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Shonda Rhimes Talks Netflix Deal, Shondaland Digital Venture and Inclusion vs. Diversity

Shonda Rhimes was persuaded to move to Netflix after 15 years with ABC by the promise of a “totally open road” ahead for her bustling Shondaland production company.

Rhimes addressed her megabucks Netflix deal, the new Shondaland.com endeavor, and her view of inclusion versus diversity in the entertainment industry during a Q&A with Recode’s Kara Swisher, held Wednesday as part of Vanity Fair’s New Establishment Summit in Beverly Hills.

At Netflix, “there’s a clear landscape to do whatever I want,” Rhimes said. That’s a big contrast to working at ABC where there are inevitably more restrictions and formulas for the types of programs Rhimes and Shondaland could produce.

Rhimes said she has never been concerned with ratings for her shows. But the structure of Netflix — no advertising, no publicly distributed ratings information — felt freeing. “Literally the idea that there’s a totally open road there” was hard to resist, she said.

Rhimes resisted Swisher’s push for details on the nature of her Netflix contract, which is said to be worth an estimated $25 million a year for her and the company. But she did say that she believed she and other creative talent are underpaid relative to their contributions to studio bottom lines. “Disney has made $2 billion on ‘Grey’s Anatomy,’ ” she said. “I don’t have $2 billion.”

Working in television has turned her into much more of a business-minded person than she ever imagined. “I’ve had to learn not to get screwed in this town,” she said, noting that the long-running “Grey’s” was the first series she created. “Imagine the deal (terms) on the first television show you ever made,” she observed.

As Rhimes’ roster of shows has grown, she’s worked to turn Shondaland into a true business. Last month she expanded the brand into the digital realm with a website that she wants to be a hub for discussion and dissemination of thoughtful material on a range of important topics. It will not, however, be a place for finding beauty tips or how-to instructions. “We’re not interested in a lifestyle website; we give you life,” Rhimes said. She recently conducted video interviews with tennis great Billie Jean King and former first lady Michelle Obama for the site.

“What I love about it is that it’s a place not just for fans of the shows but for people who live in the universe of thinking about things in a more inclusive way. It’s a way to enjoy themselves, to read and to have a conversation,” she said. “The goal is to give people a voice and to have a voice out there that feels relevant and available and different.”

Rhimes expressed frustration with the way the entertainment industry often approaches the issue of fostering diversity. The awareness may be higher these days but the mindset in many quarters has yet to change. This is evidenced by the reaction in the biz when movies led by women or TV shows featuring actors of color prove to be successful.

“Oh my god, black people are on television and people are watching,” she said. The summer blockbuster “Wonder Woman” was quickly categorized as a “woman’s movie” because of its star and its director, Patty Jenkins.

“A movie is a movie is a movie,” she said. “But it has to have an adjective in front of it if it’s not a white guy’s movie.”

In her work, Rhimes said diversity among actors, writers, directors and producers comes naturally because that’s the world she lives in. “My world doesn’t function around making sure that people get included,” she said. Instead inclusion is a byproduct of the fact that “there are people of color in my office” on a consistent basis, she said.

Swisher asked Rhimes if she’d ever consider running for office. Rhimes took a beat but gave a pretty definitive answer. “No. You can’t write while running for office,” she said.

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