The key piece on the board is the streaming giant Netflix, which, like most of its competitors, is rushing to sign multi-year deals with the most prolific and powerful creatives in Hollywood.
Ryan Murphy and Shonda Rhimes, with deals worth US$400 million and US$150 million, are the poster-children of those deals but in fact there are a multitude of other deals on the table at Netflix.
The streaming platform also signed multi-year, multi-project deals with Barack and Michelle Obama, Jason Bateman (Ozark), Kenya Barris (Black-ish) and Marti Noxon (Sharp Objects) in 2018, and Beyonce Knowles, Ricky Gervais, David Benioff and Dan Weiss (Game of Thrones), Patty Jenkins (Wonder Woman) and Peter Morgan (The Crown) in 2019.
This year, despite the industry-wide production slowdown triggered by the pandemic, Netflix managed to sign multi-year, multi-project deals with John Boyega (Star Wars), Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones (Black Mirror), Guillermo del Toro and Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. (The Wales-Markles also have a deal with Spotify.)
Netflix is by far the most prolific player of open-chequebook politics in Hollywood, but it serves to illustrate both the extent to which studios are desperate to tie up content, and the power which has now been placed in the hands of content creators.
Some, such as Ryan, del Toro and Rhimes are well established. Others, such as the Obamas and the Wales-Markles, have virtually no production background, but have “brand” value to bring to the table.
In part Netflix is driven by a need to create a back catalogue equal to its rivals Disney+, HBO Max, Peacock and Hulu, whose platforms can leverage studio libraries that have been built over half a century, and are part of a global business now worth a reported three-quarters of a trillion dollars.
Netflix, in comparison, is relatively young and as streaming began to boom, watched as many of its most popular titles, such as Friends and The Office, were taken back by their studio owners to help power up emerging rival platforms.
In past decades there have always been a handful of prolific television producers, ranging from Aaron Spelling (Charlie’s Angels, Dynasty), in the 1970s and 1980s, to David E. Kelley (Ally McBeal, Boston Legal) in the 1990s and Jerry Bruckheimer (the CSI franchise, Without a Trace) in the 2000s.
Actors such as Lucille Ball, who with her husband Desi Arnaz, launched Desilu in the 1960s and produced, amongst other things, Star Trek, Mission: Impossible and Mannix, were exceptions, not the rule.
Today the reverse is true. While the four most prolific producers – Greg Berlanti, Shonda Rhimes, Ryan Murphy and Tyler Perry, with individual deals totalling around US$1 billion – are well-established, the business is now equally dominated by dozens of key creatives, many of whom, like Ball and Arnaz, began their careers as actors.
They include Jon Favreau, who now steers the Star Wars television franchise for Lucasfilm, Reese Witherspoon, who has deals with Apple TV+, Amazon Prime Video, Starz and Netflix, Ava Duvernay, who has a deal with Warner Bros, and Nicole Kidman, who has a deal with Amazon Studios.
What is more, Hollywood’s accountants are only just coming to terms with a new economic framework that rewards those players with deals that pay upfront, and not – as has been the tradition – in the back-end. In part that is intended to offset the now-fading promise of future profits as streamers are one-stop, in-perpetuity buyer.
So in the brave, cash-rich new world, there are no future profits. At least not for the content creators. They may have mapped their way to the end of the rainbow, but it remains to be seen who will be left holding the pot of gold.
The big four
$US400 million deal with Warner Bros
Joined the writing staff of Dawson’s Creek in 1998 at only 26, and two years later was elevated to show-runner. Credits include Brothers & Sisters, Everwood, Riverdale, Arrow, Supergirl and Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.
$US150 million deal with Netflix
Broke through as co-writer of the HBO movie Introducing Dorothy Dandridge in 1999 and The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement in 2004. Credits include Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice, Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder, The Catch, Station 19 and Bridgerton.
$US300 million deal with Netflix
Started as a journalist for The Miami Herald and the LA Times, and broke into TV with Popular and Nip/Tuck. Credits include Glee, American Horror Story, Scream Queens, Pose, The Politician, Ratched and The Prom.
$US140 million deal with TBS
Worked as a successful playwright in Atlanta and broke into film with Diary of a Mad Black Woman in 2005. Credits include Tyler Perry’s House of Payne, The Haves and the Have Nots, the Madea films, Sistas and Assisted Living.
The magnificent seven
Actor, director and producer who has creatively driven Marvel’s films for Disney and, with Dave Filoni, launched The Mandalorian for Disney+; developing a slate of new Star Wars-based television series.
Actress and producer known for roles in Legally Blonde, Walk The Line and Big Little Lies; produces and stars in The Morning Show for Apple TV+. Has deals with Apple TV+, Amazon Prime Video, Starz and Netflix.
With writing partner Robert Orci worked on Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and the Star Trek film reboot; has signed his own five-year deal with CBS to oversee Star Trek, including Discovery, Picard, Lower Decks and several upcoming series including Strange New Worlds.
Robert and Michelle King
Robert King wrote the films Imaginary Friends, Dragon Fire and Cutthroat Island; with his wife, Michelle King, he created the hit legal drama The Good Wife and its sequel The Good Fight. They have another series on CBS, Evil, and several more in development.
Filmmaker whose credits include Middle of Nowhere, Selma and 13th; directed the Disney fantasy film A Wrinkle in Time in 2018 and then, for Netflix, the critically acclaimed limited series When They See Us. Has signed a US$100 million development deal with Warner Bros.
Oscar and Golden Globe-winning film actress who has made a major push into television with Big Little Lies, Top of the Lake: China Girl and The Undoing. Has just finished filming Nine Perfect Strangers. Has signed a first-look deal with Amazon Studios.
Actor and filmmaker whose credits include Mad TV and Key & Peele but broke into the power list with the 2017 film Get Out, followed by BlacKkKlansman, Us and a reboot of The Twilight Zone for CBS. Has signed a US$100 million deal with Universal.
Michael Idato is the culture editor-at-large of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.