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Netflix nabbed another one. The digital service’s five-year, $300 million deal with uber producer Ryan Murphy once again sends a shock wave straight to the traditional TV ecosystem. Murphy leaves his longtime home at 20th Century Fox TV, where his contract was set to expire in July.
It’s a reminder to broadcast and cable networks alike that even if they cultivate A-plus talent, those superstar producers will eventually head to greener streamer pastures.
At the same time, it’s no longer a surprise. Murphy, after all, follows Shonda Rhimes, the “Grey’s Anatomy” executive producer whose Shondaland brand was too valuable to remain inside a traditional company. Rhimes signed a rich deal last fall to join Netflix after 15 years at Disney/ABC.
And it’s also another aggressive play by Netflix to secure, in Rhimes and Murphy, two producers whom might have otherwise been producing new hit shows for Disney’s planned rival streaming service.
“Ryan Murphy’s series have influenced the global cultural zeitgeist, reinvented genres and changed the course of television history,” said Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos. “We’ve seen how his brand of storytelling captivates consumers and critics across the globe.”
A Murphy move seemed unlikely just a few months ago, as he has long enjoyed a fruitful relationship with 20th — and in particular, a partnership with Fox Entertainment chairmen Dana Walden and Gary Newman. But Disney’s announced acquisition of 21st Century Fox’s filmed assets threw that all up in the air, leaving it uncertain whom he’d be working for had he renewed his deal there. The recent news that Comcast might still make a play for the Fox studio and cable network assets further added a level of instability.
Meanwhile, there had been speculation that Walden and Murphy might launch a new production company together, in the model of Carsey-Werner. When asked about his future at the Television Critics Association press tour in January, Murphy appeared to already have one foot out the door.
“I had been surrounded since 2003 at Fox with an incredible group of executives who have always allowed me to sort of follow my interest and passions, and they believed in me,” he told reporters then. “Three months ago, I thought I would literally be buried on the Fox lot. I had my mausoleum picked out and I was just ready to just commit… I was very not prepared for what happened.”
Murphy said he point blank told Disney boss Bob Iger that he was concerned about having to put Mickey Mouse in “American Horror Story” — in other words, tone down his edgy content for a more family-oriented company. He said Iger assured him that Disney was interested in the studio specifically because of its brands, like the shows Murphy produces for FX.
“I’m sort of interested to see what that company is going to look like before I make any decisions about where I’m going to go,” he said. It’s unclear what made him decide to make a move sooner. “I think that I’ve just decided to wait and sit back and talk to my friends, who are my bosses, and see what’s happening with them and then make a decision once we sort of know what’s happening.”
If Murphy didn’t make the transition with 20th to Disney, Netflix was seen like the other likely home. He’s already in business with the streamer, producing the upcoming series “Ratched” and “The Politician” for the service through his current deal with 20th Century Fox TV. (Also, per Sarandos, Murphy’s FX drama “Nip/Tuck” was the online service’s first licensed series.)
Like Rhimes, who continues to work on her pre-existing ABC series, Murphy will continue to be involved on his existing 20th shows — including new Fox hit “9-1-1,” as well as the FX anthologies “American Crime Story,” “American Horror Story” and “Feud,” as well as the new “Pose.”
Going forward, Murphy will be exclusively producing new series and films for Netflix starting in July.
“The history of this moment is not lost on me,” Murphy said in a statement. “I am a gay kid from Indiana who moved to Hollywood in 1989 with $55 dollars in savings in my pocket, so the fact that my dreams have crystallized and come true in such a major way is emotional and overwhelming to me.”
But this has to sting a bit for FX boss John Landgraf, who has vocalized a concern that Netflix is building too much of its own ecosystem, which might eventually crowd out the traditional marketplace. Murphy was a reliable source for some of FX’s biggest shows — and with Louis C.K. now out of the picture, that makes two signature TV creators that FX will no longer be working with to develop new projects.
Asked last month at the TV Critics press tour what he would do if he lost Murphy so soon after C.K., Landgraf said FX would continue to cultivate new talent.
“The nature of what we do is make extraordinarily deep and emotionally and financially and creatively enduring and real investments in talent,” Landgraf said. “Some will come and some will go. But of you really reflect on the 15-year legacy of FX, we have not been a business or a channel that’s bought developed or established talent, gone out into the marketplace with a massive checkbook and bought established talent. We’re a place where people have come to make their first show or their first successful show over and over and over again.”
The migration to streaming isn’t just a talent issue. Last week, NBC Entertainment president Jennifer Salke (who coincidentally worked closely with Murphy in her previous job as executive vice president at 20th Century Fox TV) announced that she would take the job as head of Amazon Studios.
Although there are hundreds of shows now on TV, run by hundreds of showrunners, “there are five to eight franchise players that you can really build around,” noted one agent. Like an assassin charged with taking out the traditional TV model, Netflix keeps marking names off its list.