“We have a lot of different customers with a lot of different needs, so we’re looking to service all of those needs,” says Hulu’s SVP, Originals Craig Erwich of what the Oscar-nominated streamer is looking for at the Sundance Film Festival this year.
In a week that saw Hulu garner its first ever nom from the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences with the sometimes heart-wrenching Minding The Gap documentary, the Robert Redford- founded fest is a welcome return for the home of The Handmaid’s Tale, especially since the Bing Liu- directed skater flick was picked up here last year.
After having stepped over from his presidential gig at Warner Horizon almost five years ago, Erwich has proved a very big part of the transformation of the soon-to-be-Disney- dominated streamer. From Emmys wins for the series based on Margret Atwood’s iconic dystopian novel, to live TV, the acclaimed The Looming Tower, and its recent quick win over Netflix with dropping its Fyre Festival docu first, Hulu has aimed high, and not just in the mountain ranges around Park City.
Before descending on the Utah town for the world premiere of Ask Dr Ruth tomorrow and potential buys, Erwich chatted with me about the film on the famous sex therapist, the Oscar nomination, and the battle of the Fyre films. The exec also gave a glimpse into the performances in the upcoming George Clooney-EP’d-and-starring adaptation of Joseph Heller’s classic novel Catch-22, and when we will see that limited series launch.
DEADLINE: Looking at the Sundance offerings this year and going into the festival as a buyer, documentaries are clearly a prestige industry for Hulu. But how do you use those films as leverage to gain even more subscribers overall?
ERWICH: Well, first of all, we know there’s a demand for them on behalf of our viewers, so we’re here to serve the content needs of our audience, our subscribers. Secondly, I think you have to look at the explosion in the documentary landscape, not just in the number of titles, but just in terms of excellence and creativity. We need to, kind of, mind that, and bring that to our customers and viewers. And thirdly, I think documentaries have a very unique capacity to reflect stories of our times and pastimes and to create conversation, which is important for us.
You know, when I look at Ask Dr. Ruth and think about why that needed to be a Hulu documentary, I think of how there is an untold story there that only a documentary can tell. We know this story is a woman who went on the radio and started talking about sex in a way that nobody else has. But what you don’t know is, A) the incredible story of fortitude that got her there; and B) when you now, through a documentary, can kind of take a step back and look at her entire career. You can see how in 2019, the idea of being accepting of other people and open about other people and not shameful of other people is still a radical idea. I think that’s going to generate a tremendous amount of conversation.
DEADLINE: And in the spotlight of a Sundance debut…
ERWICH: Yes, it means a lot for us. I mean, first of all, Sundance is one of the premier places to show your work. We’re extraordinarily proud of the film. I think, on a personal level, everyone at Hulu is so excited for Dr. Ruth herself to have another moment at Sundance, and for people to get to learn even more about her. She is a hero and we all root for her. We are all very personally connected to both her and the film.
DEADLINE: So, personal connections and otherwise, when it comes to buying, what are you looking for in Park City, without giving any specifics away, unless you want to?
ERWICH: (LAUGHS) I can say this: first off, we’re not looking for one type of movie. We have a lot of different customers with a lot of different needs, so we’re looking to service all of those needs. We are going to look for creative excellence, regardless of idea, and we’re going to look for ideas that, again, are going to amplify and create cultural conversation, which is, for us, one of the main advantages of the documentary form.
DEADLINE: In that documentary form mode, this week started off pretty good for you guys, with your first Oscar nomination for Minding The Gap, a documentary you picked up at Sundance – quite the full circle?
ERWICH: It’s been almost one year since I first saw Minding The Gap, and I still remember how deeply moved and inspired I was by Bing Liu’s masterful storytelling. This film is based on Bing’s own personal experience, but it strikes a chord with any one of us who has wrestled with identity, class or the daunting transition from teenager into adult – and that’s what makes Minding The Gap so special.
Now, with the nomination and recognition from the Academy, the journey of this film has come full circle. At Hulu, we’re honored to work with visionaries like Bing, and it’s been a privilege to share his story with our audience.
DEADLINE: Another story you shared with your audience recently was the backstory and blast radius of the Fyre Festival fiasco in a Jenner Furst and Julia Willoughby Nason-directed docu. A share that you played a fast hand in dropping suddenly online just days before Netflix’s ‘Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened’ film. Did you feel the schedule heist worked out, cause Netflix was pissed…
ERWICH: Look, we’ve been very committed to our Fyre Festival movie for well over a year. You know, at Hulu, we’re looking for stories that both shape and reflect popular culture, and what happens at the Fyre Festival is a perfect embodiment of that. Done in a highly entertaining way, as our film was – so it is a perfect Hulu movie.
That said, we became aware that there was a very specific release date for the other movie on Netflix, and, quite frankly, we felt that it was critical that ours come out first. We wanted to set the context, and set the record for what happened and what we wanted to say about it.
DEADLINE: In that, though, there was the post-release battle, where it was revealed that your film paid now-jailed Fyre scam main man Billy McFarland for his interview, and the Netflix film is produced in part by Jerry Media and Matte Projects, the people behind the actual Fyre Festival – sounds like compromises galore on both houses. Do you feel the Hulu Fyre film was able to be objective?
ERWICH: Yes, I do. I just come in every day with the same mission, which is: how do we create and individualize the experience for each of our filmmakers, whether it’s Minding The Gap, which requires a certain type of campaign, or whether it is Fyre Festival, and the event that we created around that. We’re just going to continue to focus on that.
And I’ll say this, in terms of our movie Fyre Fraud, what you’re alluding to is the role of that particular marketing. That was not just interesting, that was our main subject and examination of our movie, and one of the reasons I think that our movie is so creatively successful. So it was very intentional to take a look at that, and we had to talk to the people involved — we had to. That was purposeful.
DEADLINE: OK. But you’re now part of the expanded Disney empire with the acquisition of the Fox assets and their stake in Hulu. Disney said they’re bringing in their own Disney+ streaming service soon, and look on the ground at Sundance with a checkbook. From your point of view, is that a factor in strategic decisions going forward over the next few years, and do you view that new streaming entity as a potential competitor as well as, I guess, a cousin, so to speak?
ERWICH: I just can’t really speculate at this point on what that’s going to mean for our business in terms of the merger or kind of how that is going to impact our kind of daily creative strategy. I can’t, sorry.
DEADLINE: Well, then, looking at a future we can discuss, there’s a lot of anticipation about George Clooney’s Catch-22 miniseries and the Little Fires Everywhere limited series from Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington. How are they looking and when are we going to see them?
ERWICH: Catch-22 is in May. But we haven’t actually announced the launch date yet. We announce the launch date at TCA. I can tell you this: I’ve seen all six episodes, and there’s a revelatory performance by Chris Abbot that I’m really excited for people to see. I mean, Yossarian is one of the seminal literary figures of our time, and I think Chris honors the role, but made it his own, too, which I’m fascinated by. And obviously, we’re in the masterful hands of George Clooney and Grant Heslov, so we’re extraordinarily proud of it. As for Little Fires Everywhere, we’re really just starting. It’s coming together very well, but it’s the early days creatively.
DEADLINE: But feeling good about 2019, Oscars and all?
ERWICH: Yeah, I am, you know? We have an aggressive slate coming. An aggressive and diverse slate of originals next year that I think are even more ambitious in terms of the conversations and the subject matters that they’re tackling. It’s everything from the continuation of Veronica Mars, which there’s a massive audience for, to Catch-22 and more. So, expect more of those kinds of shows from us.