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From ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ to ‘Bridgerton’: How Shonda Rhimes Is Building Shondaland Into a Media Powerhouse

Shonda Rhimes Betsy Beers
Courtesy of ABC

Shonda Rhimes knows that her company, Shondaland, is a brand. But as the creator of such shows as “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal” and the executive producer of many more, including “Bridgerton,” Rhimes is a brand in and of herself. Asked when she realized that, Rhimes hesitates — but only for a few seconds.

“I guess I have to think of myself as a brand,” she says. “At a certain point, it became clear to me that the brand Shondaland and the brand Shonda Rhimes — which sounds ridiculous to me — are the same thing.”

As the company grows, she’d like her own significance within it to lessen over time, she says: “My goal is that 25 years from now, people go, ‘There was a Shonda Rhimes?’”

Shondaland, formed in 2005, is under the umbrella of Rhimes’ nine-figure deal at Netflix, which began in 2017 and was renewed earlier this year — the first of the streamer’s talent megadeals to merit a second term.

In Rhimes’ renewed pact, the bullet points specify that Shondaland will now be, as Rhimes puts it, a “one-stop shopping” source for Netflix for movies as well as a wide variety of other types of content.

With digital content, the two sides of Shondaland can feed one another, Rhimes says — as was evident during “Bridgerton” mania. “We made all the behind-the-scenes footage from ‘Bridgerton,’ and we did a bunch of other stuff that goes on the website. It really has exploded,” she says.

Among the new initiatives driving the growth of Shondaland are its podcast division (launched in 2019) and digital content on the Shondaland website (launched in 2017). But even a powerhouse like Rhimes cannot do all this alone. She has built herself a team from the ground up capable of executing her vision for the brand and taking it to new heights.

Chris Dilorio, Shondaland’s chief strategy and business development officer, oversees the planning and execution of Shondaland’s industry initiatives as well as brand partnerships that further expand the company’s storytelling beyond television and streaming.

“There’s two halves of the company now, really,” Dilorio says. “There is the half that is creating streaming content for Netflix and doing the ABC shows. And then there’s the digital side of the company that is handling our podcasts, our website and a lot of our products and merchandise.

“So on a day-to-day basis, there are executives that are overseeing each of those different verticals. And you know, Shonda has done a really good job of bringing in new people, some of whom she’s worked with for years. Other people are newer. They are experts in those areas to oversee those specific divisions, and then also identifying where it makes sense for us to go and partner with outside companies or people to create the best work possible.”

Dilorio is one of several Shondaland executives who spoke with Variety, but all of those who did had similar stories: They began working with Rhimes in one capacity or another independently before she approached them about coming in-house at Shondaland and helping her grow the business. Dilorio, for example, worked with Rhimes for years through his job at top PR firm PMK*BNC before Rhimes offered him the chance to work for her directly.

Or take Tom Verica, Shondaland’s senior creative production advisor. He first met Rhimes when he was hired to direct episodes of “Grey’s Anatomy” during the hit ABC medical drama’s third season and co-starred in “How to Get Away With Murder.” Over time and continued collaborations, Rhimes asked him to join the team permanently.

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Right to left: Chris Dilorio joined Shondaland in 2016 as VP of strategy and development. He works to expand the company’s storytelling beyond television and streaming.; Sandie Bailey, a member of the setdesign department on “Scandal,” joined the company in 2016 and oversees Shondaland.com as well as the podcast division and merchandise and experiences.; Tom Verica, tapped to direct episodes of “Grey’s Anatomy” in 2007, was named Shondaland’s senior creative production advisor in February. He supervises the day-to-day work on the company’s TV series and films. Dilorio: Katie Osborn; Bailey, Verica: Jay Goldman

“I had trepidations, because I feared I would become an executive,” Verica says. “‘Executive’ was kind of a scary word to me because I felt in some way it would take away from the creative side and wanting to be in the trenches, directing and acting. I didn’t want to be imprisoned in an office and just sort of distilling advice on things. Shonda is really amazing. She couldn’t have been more supportive of wanting to hear what my fears were. In the end, I really saw an opportunity, which she provided, to have creativity on all these levels. And really, after we talked it out, I think she knew it before I knew it.”

In his current role at Shondaland, Verica monitors narrative development and supervises production for all the company’s TV series and films. He also acts as a liaison for talent and new showrunners and heads up all elements involving directing, including scouting new directing talent, building out Shondaland’s director roster and overseeing anything involving mentorship of directors. He does all of that while still himself directing, as he did on Season 1 of “Bridgerton,” and will again fill that role in Season 2. He was also a consulting producer on Season 1 and will be a co-executive producer on Season 2.

Shondaland’s chief design and digital media officer, Sandie Bailey, made her way to Shondaland by a similar behind-camera route. Bailey was originally hired as part of the set-decorating department on “Scandal.” She now has oversight of Shondaland.com, short-form content videos, the Shondaland audio podcast division and all merchandise and experiences.

“One of the things that we’re getting into is expanding into the consumer product space and experiences,” Bailey says. “And that means really working very closely with Chris Dilorio and his department to find people that we can partner with to create extensions of the television programs that everybody loves. So the idea is, if everyone is in love with ‘Grey’s Anatomy,’ why don’t we find a way to extend that into clothing that they can purchase? We’re going to do the same thing for ‘Bridgerton.’ We have the ‘Bridgerton’ experience coming out at the top of 2022. So that’s been a great project to work on with the Netflix team and the team at [production and marketing agency] Fever.”

That project, officially titled “The Queen’s Ball: A Bridgerton Experience,” launches in four cities — Los Angeles, Chicago, Montreal and Washington D.C. — and will allow fans an immersive adventure that includes things like a live string quartet concert, re-creating moments from the series and even interacting with Regency-era characters. Such events are part of what Bailey calls the “360 development of our programming at all times.

“The value of working with somebody with the vision that Shonda has is that innovation is one of the key tenets of the company. We’ve really been on this journey for a while now, even before [the new Netflix deal] announcement. We really looked to understand where people are consuming our content. And we feel like if you only have 10 minutes, you can read an article on Shondaland.com. If you have 30 minutes, you might listen to a podcast. If you have an hour, you’re going to go to Netflix and watch ‘Bridgerton.’ But then if you have three hours and a little bit more disposable income, you’re going to go potentially spend money on an experience and enjoy it there.”

As for gaming and virtual reality — another content area identified as part of the new Netflix deal — Rhimes isn’t sure yet what she wants to do, only that she’s interested in those areas. “To me,” she says, “the best games are the ones that tell the best stories.

“You have to think about the synergy of it all. The game becomes a movie that becomes the show that becomes the podcast about the game — or whatever. It’s all one big world, and that’s awesome.”

Rhimes became interested in virtual reality “a little while ago,” and got some VR headsets to dive in further. To illustrate how virtual reality could play into her own work, she uses as an example “Inventing Anna” — her forthcoming Netflix limited series about Anna Delvey, a 20-something con artist who took New York City by storm and ended up in prison because of her grifts.

“You could sit in a jail cell with Anna Delvey, the character,” Rhimes says, “and have her explain to you her plans. That’s a fascinating piece of content that could exist.

“I think part of my ambitions for Shondaland are that we grow as a media company — as a company that encompasses more than just streaming, more than just film and TV. That we are telling stories in all areas and making sure that those areas really reflect how we learned to tell stories over the years — how we learned to be effective with our audience.”

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All this is a far cry from the early days of Shondaland, when it mostly consisted of Rhimes and her producing partner, Betsy Beers. Even in 2007, when “Private Practice” spun off from “Grey’s,” Beers says: “It was the two of us, I think, and two assistants. It was a mom-and-mom shop.” The company now boasts approximately 50 employees across its different divisions.

Shondaland is not slowing down on the TV side of things as it expands elsewhere. In addition to the multi-season renewal for “Bridgerton,” a Queen Charlotte prequel series and “Inventing Anna,” the company has multiple other dramas in the works at Netflix. Those include a series take on the Isabel Wilkerson book “The Warmth of Other Suns” as well as “Recursion,” based on the Blake Crouch sci-fi novel.

Beers says the company is also looking to expand the slate into more comedy, documentaries and unscripted content.

“Over the years we’ve really, really wanted to do more comedy,” she says. “We’ve tried it a few times, sort of dipped our foot in a few times, and haven’t gotten as far as we’d like. There’s comedy obviously in our shows, but we would love to be definitely focusing, working on developing some comedies.”

“Betsy is very passionate about us doing comedies,” Rhimes says. “I like to say that’s the ball that Betsy is carrying around. And yeah, I think we do want to do comedies. I think that there’s a fun world there. I mean, it’s interesting that people just assume that we only do dramas, since ‘Bridgerton’ is really funny. ‘Grey’s,’ in the early years, was fairly funny. ‘Scandal’ had lots and lots and lots of humor for all of its beating people to death with chairs, you know what I mean? There’s a lot of ironic humor and dark humor in our staff. So we really like a good comedy. We should find the right ones.”

Beers and Rhimes got a taste for docs during the 2016 election, when they made a biographical movie about Hillary Clinton for the Democratic National Convention. They discovered, Beers says, “we really, really loved making unscripted content.”

The first Shondaland project to debut on Netflix was the 2020 documentary about Debbie Allen’s dance school, “Dance Dreams: Hot Chocolate Nutcracker.” It’s something Beers would like to do more of. “I’m a big documentary and unscripted fan, and it’s a lot of actually what I watch,” she says. “It’s very exciting to have those other platforms and ways of telling stories available.”

Adds Rhimes: “At this moment in time, I have sort of said, ‘Let’s make the projects we’ve got right in front of us. Let’s make all of those.’ But we’re always on the lookout for a really interesting documentary. And the idea of moving into unscripted stuff is big for us. I think that there’s a whole world out there of unscripted programming that could be — not competition programming but unscripted programming — that could be really interesting for us.”

Bela Bajaria, head of global TV at Netflix, says, “It was a very natural, organic thing” to make another deal with Shondaland, and that the streamer is very supportive of anything Shondaland wants to produce for it in the coming years.

“The doc space is a very important space to us,” Bajaria says, citing the success of Shondaland’s Debbie Allen film. “So I think that would be great. And what we hope for her, having an extended, multiyear relationship and home here, is that she can do these dramas. She can build ‘Bridgerton’ out into this sort of larger kind of universe. She does have an opportunity to delve into the gaming world and virtual reality. And again, if there’s something she wants to do in the doc space or, of course, the comedy space, that’s great.” It’s a relationship, says Bajaria, that’s long term and provides Shondaland with a solid home base: “She can explore [as] many aspects of that storytelling [as] she wants.”