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Shonda Rhimes, Ryan Murphy Megadeals Left Producers Money Hungry, TV Execs Say

Recent nine-figure overall deals Netflix lavished on TV titans Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy have left producers dreaming of big paydays, according to execs assembled Friday at a UCLA media-biz conference.

There is another ‘Me Too’ movement,” quipped Sandra Stern, president of Lionsgate TV Group, “which is all of these creators who are saying, ‘why am I not getting that huge deal? Where is my $100 million up front?”

Stern was joined by top programmers at Amazon, NBCUniversal and Paradigm for a provocative, wide-ranging discussion on the state of series television at the university law school’s 42 annual UCLA Entertainment Symposium.

Craig Wagner, executive VP of  business affairs and general counsel, at Paradigm, noted that the megapacts for Rhimes and Murphy have left tongues wagging.

“For some of our clients who have created multiple shows on television, it’s an enticing proposition for sure,” he said.

Wagner characterized the impact Netflix made with those deals by quoting what one studio exec he preferred to keep anonymous told him: “The Shonda deal was a shot across the bow, and the Ryan Murphy deal was a punch in the face.”

Beth Roberts, executive VP, business operations at NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment, noted this isn’t the first time a pair of deals have reset the bar in terms of producer expectations, noting studio deals with J.J. Abrams and Greg Berlanti of yesteryear, though for far less than the 2018 megapacts. She also questioned the wisdom of overall deals in general.

“I don’t know that overalls have ever made a lot of sense,” she said. “Locking people exclusively to develop and produce for you on a general basis, you see a lot more failure than you see success.”

Stern also questioned whether Netflix’s “cost-plus” deals that don’t give producers any back end could be something some would regret in the event someone generated a few bona fide hits.

“If I have a show that I think has the potential to be a ‘Game of Thrones,’ I’m going to think long and hard if I want to be at a place where upside is capped,” she said.  “You have two big hits, you may be better off at Lionsgate getting a big backend and really high fees. You make more money but you don’t have your risks covered. we’re not writing a $100 million check going in.”

“There is only so many deals at that level that can get made,” said Dan Scharf, head of TV business affairs at Amazon. As the lone representative on the panel from the streaming side, he repeatedly noted the advantage his company and Netflix have in terms of attracting A-listers on both sides of the camera.

“Talent is agnostic about where they put their content,” he noted. “If they can get paid twice as much to make a show for Netflix, they’re going to do it. There’s been a big drain of big network showrunner types that are only going to make shows for Netflix and other streaming companies. Talent will follow the money.”

That said, even deep-pocketed Amazon is fazed by how fast the costs are skyrocketing to bring in talent. “I’ll just say from my perspective that there has been a dizzying increase in the last 6-12 months,” said Scharf. “I don’t know where it plateaus. It feels like it has to plateau but it’s been a giant increase in the last year.”

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