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For a good idea of what’s happening in the TV industry of 2021, look no further than Courtney A. Kemp. The 44-year-old scribe, reared in broadcast procedural writers rooms, built a franchise from scratch at Starz. At its peak, her series Power courted more than 10 million viewers a week to pay cable. The drama’s 2020 conclusion brought with it news of five spinoffs, two of which she managed to launch during the pandemic. But with great power comes great opportunity. In August, as her longtime deal with Starz parent company Lionsgate expired, Kemp bolted for a rich multiyear pact with Netflix — a platform that’s lost and gained a few marquee showrunners in the past year, as the streaming wars have proved that reliable writer-producers are Hollywood’s version of Patrick Mahomes and LeBron James. Over Zoom in late September, Kemp spoke candidly about working in a town where having a hit doesn’t necessarily get you recognized at parties, the pressure to deliver at a new gig and her deep affection for two TV tropes: sex and violence.
I’m not sure what one says when somebody gets a new deal. Should I congratulate you?
People do say “Congratulations.” (Laughs.) I just think moving is great because it means new possibilities. But then — and I can’t help it because I’m a perfectionist — it’s like, “I’d better come up with something good.” They’re not hiring you because they think you’re nice and like your hairstyle. They’re hiring you to make hits.
You do hear from a lot of people who’ve made similar pacts that there’s a pressure to feel like you’re delivering immediately.
My experience as a showrunner is specific to me but true of a lot of people I know. We’ve been overachieving — because of trauma, nature, nurture or whatever — since we were kids. The perfectionism thing is really a big part of showrunning. You want to do people proud. At the same time, I trust that my track record is not so bad. I’ll come up with something.
Before leaving Lionsgate, you launched two Power spinoffs at Starz, and there are more coming. How involved do you plan to be?
I’m not completely divested from them, but Netflix is my focus. New business is my focus. As a sunflower turns toward the sun, we turn toward the development of new projects.
But there are people — Ryan Murphy and the American Story shows come to mind — who haven’t extricated themselves from old business. As a perfectionist, is it going to be easy for you to not write an episode here and there?
I’ll answer it this way: If I write an episode of one of those series, I’m actually taking money out of the pocket of writers on those series who would have been assigned and gotten paid to write it. I wouldn’t look to do that, no. I’m experiencing grief around leaving the franchise, of course, but it was necessary. That job had become so much about the business of the show, as opposed to being able to really tell stories. You get an empire, and it’s not the same anymore. At some point, Mrs. Fields stopped baking the cookies.
When you were looking to move shop, what did you find various platforms wanted from you?
When we pitched Power around town, a lot of places said no because a show with Black leads at that time was very much not what people wanted to buy. Now people have had the opportunity to see that they can make good money on those shows. I’ve said it before, but the color that matters in Hollywood is green. And I think people look to me to provide a certain demographic of viewer. I’m very committed to, BIPOC, LGBTQIA and women. Those are the areas where I’m committed to telling stories and amplifying voices — which isn’t to say that if you’re a straight white man, you can’t have a great story. But I’m pretty sure you’ll get that on [the air]. That door will open to you. Whereas if you are a queer woman of color, maybe people aren’t listening as much. They’re starting to listen more.
Well, only because they have to.
The NFL has something called the Rooney Rule. Do you know what that is?
Because no one was hiring African-American head coaches, the rule became that you had to interview a viable Black candidate before you selected a head coach. But the thing about the Rooney Rule, for the most part, is they interview the guy but they don’t hire him. That’s the thing. So, yes, people are listening more — but a lot of times it’s still the same people making the decisions. That’s changing, too. But if they don’t understand why something is good or why a joke makes sense… I find that you still need people who’ll say, “I don’t understand, but I think someone will.”
Power was huge, but the attention it got in Hollywood did not necessarily reflect that. Do you think that’s because it was seen as a “Black show” or because it was on Starz, which I’d argue has issues courting mainstream pop culture?
The fact that you’re asking me the question is the answer. I’ve been in multiple rooms full of showrunners and WGA members — before the pandemic, of course — and heard, “Oh, you’re a showrunner? Power? Never heard of it.” If your own peer group has never heard of your show, and it’s been on for six years and it’s the biggest hit on your network, it can’t just be because they’re not looking for it. It has to be a combination of factors. It has not been the universe’s will that we be acknowledged in the way that I would hope, on a mainstream level, and I’m so grateful to the Image Awards for acknowledging us as much as they have.
Were your Netflix execs specific about what they wanted from you before you signed on?
Of everyone I talked to when I was looking to leave Lionsgate, Netflix was the most supportive in terms of, “Whatever you want to do is cool. Go for it.” I have a lot of experience in a bunch of different genres. I came up as a legal procedural writer, but I write a show that is a legal drama, a cops-and-robbers drama, a soap, a romance, a comedy. … I’m kind of one-stop shopping. And I love sex and violence, which have a universal appeal. (Laughs.) I’m not trying to toot my own horn. What I’m trying to say is, I don’t think picking me means that you are looking for something specific.
Ted Sarandos just revealed a lot of Netflix viewership stats at a conference and, among the most viewed original series and movies, it’s clear that boobs and guns perform well on the platform.
Listen, boobs and guns are great. I always cast very attractive people. People need escape. TV is for escape. I don’t want to work that hard [on plot]. I know there are lots of people who love to work hard in a television show. I mean this with a ton of respect, but I don’t care what the hatch is about. That doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy Lost for the relationships. I’m interested in the relationships.
What else interests you?
I want to challenge my audience. I want to be pushed or to push people. I love honest, frank talk about race, gender and sexuality. It’s not a small thing to me. When we were creating the characters in Ghost, one of the sons in the drug-dealing family is gay and has a relationship. There were people who were like, “You shouldn’t do that because the audience won’t like it.” Well, if you make a show about people who are college-age in 2021 and everyone is straight, you’re an asshole. You’re an asshole if you make that show.
Once it aired, did you get a sense of what the audience thought?
There were a lot more supporters than detractors. We did get negative pushback from the members of the audience that were like, “What is this, Empire?” For sure. Look at Lil Nas X and how many people come for him — how dangerous it’s been for him. We’ve got to keep pushing. We’ve got to keep pushing on every level.
How much does the shadow of capitalism impact your day-to-day? Because it seems as though consolidation on every level is the new Hollywood inevitability.
It’s scary. It’s all about who’s making the decisions. Luckily, one thing Power proves is that, if there’s an audience for something, the audience will demand it. Look at Manifest coming back. If an audience shows up, they’ll demand not only your thing but more things like your thing. Even if everything merges into three outlets, a good show that makes it on one of those outlets, if people watch it, will stay. I mean, I signed up for Disney+ to watch Hamilton. Didn’t everybody? Well, Disney wouldn’t necessarily have gotten me to sign up without putting on those Black and brown people to sing, rap and dance — without that representation I could show my daughter. So what does that tell you? Somebody’s making smart decisions.
But do you still subscribe?
Yes, sir. (Laughs.) They have Marvel. And The Simpsons!
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the Oct. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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