Are you a wildly successful television producer? Do you want to bolt the overall deal you just signed with a traditional TV studio and get some of that sweet, sweet Netflix cash all your showrunner friends are enjoying?
If so, your options may be fewer than you’d like.
“Black-ish” creator Kenya Barris is the latest producer to hear Netflix’s siren song. Variety has confirmed that the streaming service recently reached out to Barris to explore the possibility of luring him away from ABC Studios. At Netflix he would join a growing stable of top-tier showrunners including Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy, both of whom signed nine-figure deals with the streamer in the past year.
But complicating Netflix’s courtship of Barris — first reported this week by the Hollywood Reporter — is the new overall deal that he signed last year at ABC Studios, which ties him to his current home through 2020.
“In general, the studios are buying exclusivity, and there is no unilateral right to break or get out of” a typical overall deal, said Darrell D. Miller of Fox Rothschild. Miller is not privy to the details of Barris’ ABC contract, but, he added, that in such deals, “One of the most significant things the studio is paying all that money for would be to not lose a primary asset.”
As it expands its original entertainment programming across all genres, Netflix has set its sights on high-profile television creators with proven hit-making ability. Thus far, their big gets — Rhimes (“Grey’s Anatomy,” “Scandal) and Murphy (“Glee,” “American Horror Story”) — have been in the drama space. But scripted comedy is a big draw for Netflix, with half-hour series such as “Fuller House” and “The Ranch” ranking among its most-watched originals. Netflix has also been eyeing major comedy creators such as Steve Levitan and Seth MacFarlane for the mega-deal treatment.
Levitan and MacFarlane have deals that terminate within the next year — both at 20th Century Fox Television, the studio that Murphy left and which faces an uncertain future with Disney’s acquisition of 21st Century Fox pending. For Barris to sign a deal with Netflix in the next two years, ABC Studios would need to release him from his contract, something that sources within ABC have indicated is not in the offing.
When Rhimes signed with Netflix last year, it was just one year before her deal with ABC Studios was set to run out. ABC obliged Rhimes’ request to walk away early. But even in the world of top-flight producers, Rhimes is a unique case. Her “Grey’s Anatomy” remains ABC’ highest rated drama after 14 seasons, and she boasts two other solid ratings magnets on the network — “Scandal,” which is wrapping its final season, and “How to Get Away With Murder.” Rhimes enjoys a close personal relationship with ABC Entertainment president Channing Dungey, and after ABC released her from her contract, Rhimes helped secure a deal with “Grey’s” star Ellen Pompeo that assures the show will stay on the network’s air for the near future.
Barris’ “Black-ish” has been a critical darling and — rare for a broadcast series — an awards favorite. It has also been a sturdy ratings draw, and his youth-skewing spinoff “Grown-ish” was renewed by ABC’s cable sibling Freeform in January. Barris has, in the past, been vocal about ABC’s support for “Black-ish” diving into topics such as police violence, sexual assault allegations against Bill Cosby, and the election of Donald Trump.
But a recent episode that touched on a number of social and political issues, including football players kneeling, was shelved shortly before it was set to air. ABC cited “creative differences” with Barris, who told Variety at the time, “Given our creative differences, neither ABC nor I were happy with the direction of the episode and mutually agreed not to air it.” But Barris has not spoken publicly since — and news of Netflix’s interest in him has fueled speculation of a creative rift with ABC.
ABC and Netflix declined to comment for this story. Representatives for Barris did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
“If the rift is irreparable and-or if there is a potential contractual escape hatch, then an early departure may well be possible,” said James Sammataro of Stroock & Stroock & Lavin. But such a move, he cautioned, may hinge on “whether ABC possesses the appetite to have yet another prolific showrunner” exit.
And if a dissolution were possible, it could be costly. Studio deals for top writer-producers typically involve a guarantee paid up front and subsequent money paid on a per-episode basis.
“The economic reality has to be a conversation, because one party may have gotten paid more or seen more services, or one might be owed more on a pro rata basis at the time the discussions to terminate come up,” Miller said.
One executive at a rival television studio told Variety that Barris’ situation was discussed in a recent meeting, with the consensus reached that it would be “very unusual” to see an overall deal dissolved just one year in under such circumstances — but that if the creator-studio relationship had become too toxic to maintain, “both sides may agree to dissolve the deal, with the studio no longer on the hook for payments for the rest of the term.”
Such a move, however, could reflect poorly on ABC.
“His exit would leave a noticeable gap,” Sammataro said.