Ryan Murphy Heads to Netflix in Deal Said to Be Worth Up to $300 Million

John Koblin
Key Points
  • Netflix has poached the hit-making producer Ryan Murphy from 21st Century Fox.
  • The five-year deal is worth as much as $300 million, according to two people with knowledge of the deal.
  • It delivers a serious blow to the Walt Disney Company, which reached a deal in December to acquire most of 21st Century Fox for $52.4 billion.
Netflix CEO Reed Hastings gives a keynote address, January 6, 2016 at the CES 2016 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Robyn Beck | AFP | Getty Images

The streaming giant Netflix has won yet another battle against old Hollywood.

On Tuesday night, Netflix announced that it had poached the hit-making producer Ryan Murphy from 21st Century Fox.

The five-year deal is worth as much as $300 million, according to two people with knowledge of the deal, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private negotiations. That would be one of the biggest deals ever made for a television producer.

While the agreement will come as a disappointment to the studio where Mr. Murphy has spent most of his career, it also delivers a serious blow to the Walt Disney Company, which reached a deal in December to acquire most of 21st Century Fox for $52.4 billion.

Mr. Murphy’s contract with Fox expires in the summer, and he will make the move to Netflix in July.

The prolific producer behind “Glee,” “Nip/Tuck” and the anthology series “American Crime Story” and “American Horror Story,” Mr. Murphy would have been a key piece in the expanded Disney empire, and Fox executives made several attempts to keep him in the corporate family. Amazon also courted him seriously, which played a role in driving up the price for the 52-year-old writer, director and producer from Indianapolis.

“The history of this moment is not lost on me,” Mr. Murphy said in a statement. “I am a gay kid from Indiana who moved to Hollywood in 1989 with $55 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.”

Paving the way for Mr. Murphy to make the jump to streaming was the $100 million deal Netflix reached in August with the producer Shonda Rhimes, the creator of the ABC series “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal.” Ms. Rhimes had been with Disney’s ABC network for a decade and made the move days after Disney announced that it would expand its streaming offerings and eventually pull many of its products from Netflix.

The moment was certainly right for someone like Mr. Murphy to find himself in the final months of a contract. The Hollywood economy is buzzing, with fast-moving digital disrupters taking on the studios that have been dependable providers of mass entertainment since the silent-movie era.

Apple and Amazon have lately joined Netflix and Hulu in moving aggressively to sign heavyweight creators and entertainers, and the old-line companies are in danger of losing relevance if they do not put up a fight against their new, free-spending rivals. Netflix, which began offering original programming in 2012, has said it will spend up to $8 billion on content this year, and Apple has pledged at least $1 billion for original programming.

The upshot is that proven show runners and big stars are in an enviable bargaining position.

A factor in Mr. Murphy’s decision to join Netflix was the uncertainty brought on by the agreement between Disney and Fox. He had close working relationships with Peter Rice, the president of 21st Century Fox; Dana Walden, the chairwoman of Fox’s TV group (and the godmother to Mr. Murphy’s children); and John Landgraf, the chief executive of the FX network, a cable channel under the Fox banner.

If the Disney-Fox deal wins governmental approval, as expected, it is not a sure thing that those executives will stay in their roles. Mr. Rice said at the Code Media conference on Tuesday that he didn’t know whether he would remain with the company after the planned merger went through.

Making things even more muddled: Reports on Monday had it that Comcast was revisiting its bid for portions of 21st Century Fox.

Easing Mr. Murphy’s transition to streaming is the fact that he already had a working relationship with Netflix. Fox allowed him to sign a deal with the streaming service in September for a two-season order of a series centered on Nurse Ratched, the villain from the Ken Kesey novel “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” which was made into an Oscar-winning movie. Last week, the streaming company signed up yet another project from Mr. Murphy that may star Barbra Streisand and Gwyneth Paltrow. Both projects come from Fox’s television studio.

The exclusive, five-year deal for the high-profile producer is yet another coup for Netflix. In addition to signing Ms. Rhimes last summer, the company has brought aboard Dave Chappelle, David Letterman, Chris Rock and Adam Sandler with lucrative deals.

Mr. Murphy did not have his hands tied at Fox, which allowed him to push boundaries. And he did not lack for respect: The first season of the FX anthology series “American Crime Story: The People vs. O. J. Simpson,” for which Mr. Murphy served as an executive producer, was a huge hit with critics and won nine Emmys. The Netflix deal, though, will allow him potentially bigger budgets and gives him the latitude to try movies, television or even documentaries.

In his statement on Tuesday evening, Mr. Murphy expressed his gratitude toward Netflix’s chief executive officer, Reed Hastings; its chief content officer, Ted Sarandos; and its vice president for original content, Cindy Holland.

“I am awash in genuine appreciation for Ted Sarandos, Reed Hastings and Cindy Holland at Netflix for believing in me and the future of my company, which will continue to champion women, minorities and L.G.B.T.Q. heroes and heroines,” he said, “and I am honored and grateful to continue my partnership with my friends and peers at Fox on my existing shows.”

In his own statement, Mr. Sarandos said, “Ryan Murphy’s series have influenced the global cultural zeitgeist, reinvented genres and changed the course of television history. His unfaltering dedication to excellence and to give voice to the underrepresented, to showcase a unique perspective or just to shock the hell out of us, permeates his genre-shattering work.”

More from The New York Times:

How artificial intelligence is edging its way into our lives
The autonomous selfie drone Is here. Is society ready for it?
Welcome to the post-text future

Mr. Murphy’s vast slate at Fox will not disappear overnight. All future seasons of “American Crime Story,” “American Horror Story” and “Feud” will continue to air on FX. His procedural drama, “9-1-1,” which is only six weeks old and is becoming something of a sleeper hit, will continue on Fox. And his new drama about the 1980s New York vogue scene, “Pose,” with a largely transgender cast, will proceed at FX.

Mr. Murphy began his career as a journalist before moving into television script writing. His first show, “Popular,” on the WB, didn’t last long but has become the source of cult fascination. “Nip/Tuck,” one of the earliest successes for FX, gave Mr. Murphy his first hit and transformed FX from a crusty basic cable outpost into a premier entertainment destination. In 2009, when Mr. Murphy brought some Broadway pizazz — along with an affection for misfit adolescents — to Fox’s prime-time lineup with “Glee,” he entered the top ranks of show runners.

Throughout his career, he has shown a penchant for taking the stuff of camp and making it popular. No one expected an eight-hour limited series about the rivalry between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis — “Feud,” on FX — to be a hit, but it was.

Mr. Murphy signaled his restlessness last month, at the Television Critics Association media event in Los Angeles, when he expressed angst over his future. For years, he said, he thought he would “literally be buried on the Fox lot.” Once Rupert Murdoch made the decision to sell the company, however, Mr. Murphy was not so sure.

He approached Disney’s chief executive, Robert A. Iger, with a question that suggested his discomfort with his new corporate trappings:

“Am I going to have to put Mickey Mouse in ‘American Horror Story’?”