Netflix has opened up vast new possibilities for Shondaland, a panel comprised of company executives and creative collaborators agreed Sunday, but the DNA that informed Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal remains intact.
“The underlying principles of what made the Shondaland recipe in the ABC version are going to be alive and well,” said Alison Eakle, head of fiction and non-fiction content for the company led by Shonda Rhimes and Betsy Beers. “The idea of female characters who are distinctive and messy and complicated and awesome and all of these things. We are going to continue to represent that and will continue to represent stories that never get told.”
At the same time, moving from Disney to Netflix with a deal worth a reported $150 million plus incentives means “we’re getting to expand what we do,” Eakle said. “Shonda and Betsy are always pushing boundaries. … That door continues to open.” She rattled off projects in various genres, from epic period pieces to dark comedies to sci-fi. Unscripted series, documentaries and narrative features are all now in the development mix, as are digital series and podcasts.
Panelists at the session at SeriesFest, a nascent TV festival in Denver, were actress Katie Lowes (who played Quinn Perkins on Scandal and now hosts Shondaland podcast Katie’s Crib); Akua Murphy, director of short-form content at Shondaland, and playwright and actress Anna Deavere Smith. The Warmth of Other Suns, the acclaimed history of African-American immigration by Isabel Wilkerson, is being adapted by Smith as a series for Netflix.
Smith described Warmth as “so fecund, so rich, so beautiful.” She also paid tribute to Rhimes, in words that carried extra authority given her work in academia and other realms beyond Hollywood.
“She may be the most influential African-American woman of letters ever,” Smith said. “Part of that has to do with our historical moment. If Toni Morrison had been born when Shonda was, she could have become a television writer. Oprah WInfrey is incredibly powerful, but she isn’t writing the same things. She’s producing them, but she’s not doing the same thing.” Smith added that Sojourner Truth or Ida B. Wells and others could also have been viewed similarly had they had access to 21st century tools. Rhimes “brings her gifts to a historic moment when she can be announced to the world,” Smith said.
Eakle said the key advantage for Shondaland was that Rhimes and Beers “were never playing catch-up. They were always thinking, from Grey’s, early on, ‘What’s the show we wish existed? What would we watch and we can’t believe doesn’t exist? What are the relationships and female friendships, all of those things that we don’t get to see? That’s the special sauce. It’s never, ‘Oh, that show’s a hit, let’s make one of those.’”
Even though the company has opened its aperture with the shift to Netflix, “let’s be real,” Eakle said. “If we found a story and a creator we were incredibly compelled by who had another serialized procedural, it’s not to say we wouldn’t do that again, of course.”
Murphy, who started her tenure at the company as Beers’ assistant, said the prevailing feeling at the company is that convention should be overturned. “It’s hard to sit there and say, ‘Oh, we can’t do that. Those aren’t the rules’ when the person in charge is breaking rules all the time,” she said. “It’s not an excuse you can use. In fact it’s something that really pushes you to take chances.”
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