When Shonda Rhimes signed an overall deal with Netflix in August, the blast radius was wide. The “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal” creator was a brand-defining producer — so much so that when “Scandal” was delayed last year by star Kerry Washington’s pregnancy, ABC suspended its “TGIT” marketing campaign until midseason, when Thursday nights would again boast back-to-back-to-back Rhimes-produced dramas.
The reasons for the producer to leave her longtime home at ABC Studios were obvious. At Netflix, she will enjoy enormous creative freedom at a deep-pocketed company that cancels shows less often than Rhimes kills characters. But linear TV is not going down without a fight. In the wake of her Netflix move and another big deal signed by “The Walking Dead” creator Robert Kirkman this summer with Amazon, traditional TV studios have moved aggressively to lock up key producing talent in lucrative overall deals.
Rhimes told ABC months before the Netflix news broke that she intended to walk away from her deal. ABC agreed to cut Rhimes loose a year before her contract expired, then moved to sign “Criminal Minds” showrunner Erica Messer and “The Strain” and “Colony” showrunner Carlton Cuse. Also this summer, 20th Century Fox TV signed “The Carmichael Show” co-creator and star Jerrod Carmichael, then put two comedies from him in development. Warner Bros. Television renewed its pact with “The Vampire Diaries” showrunner Julie Plec, giving her a significant pay raise. And with Amazon stalking writers in the “Walking Dead” universe, Sony brought “Fear the Walking Dead” creator Dave Erickson back into the fold.
“There is clearly a need for experienced showrunners because there are so many buyers now,” says Pearlena Igbokwe, president of Universal Television. “In terms of the studios, we’re all trying to make deals with terrific writers.”
The incursion of streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon into the original programming arena in recent years created demand that benefited the studios. The marketplace shifted to favor sellers as demand grew faster than supply.
But after establishing themselves as programmers, Netflix and Amazon have become producers, looking to own their content and keep the worldwide rights that many studios are hungry to retain and exploit for themselves. Now they’re in competition for talent with the same studios that fed them their earliest hits.
“There is clearly a need for experienced showrunners because there are so many buyers now.”
A typical overall deal that binds a writer-producer exclusively to a studio is not inexpensive, usually worth around $750,000 to $3 million per year for two to three years. Such agreements fell out of fashion after the writers’ strike and financial crisis of the past decade but have made a comeback in the Peak TV era. While studios have pushed in recent years to include clauses in such deals that allow them to assign writers who don’t have a pilot or series on air or in active development to staff on an existing show, agents have countered by pushing for development-only deals that prevent such assignments.
But veteran showrunners bring high value — not just as writers but as producers able to shepherd projects by younger, less experienced creators.
Messer argues that setting up shop with established producers is good business for the studios. “What they’re getting is not just an amazing producer that can bring talent in and team up writers and stars and go make magic,” she says. “You’re bringing in a producer who has the skill set to write, rewrite, run a show, put a crew together.”
That skill set has never been more in demand — particularly when being exercised by people who have proved able to create the broad hits that the streaming services, for all their critical and awards success, often find elusive. The Kirkman deal, for instance, followed an edict by Jeff Bezos for Amazon to move away from niche shows such as “Transparent” and toward genre programming like “The Walking Dead.”
“I think they’re looking for the best storytellers that are out there,” Katz Media Group’s Stacey Lynn Schulman says of the streaming services. But those storytellers will first need to be pried from traditional TV’s stronghold.