Murder, fraud and sex tapes: Why Hulu and other streamers are cashing in on true crime
It was one of the most bizarre crimes of 1980s Los Angeles. An ambitious Indian immigrant and founder of Chippendales, a club that featured shirtless male dancers, plotted the murder of his business partner and several others.
The sordid tale was covered in the 2014 book “Deadly Dance: The Chippendales Murders,” and helped inspire a Hulu series, “Welcome to Chippendales,” which launched on Tuesday and stars comedian and actor Kumail Nanjiani.
It’s one of nearly half a dozen Hulu limited series launched this year that are based on real-life true-crime stories ripped from the headlines.
True-crime programs and documentaries have always been a fixture of streaming platforms like Hulu and Netflix. Increasingly streamers are doubling down on the genre, tapping into the huge appetite for true crime by developing scripted limited series based on actual stories and with notable actors like Nanjiani, many of whom are drawn to the format.
“It typically deals with really heavyweight stories that fascinate people watching characters that they can usually somewhat identify with completely lose their minds ... and ultimately, in most cases, pay a significant price — whether it’s jail time, death, suicide, their business collapsing or all of the above,” said Tom Nunan, a former studio executive. “It’s the most colorful kind of drama out there.”
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Streamers are looking to cash in.
Netflix’s “Dahmer — Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story” was the third most-watched series in its first 28 days on the platform. Viewers spent more than 856 million hours watching the show that delves into the real-life serial killer’s origin story.
Despite some blowback from the families of Dahmer’s victims, Netflix has ordered two additional installments that will focus on other monstrous figures.
“There is a rabid audience on the platform for these stranger-than-fiction, ripped-from-the-headline stories,” said Jordan Helman, head of scripted content at Hulu Originals. “There’s a pre-awareness and a curiosity factor that drives any narrative nonfiction adaptation. They often also serve as catnip for A-list onscreen talent to transform themselves, both physically and otherwise.”
Hulu Originals saw the popularity of true-crime series with its breakout success from “The Act” in 2019, Helman said. The limited series delved into the murder of Dee Dee Blanchard, based on a BuzzFeed article by writer Michelle Dean. That was followed by “Dopesick” last year, which stars critically acclaimed actor Michael Keaton and has been nominated for 14 Emmys.
This year, Hulu Originals launched five shows based on real-life true crimes, including “The Dropout” about disgraced Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes, “Pam & Tommy,” about their stolen sex video, and most recently, “Welcome to Chippendales.” The streamer will go into production soon on a project starring “Grey’s Anatomy” actor Ellen Pompeo that touches on the story of Natalia Grace Barnett, a woman with dwarfism who was accused of tricking her adoptive parents into thinking she was a child and then accused them of neglect.
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Three of the top 10 Hulu Originals shows this year were related to real-life true-crime stories, based on U.S. consumer demand online, according to Parrot Analytics. Scripted shows including “The Dropout,” “Pam & Tommy” and “Dopesick” received “outstanding demand,” meaning they were in the top 2.9% of TV series across all platforms, said Wade Payson-Denney, an analyst for Parrot Analytics.
Hulu executives say true-crime series have helped expand the reach of the platform — which had 47.2 million subscribers for on-demand and live TV in its fourth quarter — but that they aren’t over-relying on the genre. Hulu is best known for dramas including “The Handmaid’s Tale,” the comedy series “Only Murders in the Building” and sci-fi show “The Orville.”
“These narrative nonfiction limiteds — they do big business for us, but we’re also being really thoughtful about ensuring that we’re not simply repeating ourselves or becoming too defined by any one genre or lane, which is why we kind of view these as one piece of a much larger puzzle,” Helman said.
Hulu parent Walt Disney Co.'s streaming business — which includes Hulu, Disney+ and ESPN+ — took a $1.5-billion loss in in the most recent quarter, reflecting higher production and marketing costs related to Disney + and Hulu (which costs $7.99 a month and $14.99 a month with ads). The loss alarmed investors and Disney board members, who on Sunday ousted CEO Bob Chapek.
True-crime stories that have already generated books or podcasts also are appealing to studios because they have an established audience for the material.
“There’s safety and comfort in things that exist,” said Robert Siegel, creator, co-showrunner and executive producer of “Welcome to Chippendales.”
“Welcome to Chippendales” would have been tough to make if it wasn’t based on a true story, said Jenni Konner, co-showrunner and executive producer.
“If you turned in a script like that, I can imagine people saying, ‘Well, no, that’s impossible, that would never happen,’” Konner said. “So you do have that creatively to lean back on.”
When he was 18, Kumail Nanjiani emigrated from Karachi, Pakistan, to Iowa to go to college.
Actors also are drawn to playing characters in stories where truth is often stranger than fiction.
Nanjiani, a Pakistani American actor, is known for portraying a software engineer in HBO series “Silicon Valley,” a superhero in Marvel movie “Eternals” and for romantic comedy “The Big Sick,” a movie he co-wrote with his wife.
“If this wasn’t based on a true story, there’s no way I would have been cast as this character,” Nanjiani said of his role in “Welcome to Chippendales.” “These parts don’t come my way.”
He portrays Somen “Steve” Banerjee, an Indian immigrant who founded Chippendales after he had saved up money working at a gas station. But even after becoming a successful business owner, Banerjee discovered more obstacles in his path.
“Obviously, Steve and I are very different people, but we had the same experience of coming to America with a version of America in our head and sort of hitting the wall of, you know, the real America,” said Nanjiani, who is also an executive producer on the series.
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