by Lacey Rose October 21, 2020
Three years into her groundbreaking deal and with her first projects finally arriving, the uber writer-producer talks about meeting her own high expectations and a newfound passion for her work: “Now I just want to enjoy this.”
Shonda Rhimes was tired of the battles. She was producing some 70 hours of annual television in 256 territories; she was making tens of millions of dollars for herself and more than $2 billion for Disney, and still there were battles with ABC. They’d push, she’d push back. Over budget. Over content. Over an ad she and the stars of her series — Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder — made for then-presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
But by early 2017, her reps were back in discussions with the company about a new multiyear deal. They’d already made a hefty ask of her longtime home and were waiting as the TV group’s then leadership prolonged the process, with one briefly tenured ABC executive determined to drive down the price tag on their most valuable creator. Meanwhile, Rhimes was growing creatively restless. “I felt like I was dying,” she says now of the unforgiving pace and constraints of network TV. “Like I’d been pushing the same ball up the same hill in the exact same way for a really long time.”
She knew her breaking point would come, but what it would be she never could have predicted. As part of her ABC relationship, Rhimes had been given an all-inclusive pass to Disneyland — and without a partner, she’d negotiated a second for her nanny. But on this day, she needed one for her sister, too, as she’d be taking Rhimes’ teenage daughter while the nanny chaperoned her younger two. If the passes had been interchangeable, Rhimes would have been happy to give up hers — when would she have time to go to Disneyland anyway?
After some unwanted back-and-forth — “We never do this,” she was told more than once — Rhimes was issued an additional pass. But when her daughters arrived in Anaheim, only one of the passes worked. Rhimes lobbed a call to a high-ranking executive at the company. Surely, he would get this sorted.
Instead, the exec allegedly replied, “Don’t you have enough?”
Rhimes was beside herself. She thanked him for his time, then hung up and called her lawyer: Figure out a way to get her over to Netflix, or she’d find new representatives.
What happened next transformed not simply Rhimes’ career but the television industry at large. That August, the news became official: Rhimes would be leaving her creative hub of 15 years for a first-of-its-kind, nine-figure overall deal at Netflix. Just like that, Hollywood’s most aggressive licensor of content would be a major owner of it, too. Dana Walden, who had been running the Fox TV Group at the time, remembers seeing the flurry of alerts come through and being all but certain that “the industry, as [she] had known it for a very long time, was about to change dramatically.” Not long after, her most valuable creator, Ryan Murphy, who had once joked that he’d be buried on the Fox lot, defected to Netflix too. Many more would follow.
Now, more than three years after her deal was signed, Rhimes, 50, will at last release her first two projects for the service, a documentary about director, choreographer and philanthropist Debbie Allen (dropping Nov. 27) and the period drama Bridgerton (Dec. 25), though neither is her creation. Netflix’s roughly 200 million subscribers will have to wait at least a few months longer for Rhimes’ baby, Inventing Anna, about the infamous SoHo grifter Anna Sorokin, alias Anna Delvey. That it’s taken Rhimes this long to deliver fresh fare has been a source of anxiety for the fiercely competitive creator, who, until now, had been known for her ability to be prolific. “I spend a lot of time going, like, ‘We should have made 50 shows by now’ ” she says, appearing virtually from the library in her Los Angeles home. “And not for the audience so much as, like, ‘What do the bosses think?’ And I know they don’t think I should have made 50 shows by now, but it’s very hard for me to not be the perfect storytelling machine.”
Rhimes’ eye first started to wander in the fall of 2016, when she agreed to meet Netflix’s co-CEO Ted Sarandos for breakfast at the L.A. restaurant République, an industry favorite. She walked to a table in the back, petrified that someone would see her with the head of the streamer and start to ask questions. When nobody did, she sat down and laid out what it was she wanted to do next — and just as important, what she didn’t want to do.
“The first thing I said was, ‘You’re not going to get another Grey’s Anatomy — not Grey’s Anatomy in a cornfield, Grey’s Anatomy on a baseball field or Grey’s Anatomy at an airport, that’s just not happening,’ and he said, ‘I’d never expect it to,’ ” says Rhimes, who had every intention of keeping her flagship series running at ABC regardless of whether she herself stayed put. “And then I said, ‘I just want to be in a place where I can make stuff and no one’s going to bother me or make me feel like I’m beholden,’ and he was like, ‘That sounds great to me.’ “
For the next several months, Sarandos continued his courtship of Rhimes. At one point, after she had confessed to loving the since-canceled Netflix series Luke Cage, he personally delivered DVDs of the next season to Rhimes’ house. If Netflix was going to dive into the overall deals business, Sarandos felt strongly that she would be the ideal partner — not simply for the breadth of her hits, but also for the longevity and global nature of them. “Shonda knows how to entertain, knows how to get people thinking and knows how to craft a story better than anyone I’ve ever dealt with,” says Sarandos, revealing that Grey’s has logged the most viewing hours of any single show on Netflix.