Shonda Rhimes Is Ready to “Own Her S***”: The Game-Changing Showrunner on Leaving ABC, “Culture Shock” at Netflix and Overcoming Her Fears

Photographed by KWAKU ALSTON

by Lacey Rose – 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.

Shonda Rhimes Photographed by KWAKU ALSTON
Photographed by KWAKU ALSTON
Photographed by KWAKU ALSTON
“I’d say, ‘We just want to be left alone to make our shows,’ and they’d be like, ‘We want to help you in every way possible.’ So, it took a while to figure out how to meld our worlds,” says Shonda Rhimes, photographed Oct. 9 in Los Angeles, of her early days at Netflix.

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.

ABC Entertainment portion of the 2015 Summer TCA Tour
Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images
Rhimes (second from right) with her ABC series stars at a press event. “[Shonda] has a spectacular eye for talent and her shows are sexy, compelling and addictive,” Disney boss Dana Walden says of Rhimes, who still produces hits for ABC.

By summer 2017, he’d succeeded, signing Rhimes and her now nearly 50-person company, Shondaland. Rhimes was 3,000 miles away, in Martha’s Vineyard with her daughters, now 7, 8 and 18, when the news broke. “For all I knew, people were going to think, ‘She’s lost her mind,’ ” says Rhimes. Instead, she was deluged with inquiries from other producers, who wanted to know everything, including whether they should come over too. She had no idea how to answer any of them. And though her longtime producing partner, Betsy Beers, waxes on about the creative freedoms and the opportunity they’ve had to “be pioneers” at Netflix, Rhimes acknowledges that there was a sizable adjustment period. “It was saying, ‘Let’s go visit Spain, I’m so excited about Spain,’ and then getting there and realizing you don’t speak any Spanish,” she says. “We had real culture shock.”

It would take more than a year for Rhimes to find her footing. There was plenty that would simply require getting used to, though she bristled at a few Netflix practices — like one that demanded she turn in a season’s worth of scripts before shooting a single frame. “It leaves no room for the actors’ performance,” she kept saying, until eventually they backed off. She was far less persuasive with her critique of the company’s inclusive meeting culture, which often means there are dozens present when Rhimes would like only a few. “And 50 people, if you’re as introverted as I am, is terrifying,” says Rhimes, acknowledging she’d had no choice but to get comfortable with a crowd.

Sarandos insists he was never concerned, even if several beneath him say they would have preferred to have Rhimes produce more sooner. “We’d spent a long time in build mode at Netflix, so I recognized it — it’s almost like a nesting period,” says Sarandos, sharing a story from Rhimes’ first year at the company when he’d invited her to a dinner he was hosting at his home and he didn’t hear back. Sarandos followed up a few weeks later to see what had happened, and Rhimes told him she didn’t feel she could come have dinner until she “had something on the board.” Sarandos claims he was impressed by the excuse: “This is clearly someone who holds her own feet to the fire,” he says, adding that theirs “is not meant to be a one-[contract]-and-done relationship.”

But in February 2018, before Rhimes had even found a first project to sink her teeth into, Murphy inked his deal, reportedly worth as much as $300 million, or double Rhimes’ then-reported sum, and the media narrative shifted. It was no longer, simply, “Shonda Rhimes, trailblazer,” but rather about the now booming eight- and nine-figure market for producers, with at least a few reporters wondering, publicly, why the Black female showrunner appeared to be making so much less than the white male one. And though Rhimes’ pact is said to have been woefully underreported — it’s a mix of less guaranteed cash than Murphy’s but, in success, considerably more backend, per multiple sources — she opted not to do any press or correct the figures being floated at the time. Meanwhile, Murphy made his deal, and almost immediately appeared on the cover of this magazine with a headline that screamed, “TV’s $300 Million Man.”

Rhimes couldn’t help but marvel, as she’d do again a couple of years later when Murphy began churning out new fare for the streamer at a stunning pace. “Here’s the thing: I’m a little obsessed with Ryan and how comfortable he is owning his power,” says Rhimes. “It’s like he has this incredibly stylish home, these beautiful children, and he always seems like he’s got it all together — and then he did this amazing photo shoot and he owned his shit, and I was like, ‘Why wouldn’t I own my shit? Like, why do I feel like it’s wrong to do somehow?’ ”

‘Bridgerton,’ a sprawling drama set in Regency-era England, is based on the hugely popular book series, which Rhimes devoured and was desperate to develop. Her longtime producing partner, Betsy Beers, admits that she was initially skeptical. “And I was clearly, totally and absolutely wrong,” Beers says with a laugh.

Still, Rhimes maintains she would’ve stayed mum had she not been asked to make a speech at Elle‘s Women in Hollywood event, where she was being honored with the Luminary Award in late 2018. After being introduced by her Grey’s Anatomy star Ellen Pompeo, who had been vocal about her own dealmaking process earlier that year, Rhimes stepped up to the podium determined to own her shit. “The other day I came to the conclusion that men brag and women hide,” she began. “Even when they don’t deserve to brag, men brag. When men do deserve to brag, they’re good at it.” She kept going, turning her focus first to Pompeo and then to Murphy, acknowledging how they’d both bragged while she’d inked her groundbreaking deal and promptly hid. “I’m getting this award for inspiring other women, and how can I inspire anyone if I’m hiding?” she asked. So, she took a deep breath and said, “On behalf of women everywhere, I will brag.” She paused there, admitting that what she was about to reveal was harder than she’d imagined, and then she went for it: “I am the highest-paid showrunner in television.” The room, which, incidentally, included Murphy, erupted.

Rhimes walked away feeling empowered, but it was all she could do not to throw up while she was there. At one point, she had called her lawyer to make certain her grand declaration was accurate. “I was like, ‘Is this true?’ ” she asked for the umpteenth time. “And he was like, ‘Yes, Shonda. I don’t know why you’re asking me this again.’ And I was like, ‘But are we really sure?’ And he was like, ‘Yes.’ I was like, ‘Are you sure?’ And he was like, ‘Shonda stop, just stop.’ ”


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