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- The Creative Force of Shonda Rhimes
The Creative Force of Shonda Rhimes
Building Shondaland Into a Media Powerhouse
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Shonda Rhimes, the prolific writer, producer, and founder of Shondaland, is the creative force behind shows that include Grey’s Anatomy, Bridgerton, Inventing Anna, How to Get Away With Murder, Scandal, and more.
She’s a worldbuilder. A powerhouse. A titan of industry.
She burst onto the scene in 2005 and has been a mainstay ever since.
How do you not only rise to the top of an industry but stay there?
Let’s get to it.
Shonda was born in Chicago in 1970, the youngest of six children.
At only 4 or 5 years old she was already storytelling, dictating words into a tape recorder and trying to convince her mother to type them up.
In a blog post, Shonda described what she was like as a kid:
Unsurprisingly, it took her a while to make friends growing up.
It bothered her, but also allowed her to spend lots of time reading and writing, dreaming up new worlds and exciting scenarios, a departure from her “very normal family,” as she described.
That “very normal family” included highly educated parents, with her mother, Vera, eventually getting her Ph.D. and her father, Ilee, having an MBA.
That academic influence later appeared in Shonda’s shows.
Another important influence?
Her parents’ teachings on assertiveness:
Fast forward to college, where Shonda studied creative writing and English literature at Dartmouth, and she was writing for Dartmouth’s newspaper and participating in theater.
Working at the advertising agency McCann Erickson in San Francisco after graduation, Shonda gained confidence in her writing abilities:
I have a knack for this writing thing.
She certainly did.
But she wanted to further develop her skills, so at 22 years old she made an important decision, one that would change the trajectory of her career.
A Decade Setup for a Breakthrough
You’re 22 years old, ambitious, and discover you have a knack for writing.
What do you do?
If you’re Shonda Rhimes, you move to Los Angeles, where you drive around in your $600 Pontiac Phoenix and attend one of the top film schools in the world.
Here’s how it went down:
USC opened up a world of possibilities for Shonda.
She took full advantage of them:
Shonda graduated from USC’s film school in 1994 with her MFA in screenwriting.
It would be another decade before she created her first monumentally successful television show.
Let that sink in.
During that time, Shonda worked on several projects with varying levels of success.
One of the first was a feature film project with Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith that died when one of the actors walked away and funding was pulled.
Another feature script she wrote, Human Seeking Same, was purchased but never made. It did, however, get other people’s attention and Shonda ended up writing the script for Introducing Dorthy Dandridge, a film released in 1999 that starred Halle Berry.
That film led to Shonda writing the script for the 2002 film Crossroads which starred Britney Spears and which elevated Shonda’s profile in Hollywood.
Shonda didn’t love writing screenplays though and after the film was released, another important event changed her career, and life, forever:
That decision led her to write for television:
That one idea ABC okayed?
Before her megahit, Grey’s Anatomy, one of Shonda’s scripts suffered from what many founders experience: bad market timing:
Nonetheless, Shonda persisted.
Around that time, Bob Iger, who was CEO and Chairman of The Walt Disney Company, which owns ABC, wanted a medical show.
Shonda wrote it.
Just like how founders have to find the right founder-market fit for an idea while pursuing product-market fit when they’re building it, Shonda found the right mix for her show:
Grey’s Anatomy was born.
The first episode aired on March 27, 2005, and the show was an immediate hit:
Keep in mind that this was Shonda’s first television show that was made.
Two years after Grey’s Anatomy, Shonda’s second show, Private Practice, came out.
Both shows were humming along by June 2011:
To stay focused while running multiple shows, Shonda eliminated almost all distractions:
But that focus would evolve in 2013, the start of her “year of yes.”
Year of Yes
It started at Thanksgiving dinner in 2013.
Shonda is talking with her eldest sister, Delorse.
They’re discussing all of the invitations Shonda is receiving for various parties and interviews.
Shonda wasn’t going to attend any of them.
She’s an introvert and uncomfortable in most of those situations.
But when Delorse told her, “You never say yes to anything,” it sparked a change in her.
She needed to get out of her comfort zone.
What followed was a year of Shonda saying yes to things like:
An appearance on the Jimmy Kimmel show
A commencement speech at Dartmouth
Meeting the Obamas
Naturally, she wrote a book about the experience as well because, you know, she has so much free time.
Just months before that Thanksgiving dinner discussion in 2013, Shonda’s show, Scandal, was crushing it:
Around that same time, before starting her “year of yes,” Shonda is overseeing “550 actors, writers, crew members, and producers.”
Two years later, that team was running on all cylinders.
10 years after Shonda’s first show, Grey’s Anatomy, airs, she has 3 shows leading the way on ABC’s Thursday nights:
Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal, where Shonda is a writer, executive producer, and creator.
How to Get Away with Murder, where she’s an executive producer.
It’s 2015 and Shonda is making 70 episodes of TV per year for ABC at this point.
How did she go from one show to having multiple on the air at one time?
Shonda also had to build the right infrastructure to handle that level of production:
And how did Shonda have time to do it all?
For starters, she doesn’t view the writing part of it as work:
She also sets boundaries.
Around this time, she mentioned in an interview that she doesn’t read emails past 7 pm or on weekends.
She even added it to her email signature so everyone she works with knows it.
Two notes on this.
One, it forces you to delegate more and trust people, which I think is important.
Two, there’s always more work anyway and it can consume every hour:
By this time Shonda is getting a staggering 2,500 emails per day, not counting junk email.
And when Shonda is at work, she’s trained her staff to come to her with solutions, as she mentioned in 2016 when she had four shows shooting at the same time:
But Shonda loves her work and in a 2016 TED Talk, she described what made it so enjoyable:
For a time, that hum she described left her.
What made it come back?
Spending more time playing with her daughters:
I think we all need to be reminded of that.
If Shonda Rhimes, a titan of industry, needs to play, something she says can be even just 15 minutes with her kids, and can still be at the top of her game, we can too.
For Shonda, with that hum back, she was ready for a big change in 2017.
A New Home
At ABC, Shonda and her Shondaland team found creative ways to build a loyal audience for their shows:
But by 2017 Shonda was struggling and ready for a change:
In August 2017 she signed a nine-figure deal with Netflix, solidifying her as the highest-paid showrunner in Hollywood.
Her reason for going to Netflix is akin to a founder quitting their job to build a company:
The move immediately changed expectations of what making a show meant for her:
Shonda further explained the differences between ABC and Netflix in the context of their distinct business models and what that meant for her:
It’s what many founders are pursuing.
And Shondaland’s first scripted show for Netflix?
The show blew expectations out of the water.
82 million households viewed it in the first 4 weeks, a mind-boggling number.
At the time, it was Netflix’s biggest series ever.
For context, the final episode of Game of Thrones had 19.3 million viewers, the best of the series.
Shonda continued to crank out shows for Netflix and in an interview in May 2023 when talking about Queen Charlotte, she gave us an insight into her psyche:
I’ve truly never felt this way before.
She says this in 2023.
18 years after Grey’s Anatomy came out.
She’s only now feeling like this won’t be the end of her.
This is the mindset of someone who is at the top of their game.
In each edition of the Just Go Grind newsletter, I like to include a few more quotes at the end from my research into the founder who is featured, sharing their wisdom.
On her writing process:
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