Michaela Coel turned down $1M Netflix deal for ‘I May Destroy You’

The London-born creative says she did so to retain ownership in her new show, which is now at HBO

SAG-AFTRA Foundation Conversations: "Black Earth Rising"
Michaela Coel attends SAG-AFTRA Foundation Conversations: "Black Earth Rising" at The Robin Williams Center on January 22, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images)

I May Destroy You is now one of HBO’s most acclaimed current series and its creator, London-born Michaela Coel is one of the most promising Black creatives out.

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She’s already starred in her own show Chewing Gum which Netflix distributed in the U.S. and was a lead character in Black Earth Rising which they also aired in the U.S. Coel has starred as well in the Netflix film Been So Long and appeared on Black Mirror, one of the streamer’s franchise original programs.

Michaela Coel
(Photo by Tim P. Whitby/Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images)

Yet when it came time to release I May Destroy You, Coel opted for HBO. The reason why she says is that although Netflix would have paid her a cool million, she wouldn’t have been able to retain even a little bit of her copyright.

Coel, 32, told Vulture that Netflix denied her even an 0.5% copyright on her show, despite her writing and directing all 12 episodes. I May Destroy You details how a young writer, based on Coel, recovers after finding out she was sexually assaulted after a night out with a friend. Coel took the story from a real-life experience she had while working on Chewing Gum.

But despite her complete involvement and previous successes, Netflix was unwilling to give her copyright. She detailed the conversation she had with a high-level executive while she bargained down from 5 % of her copyright to 0.5%.

There was just silence on the phone,” she told Vulture. “And she said, ‘It’s not how we do things here. Nobody does that, it’s not a big deal.’ I said, ‘If it’s not a big deal, then I’d really like to have 5 percent of my rights.’ 

As we now know the deal didn’t happen, but even the executive told Coel that she was proud of her and that she was “doing the right thing.”

“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,” Coel told Vulture. “And then she said those words to me, and I finally realized — I’m not crazy. This is crazy.”

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Ultimately the deal came via the BBC with HBO as a partner. Coel was granted full creative control, all her rights, and even the ability to have a say on the production side. Coel also fired CAA, her agents in the U.S., when she found out that they were taking a piece of the show on the back end that they hadn’t been forthright about.

Coel joins Issa Rae as one of the few Black female showrunners on HBO. In recent years, though, Black women including Shonda Rhimes, Ava DuVernay, and Lena Waithe have earned big deals. They also have the creative rights to their shows something that was once a rarity.

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