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Why Emmy award-winner Michaela Coel turned down a $1 million Netflix deal for 'I May Destroy You'

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Michaela Coel from 'I May Destroy You' appears at the 73rd Emmy Awards, broadcast Sunday, Sept. 19.
Photo by Cliff Lipson | CBS via Getty Images

On Sunday, Michaela Coel, 33, became the first Black woman to take home the Emmy award for Outstanding Writing for a Limited or Anthology Series or Movie for her HBO drama, "I May Destroy You," which she wrote, directed and starred in.

The 12-episode series is inspired by Coel's experience of being a survivor of sexual assault.

But as Coel was pitching what would become her award-winning show back in 2017, she originally turned down a $1 million deal to make the show with Netflix, according to a July 2020 profile with Vulture.

Coel already had a relationship with Netflix at the time — the streamer introduced her first big project, "Chewing Gum," to the U.S., and she later appeared in an Emmy-winning episode of "Black Mirror." But despite the enticing $1 million deal, Coel turned down the offer when she was denied the ability to retain any percentage of the copyright to her work.

According to Vulture, during one phone call with a high-level Netflix executive, Coel tried to negotiate to retain 5% of her rights, which got cut down to 2%, then 1%, and ultimately 0.5%. Before the executive ended the call to run the numbers up the chain, she told Coel: "Michaela? I just want you to know I'm really proud of you. You're doing the right thing."

It was a clarifying moment for Coel, she told Vulture: "I remember thinking, 'I've been going down rabbit holes in my head, like people thinking I'm paranoid, I'm acting sketchy, I'm killing off all my agents.' Then she said those words to me, and I finally realized — I'm not crazy. This is crazy."

Coel ultimately fired her U.S. agency when she learned they were pushing her toward the deal and would earn an undisclosed amount from the partnership. By fall 2017, she pitched "I May Destroy You" to a producer with the BBC. She received an email the next day saying she would have everything she negotiated for: a seat at the table on production, full creative control and the rights to the work.

"I May Destroy You" premiered in June 2020 to favorable reviews for its exploration of a young Black woman rebuilding her life, career and relationships after a sexual assault.

In her acceptance speech at the Emmy awards ceremony, Coel offered a few words to fellow writers:

"Write the tale that scares you, that makes you feel uncertain, that is uncomfortable. I dare you.

"In a world that entices us to browse through the lives of others to help us better determine how we feel about ourselves, and to, in turn, feel the need to be constantly visible, for visibility these days seems to somehow equate to success.

"Do not be afraid to disappear, from it, from us, for a while, and see what comes to you in the silence."

After thanking several HBO and BBC executives, she dedicated her story and award to all survivors of sexual assault.

Coel's historic win stands out as a rare exception of the evening. Despite a record number of nominees from underrepresented communities, all major acting trophies went to white actors.

There were other history-making wins elsewhere. It was the first time women won both the comedy and drama directing categories (Lucia Aniello for "Hacks" and Jessica Hobbs for "The Crown," respectively.) And with 11 total career wins, host and producer RuPaul broke the record for the most Emmy wins by a person of color, as "RuPaul's Drag Race" won the trophy for best reality competition program.

Check out: Chloe Zhao, second woman to win a best director Oscar, says slow success is key

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