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“Just Go In and Do Your Thing”: Hollywood’s Most Powerful Women Talk Megadeals, Bullying and Perseverance at THR’s Executive Roundtable

Netflix's Bela Bajaria, Amazon's Jennifer Salke, Disney's Dana Walden and uber-creators Shonda Rhimes and Ava DuVernay get candid about their responsibilities and realities: "I like to say I don’t feel grateful or fortunate to be here. I earned my right to be here."

In a year when much of the industry was flatlined by the pandemic, Netflix’s Bela Bajaria saw her purview balloon, as she assumed responsibility for the TV viewing habits of 208 million global members. Amazon’s Jennifer Salke muscled her way into both the Oscar conversation (thanks to Sound of Metal and One Night in Miami) and the blockbuster one (Coming 2 America); and Disney’s Dana Walden installed new and largely female leadership across a vast portfolio that includes broadcast, cable and streaming. Meanwhile, Shonda Rhimes released the buzziest show of the year with romance drama Bridgerton; and Ava DuVernay not only sold a slew of new projects but also fundamentally changed how Hollywood productions will be staffed going forward with her Array Crew database. On a Friday afternoon in late April, these five women — among the most powerful in Hollywood — gathered via Zoom to discuss everything from deal-making to Scott Rudin.

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I want to start by acknowledging that this past year has been like no other. How has this period impacted the stories that you want to tell?

JENNIFER SALKE We had a lot of projects in the works leaning into a lot of serious issues. If you look at Them: Covenant or The Underground Railroad coming, even One Night in Miami, it’s heavier content that you really need to invest in. What we realized, and it wasn’t a big surprise to me, with something like Coming 2 America, suddenly everybody’s like, “Please, I want to go to a party.” It’s helped us refocus a bit on accelerating some of that balance going forward.

SHONDA RHIMES A lot of people have been asking, “Has the racial justice uprising or the political uprising changed what stories you want to tell?” And I always say, “I’m sure that this year has been an awakening for a lot of people and I am really grateful for that, but you can’t wake somebody up who never really had the privilege of being asleep.” But before the pandemic, I’d reached a place of wanting to feel more joy in stories. It felt like the world was already in a very dark place. You can tell a great ghost story or a great sad story when the lights are on, but when the lights are off you want people to feel a little more hopeful. So, no, I don’t think it has changed anything. It oddly gave me the cocoon to put my head down, take care of the people around me and just work.

BELA BAJARIA And clearly people wanted some romance …

DANA WALDEN It’s always interesting when you have a storyteller like Shonda who’s developing something before a crisis happens or before there’s this impact — they’re just pointed in the right direction. It’s like an eerie prescience of what audiences will want. Because we all started the pandemic thinking this is a terrible but really interesting period and there was a lot of interest in telling stories about that before we knew how long we’d be locked inside. And as time went on, it became clear, like, “Oh, this is going to last for a long time,” and it was at that exact moment that Bridgerton came out. It was such a dark time, and you had this escapist place to go. My husband and I haven’t watched a show together [like that] probably since our kids were little.

SALKE We were addicted, too.

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Ava Duvernay Photographed By Diana King

How about you, Ava?

AVA DUVERNAY No, it has not changed what I am interested in or the way that I’m going to go about telling [stories] going forward.

Fair enough. I’ve gathered five of the most powerful women in Hollywood, and yet I imagine there are still doors that haven’t swung open. Maybe it’s a type of project you still wouldn’t be entrusted with, maybe it’s the C-suite or a spot in the boardroom. Where do you still hear no, and is that changing at all?

BAJARIA Personally, I’m so excited about what I do and I’m lucky in so many ways, but I think for me, being an immigrant woman of color in America, a board seat at a Fortune 500 company is still out of reach.

SALKE I’m three years in at Amazon, and I don’t feel doors closed to me. I’m so grateful to be in the position to drive this part of our business globally — it couldn’t be more interesting and I couldn’t feel more fortunate. I don’t really see a ceiling on where I personally might be able to go within my company. And as far as in general, I’m hoping to just stay there till I’m done. (Laughs.)

RHIMES Jen was saying how grateful and fortunate she feels and I always like to point out that men never feel grateful or fortunate to be in the positions they are in. Men feel like they earned the right to be in the room. So, I like to say I don’t feel grateful or fortunate to be here. I earned my right to be here. I worked really, really hard just because I know that men say the same thing. But, yeah, there are totally doors that are not open yet. It would be ridiculous to suggest that everybody just throws open every door when they see a really annoying Black woman striding toward them, demanding her space.

DUVERNAY Inherent in that question is for me to think about absence and lack, and that’s just not something that I go about my day doing. Like, “What are you not allowed into?” Well, I’m not allowed in any of it. But what I’ve really tried to focus on is disruption of the systems that make it that way. The conversation 10 years ago was, “Let’s do every panel and every roundtable to talk about what’s not happening.” And I made a commitment to myself about two or three years ago that I wasn’t going to do that anymore. I was going to make something happen and not just for myself but to try to really interrogate the systems that lock us into this and try to chip away at them, understand them, maneuver around them, through them, over them, under them, whatever it was going to be. So, the answer to the question, “Are there are a bunch of spaces?” Yeah, I’m sure there are; I’m not really thinking about them.

We are operating in a town that talks a lot about its desire to change, and yet you’ve said you met with plenty of resistance trying to get your inclusive crew database launched. What did that look like, and how did you ultimately get everyone on board?

DUVERNAY Like I’m saying, who cares what the resistance was, because we got it done. I’m not going to take up my time talking about the resistance. There’s a whole bunch of stories, and they’re juicy, too. I know you wish you had them, but you’re not going to get them. We get so bogged down in process because we are in our feelings, as Drake says, and we’ve got to move through that and get to the result. So, for me, the result of it is every one of these women’s companies as well as every major studio in this industry is a part of Array Crew. There are over 600 productions at this moment that are looking for over 6,000 crewmembers who have signed up, and they can meet people that they never met: the Samoan gaffer, the nonbinary key grip, the woman who does the thing that you never thought a woman could do. If I could’ve just made it a folder that I passed around, I would’ve done that. But people want things that are high tech, so we made it into a platform and now I have a chief technology officer. But Shonda and I would get calls all the time. “Do you have a Black this, do you have a lady this?” Yeah, I’ve got a whole bunch of ’em. This is my list, get your own list. So, there were all these little lists and we just put them together in one place and it’s part of a nonprofit, and my hope is that it’s not needed in 10 years.

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Bela Bajaria Photographed By Diana King

Jen, there were reports about Lord of the Rings, which put the first-season budget at $465 million — making it the most expensive series ever. What does that price tag say about the market today, and how well will it need to do to justify that price tag?

SALKE The market is crazy, as you saw with the Knives Out deal. [Netflix paid $469 million for two sequels.] This is a full season of a huge world-building show. The number is a sexy headline or a crazy headline that’s fun to click on, but that is really building the infrastructure of what will sustain the whole series. But it is a crazy world and various people on this Zoom, mostly Bela and me, have been in bidding situations where it starts to go incredibly high. There’s a lot of wooing and we have to make decisions on where we want to stretch and where we want to draw the line. As for how many people need to watch Lord of the Rings? A lot. (Laughs.) A giant, global audience needs to show up to it as appointment television, and we are pretty confident that that will happen.

Bela, there’s been a lot of chatter about a recent pivot to a more commercial sensibility at Netflix. As one exec put it, “The conversation internally is how do we get more Lucifer, more Emily in Paris, more broadcast fare?” Which is a notable shift from Netflix’s early days, when it was, “Come and make your passion project.” Why the shift and what are the challenges of managing it?

BAJARIA It’s a business. We want to make big shows and we want a lot of people to watch them, and most creators we work with also want to make big shows and want audiences to actually watch them. So, I think we were more explicit and on certain shows we right-sized the budget … but this wasn’t a radical shift. It was, “Do we have a wide breadth of shows?” We have many shows that are big-budget and really have something to say in a very sort of awards way — we’re not not doing that. You saw Shonda achieve both with Bridgerton — commercial success and critical acclaim. Ava’s new show for us, Colin in Black & White, is going to achieve all those things too. So, the chatter has been, I’m going to say amusing for lack of a better word, and it was probably fun during the transition when people wanted to talk about something, but we are sustaining a global business here.

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Dana Walden Photographed By Diana King

In 2017, Shonda signed her overall deal at Netflix, and then every showrunner wanted “a Shonda Rhimes deal” — some warranted one, many did not. It led to what some have called a bubble. Is that a fair description, and how close are we to seeing it burst?

WALDEN I don’t think that’s so different from what the overall marketplace has been historically. You made some bets on people who turned out to be Shonda and you made some bets on people who turned out to not be Shonda. The history books aren’t evolved enough to look back at this period yet and evaluate, “Was it a bubble?” I’m genuinely for any creator getting as much as they can. It is an incredibly difficult job, and to maintain a position at the top, you have to keep delivering hit after hit after hit. It’s not like either of the two storytellers on this Zoom are responsible for just a piece of content and then went into the marketplace and drove gigantic deals. Now, to say I have no regrets [about the bets we’ve made] would be a lie. (Laughs.) All of us have made choices in our careers where, had we had the benefit of the experience, we might have made different choices. But, overall, I’m really proud of the relationships we have.

Shonda, I was listening to a recent interview you did with Bill Clinton, and even a former president is asking you about Regé-Jean Page’s departure. Let’s start easy: Has the response surprised you?

RHIMES I don’t think I fully expected or understood what releasing all eight episodes around the globe at once was going to do. And yeah, I was like, “I’ve killed many a man that people adore.” I’m so surprised that everybody is [losing it over a character we’ve watched] for eight episodes leaving. But obviously Regé is an amazing actor and he did an amazing thing and people responded. I also was surprised because the nature of this series is simply, this year it’s this couple, this year it’s [that] couple.

Yes, this was always the plan, he had a one-year contract, but I’m curious for you and for Bela, what have you learned from the experience? Do you add clauses to contracts going forward so that, in success, a star is obligated to at least cameo in future seasons?

BAJARIA Those books really dictated what we did, and we want talent to have an amazing experience and tell the story they’re telling authentically, not, “Oh, can you just come over here and do this little thing?” Like, is that satisfying? Is that what actors want to do? He delivered on his story.

RHIMES I was just excited about the idea of being able to tell a complete romantic tale that has an end, where you’re not finding 14 other reasons why the couple can’t be together or frankly having Regé stand in the background of somebody else’s romance. That doesn’t make sense.

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Shonda Rhimes Photographed By Diana King

Many of you are increasingly focused on a global push. How has that mandate impacted the stories you set out to tell?

BAJARIA I think there are a lot of misnomers about what travels and what doesn’t, and it’s a systemic problem. It is keeping people out of the room and out of being seen. In traditional Hollywood, people would say for years, “If you have shows with Black actors, they don’t travel globally, they won’t be as successful.” But if you look at When They See Us on Netflix, 50 percent of the audience was outside the U.S. Or if you look at something like Lupin from France, it has a Black lead and it’s traveled all over the world and broke records for us. Those two shows worked everywhere in the world.

SALKE I totally agree. Them is one of our biggest acquisition drivers. So, the more diverse the cast, the better; the more diverse and authentic the storytelling, the better. We also see it working the other way. You have a show coming out of Spain that you think is incredible and it’s running into assumptions that that won’t travel because it’s been made in Spain for a Spanish audience, and that’s not true either. It’s a global storytelling world, and these companies better get on board because it’s already late.

BAJARIA People think, like, “What is an international show?” It’s like, no, what’s an authentic show? What’s a vision of a creator, in any language, in any country, that’s great? A show [like Unorthodox] about an Orthodox Jewish woman in Berlin that happens to be very specific — it’s half in Yiddish — crossed over globally. So, I love that Hollywood has always exported content and that we still get to tell these amazing stories with these storytellers and export them, but I was born in London and lived in Africa and am from India, and I love that we get to tell stories from Nigeria or from Mumbai, too, and that’s super meaningful on this global platform.

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Photographed By Sterling Baston

How about the storytellers?

DUVERNAY I started as an independent filmmaker, so there’s no thought in my head about constructing a story for a global audience. I’m in production on seven shows right now and it’s just stuff we like to do. One of the things that has been so empowering for a storyteller like me is the advent of streamers. There is no way that 13th, a documentary about the prison industrial complex and criminalization, would ever have reached and had the social impact that it did globally if it wasn’t for Netflix putting it in front of tens of millions of people in their native language around the world. More people saw that film than saw A Wrinkle in Time, the Disney movie [I made] based on a very famous IP.

Which is wild …

DUVERNAY And that’s why early on I became very attracted to the streamers and Netflix in particular. My deal is not there on purpose. [DuVernay has a deal at Warner Bros.] Because I keep thinking that’s not going to work for very long. And then Shonda went and I was like, “Sis!” Then the Obamas went, and I was like, “You guys!” And then of course everything I keep selling is to Netflix, so I’m like, one foot in, one foot out of Netflix. But I always talk about the fact that it broke down walls as to who liked what, where and when, and I will just give you one example.

Please.

DUVERNAY A good friend of mine said, “You’ve got to watch this show [The Queen’s Gambit].” I was like, “Girl, I am not watching this white woman play chess. I’m not doing it.” (Laughter.) Like, “God bless you, I’m sure it’s good.” I said, “Is there a romance in it?” She was like, “A little, not really.” I was like, “Is there a mystery?” She’s like, “Not really.” I said, “What is it about?” She’s like, “She’s playing chess.” I’m like, “I’m not doing this with you!” Literally three months later, I watch this thing like [glued to the TV]. I’m emailing [showrunner] Scott Frank, because we had a mutual editor, and [Netflix’s] Peter Friedlander, like, “How did you do it? Can I talk to you? Why am I addicted to this?” Because for so long, we’ve been told this is what you want and nobody wants this and, surely, we’re not even going to give this a try, and now everyone wants to know what they don’t know — they want the familiar and they want the foreign. And I don’t have to make calculations because there’s really no way to do the math. You’ve just got to tell the story and finally, blessedly, we’re in a place where we’re the lucky ones because there’s going to be a place out there that’ll try it with you. It’s a seller’s market.

THR recently published an exposé on Scott Rudin and a kind of abuse that’s being reassessed through a 2021 lens. How have the expectations of Hollywood bosses changed, and do you feel you need to treat employees differently from how you were treated when you were coming up?

SALKE I was really fortunate. I was never treated horribly by anyone I worked for. I have a force field. I don’t even know how to explain it, but I never put myself in the orbit of people who behaved like that, and I still don’t. I would not have tolerated it. So, I’ve had a consistent experience of working with and for respectful people, and I acknowledge that that’s not [how it is] in our industry overall.

BAJARIA Similarly, I wasn’t hazed, I didn’t have that kind of experience in the business. I would also have zero tolerance for that. I grew up in a really great environment, so I guess I should thank my parents, I don’t tolerate abuse of any kind. You see it a mile away and you’re like, “No thank you, not for me.” And at Netflix, it would not be tolerated.

Ava, you look like you have an opinion.

DUVERNAY I try to be careful when I think about tolerance and what one will and will not tolerate and who has the privilege to tolerate it or not tolerate it. And as we watch women and people who have been abused on the job at all levels, there is no way to know what is going on and what makes a person go back the next day. And certainly, for me, I can say I’ve been treated all kinds of ways. I’ve been [in] inappropriate situations. I think what the high-profile men being put under a microscope these days is hopefully doing is teaching a new generation of men that there is accountability. If that is the minimum that comes out of it, it’s more than has happened in 100 years of Hollywood before us. So that is important, and it is meaningful to a lot of people who might think twice before they diminish someone else.

BAJARIA I agree with Ava, too. Yes, to not have to tolerate behavior is definitely a privilege. But for all of us, I hope we take responsibility, like, you see something, you say something. Not, “That’s happening to that person and not to me.” The people who can do have to stand up for people.

RHIMES The Scott Rudin article sort of blew my mind. I was an assistant for a very short time, and so the idea that somebody would throw things at your head or that there would be some crazy toxicity in that way — like assault, sexual harassment, sexism, racism being things that you would be tolerating at work — doesn’t make any sense to me. And I think that line is very clear. But as I said to my teenage daughter who got a job, “Joy is not guaranteed in your paycheck.” So, while there is behavior that you should absolutely never tolerate, I also feel a real responsibility to teach her — just coming from where I’m from — that a job is for the roof over your head and the food that you get to eat and the clothes that you put on your back. This idea that you go to work for people to sweep you up in a hug is also not a thing that you are guaranteed. Because I want her to remember that a lot of people go to jobs where nobody is ever thinking about sweeping them up in anything. But I do think that in this town, there is some behavior that’s not just not being nice or being a jerk — there is behavior that’s unbelievable that people are sustaining, and it’s just too much.

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I was surprised by how few came forward to say, “I won’t work with him again.” Would you all work with him?

RHIMES I always think about the Harvey Weinstein era. Everybody knew what was going on and nobody did anything because that was the culture. And younger women will say, “How did that happen?” That was where the world was at that moment. It’s like, “How did segregation happen?” That was where the world was at that moment. It takes a leap for people to stand up and do something different.

WALDEN Also, we are still at a place where the pressure and the responsibility that we heap onto the victims is so unreasonable and yet that is the process we still have in place for there to be light shined on a situation like that. These victims have to do countless interviews — they have to be interviewed by the people who work inside the company to try and build a case for someone to be investigated, for there to be some sort of outcome.

I want to end on a lighter note. Most of you have daughters, and all of you have young women working for you. I’m hoping you can share your advice to them as they come of age and look to be successful in this time.

SALKE Have uncomfortable conversations. Do things that feel, like, “Ugh, I don’t know if that’s my place.” Be courageous. I wish I knew that when I was younger. It took lots of therapy and time and just growing up to allow my voice to come out.

RHIMES My 7-year-old gave me probably the best advice. She used to come to me all the time and say, “Mom, I don’t think I’m fitting in, I’m pretty sure I’m fitting out.” And she’d be so worried about it. And finally, I said to her, “I think fitting out is the way to go. Like, stop trying to fit in, just fit out.” And she got really excited about it. And so now when things are going well, she’s like, “I’m fitting out, I’m fitting out!” So, I’d say, stop caring about getting in with the crowd. Work hard, fit out.

BAJARIA With my kids, especially my daughters, it’s this idea of, like, don’t look at the gaps — stop making trade-offs or projecting what you can’t do or what somebody will think of you when you walk in. My kids are very engaged, and you can see injustices all over the place, if you’re looking for them. You can’t be thinking about what is against you. Just go in and do your thing.

DUVERNAY I don’t have kids, but to the young people in my life, I’ve come to tell them what I tell myself: Don’t believe everything you think and really challenge why you think that thing and where you got that from. Whether that’s what someone thinks about you, whether that’s what you think another person might be like, whether that’s the first assumption you’re making about someone based on assumptions that have been passed down to you — ask yourself where those things come from. The things that you see before you that look like they are static, “It’s always been done this way,” “No one has ever done that before,” ask yourself why you think that, because [doing so] can lead to pathways that are larger than we have ever imagined.

WALDEN Coming up, there were a lot of rooms where many of us were the only woman or one of the only women, and there was this huge pressure and all this self-scrutiny. I really hope that the women who are coming up now, seeing all of us and these more gender-balanced rooms, are putting their hands up and finding their voice. It is a gift to be able to listen to other people, but when you want to say something, speak up. And I hope that’s what I’m teaching in my own household. With my two daughters, I worry about whether they feel an obligation to pursue a path like this, because it’s not for everyone. So, I guess I would say just pressure off, ladies. Rise up.

Conversation edited for length and clarity.

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This story first appeared in the May 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.