversation with Friends shortly thereafter. We’re in a really great place creatively, and we’re genuinely thrilled by what we have coming down the pike. It really feels like there’s an embarrassment of riches. We’re excited to see how the voters react to those titles.”
Here, Helman talks about Hulu’s legacy, what sets it apart from other streamers, and the status of some of its high-profile projects. (The interview has been edited for length and clarity).
DEADLINE: What did the success of The Handmaid’s Tale mean to Hulu?
Helman: We were really fortunate that the breakout success of that show happened early on in our move to originals. I think it served as a beacon to creators and the town at large. It announced that we were a destination that was committed to making quality programming, and I also think it gave us the confidence to make some bold programming choices. There’s also this direct line to be drawn from Handmaid’s Tale to The Act and to The Great and to several other signature series that I think were big steps in further defining what our brand was. The Handmaid’s Tale has really been the gift that keeps on giving. There’s been a lot of chatter and speculation over the past several years about being brought under the Disney umbrella and what it means for Hulu. The truth of the matter is, it’s only afforded us more access and opportunities to be in business with creators that we were already chasing. The way in which these projects came together never would’ve happened if not for Dana Walden and the synergy and constant communication between the Disney studios and those of us at Hulu. That’s not only resulted in a number of bonafide hits over the past couple years, but also really streamlined a way of doing business that simply didn’t exist here before. One of the pieces of feedback that I’m constantly receiving from our creative partners is just how supported they feel on the marketing of their shows. I think that speaks directly to that focus and emphasis on storytelling. When we launch shows, the audiences we’re targeting are ready for it. Shannon Ryan, who oversees all the marketing efforts across Disney television, leads an awesome team that I think really embodies the same ethos of creator and story first that we maintain on the creative side.
What differentiates Hulu from other streamers?
Helman: A primary differentiator is the continuity of leadership. The senior leadership team in Hulu originals has remained largely unchanged since the day I arrived. When opportunities have arisen, we’ve always promoted from within. I’ve had an absolute blast working and learning under Craig Erwich going on almost seven years now. I have in Billy Rosenberg, who’s our head of comedy, and Sasha Silver, who’s our head of drama, these true partners and collaborators who have been working together alongside me for over half a decade and have been really integral components to our continued success. I think there’s confidence and an almost unspoken understanding between the four of us and our teams in regards to what constitutes a Hulu original. I think that’s felt by the creators and the talent that we work with
Hulu has definitely leaned into these true crime stories. Why stick with this genre?
Helman: There’s a long standing tradition of biopics and bio series going back to both the film and television space. I think one of the reasons that audiences and creators are specifically drawn to them is because on a purely conceptual level, they just have an easier path toward breaking through the clutter and making noise. I also think they allow us to take a reflective look at ourselves as a culture or re-contextualize where we’ve been through a modern lens. We’ve had an incredibly successful run with these types of stories. We’re going to definitely continue to program in that vein, but I think it’s very important that we not repeat ourselves. This is one pillar within a much larger content strategy. We are equally focused, if not more so, on ramping up our adult animation fare while continuing to broaden the diversity of our ongoing dramas and comedies.
Did it rain on your parade that HBO Max was already planning its own true crime series about Candy Montgomery, the Texas woman who brutally murdered Betty Gore in 1980?
Helman: We had a writer’s room already up and running when HBO Max announced theirs. For us, it was very much of a ‘let’s keep our eyes focused on the prize.’ We’re going to make the best show that we can and put blinders on in regards to what’s going on in the outside world.
Production has commenced on season five of The Handmaid’s Tale. Will there be a sixth?
Helman: There’s obviously a business reason to do more. That show is the rare bird whose audience grows year after year after year. In terms of the creative or artistic reasons to do it, that really lies with Bruce Miller, Elisabeth Moss and Warren Littlefield. I think what’s most important to all of us is that we give the Gilead story the time it needs to complete the journey. No more, no less. They’ve earned the right to be the arbiter of that.
What’s the status of The Devil in the White City, the adaptation of Erik Larson’s 2003 book?
It’s been a labor of love for a number of us at Hulu. Given the ambition and the scale of it, we’re being incredibly thoughtful about how to best get it up on its feet. We obviously haven’t rushed it. Sam Shaw, who’s the showrunner within a small army of producers, has done really remarkable work on the scripts. They do great justice to the source material, but they also tackle themes and issues of that time and place that just weren’t explored in Larson’s book. We brought on Todd Field who is one of the great American filmmakers to direct, and we’re currently in discussions with a really inspired and probably unexpected A-list actor to help us bring it to life. It’s a really special one and one we can’t get wrong.
What pilots are you most excited about?
We just wrapped a pilot called Bammas with our friends at ABC Signature that I can’t wait to see. It’s the next step in our strategy of really giving performer-creators the ability to show the world what they’re made of. It feels like a natural progression from something like Pen-15 or Ramy. We’re also about to go into production on History of a Pleasure Seeker, which is this big, wild swing. That one is also with ABC Signature and it comes from this brilliant novelist out of the UK named Richard Mason. It’s a lavish, erotic period musical that takes place in Amsterdam at the turn of the century. I remember the first time I read it being so blown away by the fact that I never experienced anything quite like it. We also recently announced two straight-to-series orders from our partners at 20th, We Were the Lucky Ones which comes from Erica Lipez and Thomas Kail and reunites us with Joey King. That pitch was genuinely one of the best, most moving I’ve heard in all of my years of doing this. And Lee Daniels is going to be writing and directing a limited series about the life of Sammy Davis Jr., which is not only going to be super entertaining, but will explore elements of his life and his work. So there’s a lot going on over here. And I’d be remiss to not call out Rob Mills and Belisa Balaban, who oversee the unscripted side of our business. They’ve done a really fabulous job of maintaining that steady cadence of best-in-class docs. We’ve really evolved into a place where a juggernaut like the Kardashians can feel right at home.