Shonda Rhimes Describes Her Grand Netflix Ambitions

LOS ANGELES — Shonda Rhimes achieved almost everything a television producer could hope for during her long run at ABC. She made herself into not only one of the most prolific writer-producers in the business, but also a mogul, as the founder and head of the Shondaland production company. ABC filled its entire Thursday night lineup with shows created or produced by her — a body of work that includes “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Scandal” and “How to Get Away With Murder” — but Rhimes was restless.

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Shonda Rhimes Describes Her Grand Netflix Ambitions
John Koblin
, New York Times

LOS ANGELES — Shonda Rhimes achieved almost everything a television producer could hope for during her long run at ABC. She made herself into not only one of the most prolific writer-producers in the business, but also a mogul, as the founder and head of the Shondaland production company. ABC filled its entire Thursday night lineup with shows created or produced by her — a body of work that includes “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Scandal” and “How to Get Away With Murder” — but Rhimes was restless.

Now, after signing a multiyear, nine-figure deal with Netflix, Rhimes will try to match or top her network success in the wide-open expanse of streaming, free of time slots, commercial interruptions, and restrictions on language and content.

In an interview at a NeueHouse work space here — during which she laid out her Netflix plans for the first time — Rhimes sounded confident that she will deliver something unexpected.

“Everybody thinks that there’s a ‘Shondaland show,'” Rhimes said. “No. There’s a Shondaland show that we made for ABC. Now I can’t wait to show everybody what a Shondaland show is that we make for the world.”

Netflix’s courtship of Rhimes began, in earnest, in the late fall of 2016. At the time, she had more than a year to go on her ABC contract, so she did not tell anyone at the network about the breakfast she had planned with Ted Sarandos, the chief content officer of Netflix.

With her agent, Chris Silbermann of ICM Partners, in tow, Rhimes and Sarandos took a table in the back of Republique, a casual restaurant on South La Brea Avenue. During the sit-down, Rhimes was frank with Sarandos about how she viewed her next act.

“I said, ‘I’m not going to make you a second ‘Grey’s Anatomy,'” Rhimes said. “That was one of the first things I said. And he said, ‘I’m not interested in you making a second ‘Grey’s Anatomy.'”

Word of the breakfast made its way to The Hollywood Reporter — but the brief item that ran soon afterward in the trade publication’s Power Dining column failed to identify Rhimes correctly: “Netflix’s Ted Sarandos and wife Nicole Avant ate breakfast with ICM Partners’ Chris Silbermann at Republique,” the item read.

“I was like, ‘For once, bias is working in my favor!'” Rhimes said. “Nicole and I are both black women. We couldn’t look more not alike. But somebody decided that’s who that must be. And it saved me a whole lot of trouble.”

Last August, Netflix and Rhimes had an agreement for a contract with a base salary of around $150 million, with incentives that could kick the producer’s earnings much higher, according to two people with knowledge of the deal.

The news of a streaming company’s successful wooing of a major network producer hit Hollywood like an earthquake. As Dana Walden, co-chief executive of the Fox Television Group, described it this year, “That sent a message to the entire talent community: There’s a new template in town. For any uber-premium creator, the value has gone up 10 times.”

— Eight Shows (One About a Grifter)

Rhimes, 48, is among the select few television producers whose work has helped define a cultural moment. In the ‘80s, there was Steven Bochco, with “Hill Street Blues” and “L.A. Law.” Next came David E. Kelley, of “Ally McBeal” and “The Practice” fame. And then there was Rhimes, who made her mark during what would turn out to be the last years of appointment television viewing.

The producer and director J.J. Abrams, who has known Rhimes for several years, said she brought something distinctive to network programming.

“The thing that you can’t deny is her characters are surprising, her characters are vulnerable, her characters are ambitious, her characters are broken, and her characters are involved in situations that are shocking and stressful,” Abrams said. “She is able to tell real stories in ways that feel relatable.”

Rhimes said she had two principal goals for her time at Netflix. One is to come up with shows that are more expansive than her ABC fare. The other is to turn Shondaland into an enduring company that will live within Netflix in the same way that Marvel exists inside the Walt Disney Company.

“It would be really amazing to me at some point down the line — not now — if somebody said, ‘There was a Shonda for Shondaland?'” Rhimes said. “It needs to be bigger than me.”

In the days after signing the deal, she was enthusiastic about the creative freedom Netflix had promised her, but found herself with an immediate problem: She had no idea what she was going to write.

“It wasn’t like I had a treasure trove of ideas in the back of my head that I’d been hiding and saving,” she said. “So the panic overtook me for a while.” Abrams had sympathy for his friend’s plight. “You can have all the success in the world, but none of it matters when you’re there alone with the blank computer screen,” he said.

Over the next few months, Rhimes tended her continuing ABC work and scouted material that could be a fit for Netflix. But she still had no clue about what, exactly, she would throw herself into as a writer-producer.

“In October,” she said, “because of who I am, I was like: ‘Why don’t I have a show yet? I should have a show all written and ready to go. I should have eight episodes all written.'”

Sarandos reassured her: You just started, take a breath. Colleagues said there was no way Rhimes could go deep into something new when she still had to wrap up the seventh and final season of “Scandal.”

She flirted with a sci-fi project — “I’m obsessed with that, but it hasn’t cracked yet” — while warding off the well-meaning but irksome questions from people curious about her Netflix plans. After Memorial Day, she escaped the noise of Los Angeles for the quiet of Arizona.

“I was trying to meditate, which I can’t do,” Rhimes said.

That was when she came upon an article in New York magazine about a fashionable young grifter, Anna Delvey, who swanned about New York with a beautiful crowd — only to end up in Rikers Island on charges of grand larceny.

“I knew exactly what the show was,” Rhimes said, “which is a very clear indicator.”

She bought the rights to the story, by a New York magazine staff writer, Jessica Pressler, and started writing almost immediately.

“I felt comfortable,” she said. “I slept differently.”

Betsy Beers, Rhimes’ producing partner since 2002, said she could tell Rhimes was onto something.

“What I heard was the excitement,” Beers said. “What I wait for is a tone in her voice — you hear this level of excitement in her voice, where she can’t stop talking about it.”

In addition to the show about the grifter, Rhimes has seven other series in the works at Netflix, ranging from period dramas to a documentary.

— An adaptation of a group of lush romance novels set in Regency England — the Bridgerton Series, by Julia Quinn — that the “Scandal” veteran Chris Van Dusen will turn into a dramatic series.

— A series based on “Reset,” a book by former tech executive Ellen Pao about sexism in Silicon Valley. Rhimes said she was likely to write this one.

— “The Warmth of Other Suns,” the award-winning 2010 nonfiction book by Isabel Wilkerson on the flight of African-Americans from the Jim Crow South to the North and the West. It will be adapted by actress and playwright Anna Deavere Smith.

— “Pico & Sepulveda,” a series set in Mexican California during the 1840s.

— An upstairs-downstairs series called “The Residence,” based on the 2015 nonfiction book of the same title, by Kate Andersen Brower, about the private lives of U.S. presidents, their families and White House staff.

— “Sunshine Scouts,” a series that Rhimes described as a “darkly comic, ironic, twisty show about some foul-mouthed teenage girls who are trapped at the end of the world.” The writer and director Jill Alexander will be in charge of this one.

— “Hot Chocolate Nutcracker,” a documentary centered on dancer and choreographer Debbie Allen and her reimagining of the holiday ballet.

— The Shondaland Dream

Rhimes said the idea of building out Shondaland had been with her for some time. She stressed that she had not grown bored with the work she had been doing for ABC — far from it — but she found that she was able to solve crises that once occupied a week of her time in 30 minutes flat. She added that she remained proud of her ABC shows and the spotlight they threw on characters who had gone underrepresented in Hollywood.

“We created a brand and an audience for ABC that they did not necessarily have before, which was a certain kind of woman,” Rhimes said. “I literally remember when we started, them saying that no woman is going to watch a woman who is this ‘not nice’ and this sexually active and this competitive.

“I really hate the phrase ‘smart, strong women,’ but the ‘smart, strong women’ thing really exploded with the shows we made,” she continued. “And people followed along in a way that felt really good for network television.”

In contrast with her fellow super producer Ryan Murphy, who had talks with Amazon and Fox, his studio at the time, before he decamped to Netflix, Rhimes knew exactly where she wanted to achieve her Shondaland dream: Netflix.

Sarandos was eager to sign her not only because he was a fan of her work but because of something he noticed in Netflix’s closely guarded data. “More than half” of Netflix’s 124 million paying subscribers have sampled one of the Shondaland shows available on the streaming service, he said in an interview. As Rhimes works to develop her lineup, her production company is on its way to a new location: Raleigh Studios, in Hollywood, about a mile from the Netflix headquarters. While checking out the property, Rhimes and a group of her Shondaland colleagues spent a while staring at a framed photograph on the wall of the United Artists founders Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and D.W. Griffith. Given Rhimes’ ambitions for the company, which she sees as a 21st-century incarnation of that artist-driven studio, she considered it a good portent.

“We have this whole dream,” she said. “There’s going to be a row of offices, and we’re all going to be working on our scripts at the same time. And everyone is going to come out of their offices and scream about how bad their script is: ‘Does anyone know what I’m supposed to do for Act 5?’ And everyone is going to drink Scotch and then run back to work.”

“I don’t think that’s what’s actually going to happen,” Rhimes continued. “But it does feel really good to know that it does feel like a very United Artists, creative kind of place.”

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