Handmaid's Tale revives company

Elisabeth Moss (left) as Offred and Alexis Bledel as Ofglen in the Hulu series The Handmaid's Tale.
Elisabeth Moss (left) as Offred and Alexis Bledel as Ofglen in the Hulu series The Handmaid's Tale.PHOTO: HULU

NEW YORK • On Wednesday, one of the most anticipated TV shows of the year, The Handmaid's Tale, had its premiere on streaming service Hulu. Reviews have been rapturous and the series could provide Hulu with an elusive signature hit.

But none of this would have been possible without Mr Wilson and Ms Sears.

Until recently, the production company run by Mr Daniel Wilson, 87, and his business partner Fran Sears, 70, had more or less been dormant. Whenever the phone rang, they assumed people were "trying to find out if we were, in fact, still alive", Ms Sears said, laughing.

But Mr Wilson had something special stowed away: He controlled a big chunk of the TV and movie rights to the 1985 Margaret Atwood novel, The Handmaid's Tale, which he had made into a forgettable 1990 feature. If Hulu wanted to bring the story to TV, it would have to deal with Daniel Wilson Productions.

So through a twist of fate, prescient deal-making and an intensely competitive TV landscape - where studios seem to be willing to turn over any stone to find a hit - the duo are back in business.

In short order, they had to, among other things, revive a company that had gone dark and study up on a vastly changed landscape in which streaming services were becoming increasingly important. They also had to acquaint themselves with tasks foreign to them - such as creating an online imprint.

"We just looked at each other and said, 'Oh, God, we better do this,'" Ms Sears said, about creating a website. "We've been terrible about a Wikipedia page or IMDb. It's not part of our sensibility."

Though the pair were not in charge of making The Handmaid's Tale, they found themselves in the role of executive producers. They were given front-row seats to script development, casting and the production process and offered notes to the writers and executives overseeing the show.

They marvelled at just how much the business has changed. TV executives nowadays? "Much less combative," Mr Wilson said. And they have been transformed from cigarchomping titans to, as Ms Sears put it, "young hipster types".

The duo met in the 1960s when they were working on a children's show for ABC. Soon, Daniel Wilson Productions was up and running.

In the late 1980s, at the suggestion of his wife, Mr Wilson read The Handmaid's Tale, a dystopian novel that presents a grim future for women in the US. Impressed, he met Atwood, secured film rights to the book and shared them with independent movie firm Cinecom.

The movie, which starred Robert Duvall and Natasha Richardson and was written by Harold Pinter (Atwood was not interested in screenwriting), was released in 1990 and was a dud at the box office. Soon, their careers began to wind down. Mr Wilson learnt that his wife had Alzheimer's and put aside work to care for her. Ms Sears said she would return to the business only if she had passion for a project.

Then everything changed.

About five years ago, with scripted TV booming in Hollywood, MGM decided to forge ahead with a plan to make The Handmaid's Tale into a series. The studio assumed it controlled the rights. Then it found out otherwise.

It took a lengthy negotiation to get Mr Wilson on board.

"We decided to make him an executive producer, gave him a nice fee and we figured it all out," said Mr Steve Stark, its president for TV development and production.

Mr Wilson did not disclose financial details, but the deal - if the show reaches a third season - is expected to be worth US$1 million (S$1.4 million).


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 28, 2017, with the headline 'Handmaid's Tale revives company'. Print Edition | Subscribe