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“I am a writer on strike right now,” megaproducer and Queen Charlotte showrunner Shonda Rhimes told an intimate crowd at the Midnight Theatre in New York on Wednesday as part of her BAFTA tribute event.
Rhimes was responding to a question from moderator and journalist Wajahat Ali, who asked if she supported striking writers and what she would say to fellow scribes who spent the last two days on the picket lines as part of the first strike in 15 years. Writers Guild of America members began striking on Tuesday after the guild and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers failed to reach a new deal by the May 1 deadline.
“I really wish that we didn’t have to be on strike, and I feel the pain of the people who are dealing with the strike, but for me, for writers to get paid for what they do in a fair way is far more important,” the writer, producer and TV creator behind hit shows like Scandal, Grey’s Anatomy and Netflix’s Bridgerton said. “To have somebody devalue art, it’s bad enough as it is right now. That’s happening everywhere. But for writers to not be able to make a living wage while making a television show or making a movie is a problem.”
The comments from Rhimes, who expanded her deal with Netflix in 2021, came just hours before her Bridgerton spinoff Queen Charlotte was set to release on the streamer. On the same day, members of the WGA — with support from stagehands from IATSE Local One, musicians from Local 802 AFM and members of SAG-AFTRA — picketed outside of Netflix’s New York headquarters as part of a series of protests demanding better pay and contract language around AI for the union’s 11,500 members.
During Wednesday’s Netflix protest, Cynthia Nixon, Bowen Yang, Ilana Glazer, Jeremy O. Harris and Matt Rogers were among the notable faces who showed their support for the guild’s work stoppage. Members like Greg Iwinski, a former writer for Last Week Tonight With John Oliver and a negotiator for the WGA, as well as Steve Bodow, former executive producer of The Daily Show as well as Patriot Act With Hasan Minhaj, also spoke to recent comments Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos made during the company’s April 18 earnings call.
“If there is one, we have a large base of upcoming shows and films from around the world. We could probably serve our members better than most,” Sarandos said regarding how the streamer would address a strike. For Bodow, it was “pointing out the problem, not the solution.”
“The fact that we have this stuff stockpiled with streaming is one of the major structural changes that’s happened in the industry since the last strike, and that’s a lot of the reason why we need to do this,” he said.
For Iwinksi, Sarandos’ comment was odd, considering Netflix and other streamers are in a coalition with major studios that have more urgency in wanting to end the strike swiftly. “It’s very interesting to me for one partner to say, ‘Actually we’re fine with a strike,’ when there are other ones who have upfronts and need to sell ads this week and have fall schedules that have to get filled up right now and have late night shows that are off air,” Iwinski told The Hollywood Reporter.
As part of the writers strike, the WGA has called on studios to not only increase pay for writers but institute staffing requirements, better residuals and shorter exclusivity deals — all issues that have cropped up since the rise of streaming.
During the rest of the 40-minute fireside chat, Rhimes opened up about how her experiences growing up in Chicago, her family’s philosophies, attending schools like USC and getting an internship at Denzel Washington’s production company shaped her career. Rhimes noted that seeing Black women like author Toni Morrison, Oprah and Whoopi Goldberg made her believe her dreams were possible.
She also shared her experience entering the TV industry, knowing no one and having no mentors when she began on Grey’s. While Rhimes spoke about other people who had been her confidants, she said that she ultimately believed a mentor did not have to be a single person but could be others’ stories.
Diversity and inclusion were repeatedly touched on during the night, with Rhimes discussing how she creates her diverse writers rooms, the financial success of diverse stories, and why she doesn’t think she should be telling white showrunners how to do better.
“Whenever everybody asks that of me, I say, ‘Did you ask John Wells, did you ask this person?’ Like ask the white guys who aren’t doing it,” she told Ali. “It’s not hard, but I do think a lot of it is getting uncomfortable and looking around and realizing that your circle is not inclusive of anybody. If you can look around the table and only see yourself, something is wrong with your table. Something is really wrong.”
The producer also spoke about her work on several of her major series, including the latest, Queen Charlotte. At one point, Rhimes was asked about the show’s portrayal of Charlotte as Black — something that has been questioned by some historians. “We don’t know what her heritage was, exactly, but the thing I find the most interesting is how hard people are working to make sure that people know she couldn’t possibly be brown,” she said. “That’s the weirdest thing in the world to me. Why does it matter? Think about that.”
The Shondaland CEO was honored with the BAFTA Special Award, which is given to people who have made a “significant, inspiring and outstanding contribution to film, games and TV.” In addition to the fireside chat with Rhimes, the event — a return of BAFTA’s in-person awards presentations in North America — featured a cocktail reception for an invited industry audience.
“It’s amazing. It’s such an incredible honor, and I thank everybody so much because this means a lot,” Rhimes said. “This award, specifically.”
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