Shonda Rhimes Is Ready to “Own Her S***”: The Game-Changing Showrunner

I am the highest-paid showrunner in television.

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.

 

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