Shonda Rhimes on Moving to Netflix: ‘We Know a Large Amount of What We’re Going to Be Making’

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All this week, we’re publishing a series of pieces to accompany our New York cover story going behind the scenes of Netflix.

It’s been ten months since Shonda Rhimes shook the TV world by announcing she was leaving her longtime home at Disney/ABC to sign a megabucks deal with Netflix. Even though she’s technically been under contract with the company since then, there’s been no word on when her first show will go in front of cameras — though we may be getting closer to finding out. Last week, Vulture reported Rhimes had secured the rights to the New York Magazine story about German grifter Anna Delvey and is writing a show about it for Netflix. But there may be other projects from Rhimes’s Shondaland that make it to Netflix sooner: “We know a large amount of what we’re going to be making,” the producer told us last month when we talked to her for our cover story about the streamer, hinting her production pipeline is starting to fill up. Rhimes wasn’t ready to talk specifics yet, but she did open up about why she made the leap to Netflix, who she talked with before making the move, and what she thinks of the company’s use of data to guide decision-making.

Was there ever an “aha!” moment when you were deciding whether to stay at Disney, or go elsewhere, and something clicked in your head: “You know what? Netflix is where I want to be.”
It was time to start thinking about what I wanted to do next, and I was looking around, thinking about the idea of signing back up again and doing the same thing you’ve done a million times before. Watching all the content that was coming out there, I was thinking about what I was watching, what was exciting to me. I’d been talking to my friends who were making shows, seeing what they were getting to do. It felt like they seemed to be having more fun than anybody else. The people making their shows seemed to have the creative freedom that you want.

I don’t mean that I didn’t have creative freedom at ABC: I’d worked very hard to earn it. But [with Netflix], it was just in a different way that didn’t require you to make a show that is an “ABC show” or to make a show that had a certain budget or tone to it. There was a freedom to get to do whatever I wanted: to not have to make 22 episodes, to make the show what I wanted it to be.

In talking to Netflix executives, it’s very clear to me they don’t let their shows define their brand. They believe in personalization, and so any kind of show can be a “Netflix show.”
In network television, if you make a show, they just want you to make more of that show, and if you make a different kind of show, they’re worried it’s not going to work — although if that works, they want you to make more of that show. That’s, by nature, what network TV really is. I don’t have a problem with it being what it is. Fortunately, or unfortunately, I was very successful at it, which means I was doing it a lot. At Netflix, I wanted to make the shows I wanted to make and not have anybody say, “Where’s my love triangle?” I didn’t want to be hemmed in by any of those constraints. I wanted to say, “I want to make this, and it’s going to be eight episodes,” or, “I want to make this, and have it be completely different from anything else I’ve made, and it’ll be experimental.”

You said you talked to some friends about the decision. Who were your advisers?
I talked to Jenji [Kohan, creator of Orange Is the New Black]. I knew the kind of experience she’d been having. Her opinions were interesting and good.

I spoke to her recently about Netflix, and she told me that as much as she loves it, and loves bingeing shows, she kind of misses working on shows where episodes unfold every week. She liked having audiences anticipate what came next. Do you think you’ll miss having those weekly moments in pop culture which built up around Scandal and your other TGIT shows on ABC?
I haven’t even worried about that. Mainly because I’m very clear on the fact that, for instance, one of the reasons Grey’s Anatomy is going into season 15, for God’s sakes, and it’s still one of ABC’s most popular shows, is because it’s on Netflix. Generations of people have gotten to know that show by binge-watching it. Some people never saw it week-to-week until the last season when they caught up. So to me, it’s six of one, a half-dozen of the other. It’s not a big deal. While it was really cool with Scandal — where we created a livetweeting phenomenon that got people to watch live — it also was a necessity of the fact that we were making network TV. That show also works very well if you’re bingeing it. It’s not a thing I worry about in terms of how the storytelling works.

How do you want to make TV?
[Laughs.] I’m not ready to talk about that part yet.

I had to ask!
I know you did.

Do you want to work in spaces outside scripted TV and movies, and be in the unscripted space?
Absolutely, yes.

Have you met with some of the unscripted people there yet?
Oh, yes.

You’ve technically been at Netflix since late last summer. Do you think we’ll see your first show there by the end of this year, or early next year?
I’m not going to tell you because I don’t know. We’ve been talking about our production schedule and when we’re going into production, when our first thing’s going to go, and all that. I don’t know. That is an interesting question depending on the pace of things. It’s just a different pace.

We keep talking about that as well over here: The pace of network TV, which is such an obvious calendar of “this is how things work,” is very different from this, where we say, “We’re going to write and shoot all the episodes first and air them at the same time.” It’s a very different animal. I am an impatient person, so to me, my Netflix deal began in August the day we announced it, and I already feel like I can’t believe we don’t have anything on the air yet. I am that person. I am impatient. I would love to get something on air sooner rather than later, but I also want to make sure the stuff we get on the air is the stuff we want to get on the air, so my impatience is only about the fact that I always work way too hard. It feels weird that we had four shows on the air on network TV and we have none on the air at Netflix already. That feels strange to me.

Do you have something ready to go in front of cameras with, like, next month?
Would I be ready to go into production next week? I don’t know about that. I think we know a large amount of what we’re going to be making, but no, I don’t really know about production.

What do you make of the way that Netflix uses data to guide decision-making?
The very obsessive-compulsive, detail-oriented part of me likes the concept that theoretically, I could say, “When did they turn off the TV? How many people turned it off when, where, why, and how?” But it also has no function for me. I can’t do anything with it. It has nothing to do with how I tell a story. Everybody always pretends that I’m joking, but I have never paid attention to ratings because I can’t control them, and ratings can never control the story. I couldn’t base my story on what the ratings were, so why should I pay attention to those numbers? What I like is that now I don’t have to work at a place where people believe it could be helpful for me in some way, send me those numbers, and expect them to translate into anything for anyone.

When the news of your deal broke in The Wall Street Journal, you told the paper that you were looking forward to “not being caught in the necessary grind of network TV.” Do you think that grind really is as necessary as network execs like to say? Couldn’t they do more to change their business and production models? Shouldn’t they be doing more to survive and thrive?
Well, here’s the thing: Who says they’re not surviving and thriving in this new environment, the way it exists? They have a different model than everyone else does, which exists on advertising dollars. They have a larger swath of the American people that they’re trying to attract. They have a different programming model requiring them to be on 24-7. It’s just a very different world than what’s going on at Netflix. To me, it can almost feel like apples and oranges, and I respect it. I respect what it is and what it does. Until a show like Empire came along and got big ratings, people were like, “It’s never going to happen.” Roseanne comes along and gets a big number and everybody goes, “Oh, it can happen again!” It feels like everybody considers it dead until it’s not. It’s hard for me to think it should try to make itself into something it’s not when what it has worked. It may be morphing and changing … but they are what they are, and that’s not a bad thing.

Give me a few shows on Netflix you’ve enjoyed over the last six months or so.
I just finished watching Dark, a German thing which was amazing. Did you watch it?

I have not. I mostly watch old episodes of Match Game to stop from thinking about the state of the world right now.
I understand that. I went through that! I needed everything to be a lot lighter. But for me Dark, Black Mirror, Dear White People, Jessica Jones, The Crown, Mindhunter. I’ve watched a lot of it.

Do you want to make movies for Netflix, too?
Maybe. Possibly. I’m focused on the idea that there are still so many things to be done with the series landscape at this moment that I haven’t really gotten to that. Yes, there are movies I want to make and movies to be made, but I’m just not focused on that right now. That could change tomorrow. Three days later you can quote me, “Then she made a movie.”

Any other takeaways from your first months at Netflix?
When you leave a home you’ve been so long at, where you know the lay of the land and you know everyone and everything works and you go someplace new, your first thought is, Oh my God, maybe I’ve made a mistake. Just because it’s new. But it has been so great, so welcoming, and it’s so can-do over there. If somebody told me it was going to be like this, I’d have thought they were just saying that to make me believe it and come over there. But they are actually that way. It’s a creative, exciting place where people want to make shows, and that has been a breath of fresh air in a world in which you hear horror stories from other people all the time about what it’s like at other places.

Shonda Rhimes on Why She Moved to Netflix