Kenya Barris wasn’t the first high-profile showrunner to strike up a multimillion dollar deal with Netflix (he joined the likes of Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy), but he was the first notable creator to walk away. News broke last October that Barris was looking for an exit from his reported $100 million deal with Netflix. A new cover story for The Hollywood Reporter confirms Barris got out of the deal in January. The showrunner also spoke about his Netflix departure for the first time in detail. According to THR, Barris’ “Netflix marriage had been imperfect” because he “wasn’t willing to be the broadly commercial producer that the streamer wanted him to be, and Netflix wasn’t interested in being the edgy home that Barris craved.”
“I want to do in-your-face shit,” Barris said, explaining the content Netflix didn’t let him create and teasing what will come next as he heads into a new deal with ViacomCBS and the launch of his BET Studios.
Barris’ Netflix run got off to a rocky start with the sitcom “#blackAF,” which became one of the streamer’s more controversial releases and ignited debates over the show’s representation. Charlamagne tha God told listeners of his “Breakfast Club” radio show that “#blackAF” was like “white people doing a bad impression of Black people.” Barris created the series and starred in it opposite Rashida Jones. THR reports that “it didn’t take long” for Barris “to see that ‘#blackAF’ wasn’t exactly in Netflix’s wheelhouse.”
“For Netflix, say we got 35 million viewers, they were like, ‘Well, it wasn’t Fuller House,’” Barris said, acknowledging that “he often struggled to present the types of projects that excited Netflix executives.”
Netflix allegedly tried to get Barris to run a multi-cam sitcom it was developing (sources told THR it was Jamie Foxx’s critically maligned and now-cancelled “Dad Stop Embarrassing Me!”), but the creator refused.
“I just don’t know that my voice is Netflix’s voice,” Barris said. “The stuff I want to do is a little bit more edgy, a little more highbrow, a little more heady, and I think Netflix wants down the middle. Netflix became CBS.”
The THR report continues: “Those inside the streamer say that Barris, at least in the early days, was too focused on niche ideas. Ironically, as those same sources point out, he seemed to have no trouble churning out big fat commercial films, including ‘Shaft,’ ‘Barbershop,’ and the Eddie Murphy hit ‘Coming 2 America’ for Amazon. His eye was often caught wandering into other arenas, too. In fact, he’d all but finalized a podcast deal with Spotify, only to have Netflix executives kill it. ‘They said, “Well, we have a podcast,” and I’m like, ‘Where?’” recalls Barris. ‘But I’m sure they do, or they will, and in their defense, they gave me a lot of money to make television.'”
Barris also told THR that after making the jump to Netflix he “realized how much he’d missed the weekly megaphone of network television…He was taken, too, with the idea of having his work everywhere, and not confined to simply Netflix, where a single no would spell the end.”
According to THR, there were no’s at Netflix that Barris “had trouble swallowing.” One project was an adaptation of Danzy Senna’s novel “New People,” which Barris bought the rights to and wrote the script for. The novel concerns racial identity and passing.
“They were like, ‘We don’t get this,’ and I’m like, ‘I promise you, it’s a thing,’” Barris said. “Cut to a few months later, and those stories start coming out and I’d just forward them. And they were sweet, they were like, ‘Maybe so,’ but at that point, it felt like we were chasing something rather than being ahead of it and being prescient.”
Barris said he was “fucking terrified” of telling Netflix he wanted out of his $100 million deal, adding, “[Ted Sarandos] had come and saved me with a beyond-generous offer and he let me act, and I’m not an actor, in a show that wasn’t their cup of tea. And they paid a ton of money for that show, they let me put on Deon Cole’s special and an experimental sketch comedy show [‘Astronomy Club’], they gave me beautiful offices and they never knocked on my door and asked what I was doing. I was like, ‘Is this the definition of ungrateful?’”
According to THR: “Sarandos got it, or at least he was gracious about it.”
While Barris’ Netflix deal is over, he’ll continue to work on the projects that were in development at the streaming giant before his departure was finalized. These projects include a contemporary spin on “Meet the Parents” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” that he co-wrote with Jonah Hill and an upcoming drama with 50 Cent. There’s also the continuation of “#blackAF.” Instead of a planned second season, Barris is turning the show into a series of vacation movies in the spirit of “National Lampoon’s Vacation.” Barris is already working with writers on ideas for “#blackAF: Brazil” and “#blackAF: Mexico.”
Head over to The Hollywood Reporter’s website to read Barris’ cover story in its entirety.