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As expected, the streaming giant announced Thursday that it has signed Barris to develop new TV projects in a deal that sources say is for three years and worth in the high-eight-figure range. Unlike Netflix’s nine-figure pacts with Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy, Barris’ overall is for TV only as the prolific producer has a few years remaining on his first-look film deal with Fox.
Barris’ pact comes after an extensive negotiation to exit his four-year overall deal with ABC Studios. Barris had three years remaining on the pact with the Disney-owned studio behind ABC’s Black-ish and Freeform’s Grown-ish (and upcoming Besties). Barris will remain an executive producer on all of his shows. At Netflix, Barris and his Khalabo Ink Society banner will write and executive produce new TV projects that “reflect culture through an urban-, youth- and female-focused lens.”
“Kenya Barris is one of our great modern storytellers,” Cindy Holland, vp originals at Netflix, said in a statement. “Kenya uses his voice to make audiences more aware of the world around them, while simultaneously making them laugh. His honesty, comedic brilliance and singular point of view, combined with the creative freedom he will enjoy at Netflix, promises to create powerful new stories for all our members around the world.”
Barris’ ABC Studios departure echoes that of Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal creator Rhimes, who also negotiated an early exit from her long-term deal for a move to Netflix in a pact worth $300 million. Rhimes’ departure from ABC Studios ignited a war for talent among broadcast, cable and streaming outlets.
Barris joins a rapidly growing slate of producers at Netflix as the streamer continues to put a larger value on owning its content. Barris is a logical fit for the streamer, which is seeking what chief content officer Ted Sarandos has called a “rare class of creator” who can deliver hits that are both critically and commercially successful. Barris has shown the ability to provide that on both the film and TV side. Also of interest to the streaming service, which is looking to satisfy its 117 million subscribers: prolific producers of content. Again Barris delivers, overseeing a show and a spinoff (Freeform’s Grown-ish) while also developing aggressively in TV and film.
“When my agents reached out to me about this little garage start-up called Netflix, I wasn’t sure what to think,” Barris said. “But after I talked to Ted and Cindy, I started to believe that maybe this mom-and-pop shop with only 130 million subscribers might just be something … so I decided to take a swing … a leap of faith if you will, and take a chance with the new kids on the block.”
The writer-producer already has projects at Netflix including a feature-film reboot of Shaft, with New Line producing the script written by Barris. He also is attached to rewrite a script for a sequel to Eddie Murphy’s Coming to America. Both of those projects follow the breakout success of Girls Trip, which grossed more than $140 million worldwide on a budget of $19 million.
Barris signed with Netflix after receiving multiple offers, including from Warner Bros. TV, who courted him with other rich deals. Sources say none compared to what Netflix could offer in terms of creative freedom (and not having to develop shows for broadcast). ABC Studios has been Barris’ home since 2015. Barris, who earned a Peabody and multiple best comedy Emmy nominations for Black-ish, had become increasingly dissatisfied with the broadcast-affiliated studio. In March, for instance, ABC yanked a politically themed episode of Black-ish, citing creative differences between the network and Barris. At the time, ABC called the decision to scrap it a mutual one, though sources say otherwise. The episode was poised to feature star Anthony Anderson’s character, Dre, relaying his concerns about the current state of the country to his son. “Given our creative differences, neither ABC nor I were happy with the direction of the episode and mutually agreed not to air it,” Barris said at the time. “Black-ish is a show that has spoken to all different types of people and brought them closer as a community and I’m so proud of the series.”
In addition to Black-ish, Barris had developed multiple projects for the network but landed only one series pickup: spinoff Grown-ish, which was originally developed for ABC but skewed too young, sources said, and was moved to cable sibling Freeform (where it was renewed for a supersized second season). Grown-ish was one of three projects Barris developed for ABC in 2017. The politically themed family comedy Libby and Malcolm, starring Felicity Huffman and Courtney B. Vance with a script from Barris, was considered a frontrunner to go to series, given its timely premise of two politically divided pundits who fall in love, but ABC passed. The network also went to pilot on the Toni Collette CIA drama Unit Zero, a passion project for Barris who described it as the “type of drama television I love doing. It pulls back the curtain on what it’s like to be a woman in a historically male-dominated field and it shows underrepresented voices.” It also did not go to series.
This past development season, ABC handed out a straight-to-series order for a family comedy written by Barris with Alec Baldwin attached to exec produce and potentially star. Baldwin ultimately exited the multicamera comedy after reading the script, and the series order was downgraded to pilot before ultimately being rolled off-cycle after trouble casting a new lead of Baldwin’s caliber. (The project may now never see the light of day.) Meanwhile, the Barris-produced single-camera comedy Bright Futures landed at another network — NBC — with a late-season pilot order, but it was passed over.
“There were certainly frustrations there on all sides, and we came to a mutual decision not to air the episode,” ABC Entertainment president Channing Dungey told The Hollywood Reporter earlier this month about whether the pulled Black-ish episode was the final straw that led to Barris’ exit. “But it’s also broadcast has its challenges. People struggle with act breaks, with Standards and Practices, with the needs and the points of view of our affiliates. Sometimes it’s easier to tell certain stories in the streaming space.”
Barris is the latest of many showrunners who have taken a hard look at the value they bring to their studio homes in the wake of the massive deals signed by Rhimes and Murphy. Other producers who have been rumored to be targets of Netflix include Modern Family co-creator Steve Levitan, Family Guy‘s Seth MacFarlane and Shameless’ John Wells.
Barris is repped by CAA, Artists First and attorney Gregg Gellman.
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