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

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

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.

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?' "

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.' "

***

Owning her power had never been a struggle before. Raised the youngest of six in suburban Chicago, Rhimes was instilled with a great deal of confidence from an early age. It's something that she and her fiercely close sisters, in particular, have in common. "Society is built to make women question their worth from the moment they're born, and we were just never raised that way," says Rhimes, praising her parents, both academics. "We talk about it a lot. We're always like, 'What is it? Can you bottle it?' "

Those who've worked with Rhimes or watched her closely say her assuredness can be as inspiring as it is jarring, as you rarely see women speak so bluntly about their own value. One need only peruse her Twitter feed, which counts nearly 2 million followers, to see examples like this one, in late 2018: "Why do reporters always say writers were 'lured' [into deals]? Like we're children following a trail of candy. I created a $2B+ revenue stream for a major corp. with my imagination. I do not follow trails of candy. I am the candy."

It's there, too, if you watch her 2016 TED Talk, as more than 5 million have. Within the first few minutes, Rhimes has rattled off her own impressive stats, and then concludes, "You know who else is doing that? Nobody. So, like I said, I'm a titan." The talk followed the single most transformative experiment of Rhimes' life: For roughly a year, in 2014, she agreed to say yes to everything that scared her — the fancy dinner invites, the speaking engagements, the playtime with her daughters when she'd otherwise be working. She then set out to write about the experience in a best-selling book, The Year of Yes, a raw and deeply personal exploration of the impact of "yes" on every aspect of her life, from her relationships to her waistline.

When Rhimes first told her team she intended to include a chapter about losing weight — more than 100 pounds, by the time of publication — at least one or two members asked, "Do you really want to talk about that?" Her response: "Do you think anybody didn't notice that I lost a ton of weight?" The only subject that Rhimes was not immediately comfortable including was her decision to call off her 2014 wedding — though ultimately that made its way in, too. "His life is not anybody else's business, but I had to be fair about it," she says, without ever IDing him by name or profession. "Plus, there are so many women who feel the same way [about not wanting to be married], it should be a discussion."

A funny thing happened over the course of that year: The very act of doing the things that scared her undid the fear. Suddenly, the woman who was once too shy to sit down in her own writers room was doling out commencement addresses at her alma mater, Dartmouth, and keeping company with former first ladies. At some point along the way, Rhimes became as famous as her stars, and, many say, infinitely more intimidating. It took actress Katie Lowes getting outside the bubble of Scandal to see it. "People are petrified of her," Lowes says, having moved with Rhimes from the ABC series to Inventing Anna, where she stars as one of Anna Delvey's duped friends. "I walked onto the Delvey set and I was like, 'Oh my God, now I'm the person who's friends with Shonda and everyone's scared,' " she says, recounting the many times she's had to encourage people to reach out to Rhimes when they've needed something. "I'm always like, 'I promise you, she's this incredible, loving person.' "

But more attention meant more opportunity. Soon, Rhimes' empire expanded to a Shondaland website, a slate of podcasts, a popular MasterClass offering and a series of brand collaborations with companies from Microsoft to Dove. Pompeo, who's had a front-row seat to Rhimes' transformation, is regularly in awe. "I can only imagine the doors that got slammed in her face and the opportunities she didn't get because she didn't look like David E. Kelley or Steven Bochco or whoever else at the beginning of her career," she says. "I imagine there's a 'fuck you' element to it, if I know her well. Like, 'Watch how far I can go.' And what does Beyoncé say? 'Best revenge is your paper.' "

Rhimes liked, too, that she could do good, often just by showing up. "Every time I'd give a speech, I started to say, 'Why don't we donate that money to charity?' Or, 'What portion of this are you going to donate to charity?' " she says. "And at first we were living in that wonderful Obama world and it felt exciting and positive, and then all of a sudden it felt urgent." Rhimes has been using every bit of juice she has lately to urge and educate people to vote. What she hasn't done is come out hard in support of Joe Biden, certainly not in the way she did for Clinton, for whom she and Beers produced a short doc that aired at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. Rhimes insists it's not that she doesn't care about the Biden campaign — in fact, she's already told vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris she'd do or write "anything she'd want me to." Instead, she explains, "We're in this world now where either you're voting or you're not — like, we're not swaying any Trump voters, so you don't need to be educated in that."

The issue of voter suppression, much like the notion that people "have just discovered there's racism," has her considerably more passionate, and increasingly full of rage. But Rhimes wasn't born of the "you march around the building until the building comes down" generation, and being part of the "you get inside it until you become CEO" one has made the past few months as a Black woman with a giant platform that much more complicated. "I keep trying to find things to do and I keep discovering that it doesn't matter what you do," she says, sounding defeated for the first and only time in two-plus hours. At some point, Rhimes is confident that she and many others are going "to write the crap out of this moment," but first they'll need to get through it.

***

When we connect again a few weeks later, Netflix has been rocked by a series of high-profile executive departures. First it was the streamer's head of original series, Cindy Holland, who was pushed out unexpectedly in September. In early October, the drama chief, Channing Dungey, whom Rhimes worked with at ABC and once called her "translator" at Netflix, announced that she'd be leaving too. Bela Bajaria, who'd been promoted over the two, and Sarandos both called Rhimes to make sure she was OK and still felt valued. Rhimes appreciated the outreach, but it wasn't necessary.

"The reason I came to Netflix is because I wanted to be able to make television without anybody bothering me," she says. "And as long as I get to keep making television without anybody bothering me, I'm happy."

The commercial expectations for the first Shondaland series, Bridgerton, based on a collection of romance novels with a fervid international fan base and being run by Rhimes protege Chris Van Dusen, are said to be high, though it's the second, Inventing Anna, that's generating real excitement internally. The limited series, which only recently went back into production after being waylaid by the pandemic, is based on a 2018 New York magazine story about a fake German heiress who conned her way into the New York society scene. Rhimes had read the piece by journalist Jessica Pressler (who'll be portrayed prominently by Veep's Anna Chlumsky) when it first came out and was immediately excited, prompting Netflix to outbid the ferocious competition for the rights to adapt it.

"There was something really fascinating about this girl, not just because she scammed everybody, but because everybody was so willing to be scammed by her," Rhimes says now of her draw to Delvey, who'll be played by Ozark Emmy winner Julia Garner. "And I think part of the reason why was because she wasn't the 'hot chick' — and there's something about her level of confidence without having that level of beauty that made it possible for everybody to take her seriously, because how could somebody who looked like that be that confident?" Rhimes was writing and rewriting the series as the real-life Sorokin/Delvey, whom she chose never to meet, stood trial and, more recently, got her prison time shaved considerably for good behavior.

Though Rhimes has at least 12 other projects — a romance thriller, a time-travel drama, a coming-of-age comedy — in various stages of development, she's aware of the growing industry chatter about whether megadeals like hers are worth their price tags. Rhimes acknowledges that it's a valid question, just not one she's equipped to answer. "It's not my place," she says. At the same time, she makes clear that she never envisioned Netflix being a four- or five-year pit stop on her creative journey: "I don't know what it is for other people, and to hop in and hop out of a megadeal might not make sense, but for me it's about a much longer haul."

Sarandos isn't interested in the philosophical debate of whether the deals are good or bad; he argues that they're necessary, particularly in a market where his former suppliers are increasingly focused on selling exclusively to their own networks and streaming services. "If you want access to the best storytellers, you're probably going to have to compete in that [overall deal] space," he says, though there are rumblings he'll be less keen on re-upping some of the bigger pacts he's made. "So, it's not that I do or don't want to do them, I just don't want to take the access to these storytellers off the table." And Rhimes, he says in no uncertain terms, isn't just any storyteller.

Krista Vernoff, who stayed behind at ABC to run Grey's Anatomy, still a top performer in its 17th season, and later its spinoff Station 19, goes so far as to say Rhimes changed the face of television. She still remembers being at a restaurant back in Grey's Anatomy's first season and spotting the hospital series playing on an overhead TV. There, on what was then one of the biggest shows in the world, she watched a Black family surrounded by three Black doctors without the scene or the series ever being about a Black family surrounded by three Black doctors. "I thought we were making a romantic comedy — a delightful, distracting, sexy, funny, smart one," she says, "and then I looked up at the TV and I went, 'Oh, we're making a revolution.' "

Now, as Rhimes' future at the streaming service comes into focus, people keep asking if she's feeling nervous. Plenty at her company and at least a few more at Netflix certainly are, but not Rhimes — not in the way she used to feel nervous. It's different now, she says: "My legacy is set, I'm writing now because I love to write." She's thought a lot over the years about something that Oprah Winfrey had said to her at the end of an interview way back in 2006, when Rhimes was first experiencing outsized success. "You're not enjoying this yet," she had said, and she'd been right. "So, now?" says Rhimes. "Now, I just want to enjoy this."

This story first appeared in the Oct. 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.