Betsy Beers is producing’s greatest PR agent. On one hand, her work is the stuff of modern television history. As the Executive Producer of Shondaland, and creative partner to Shonda Rhimes for over 20 years, Beers is responsible for bringing stories and characters—specifically women and women of color—to the silver screen that have shaped culture. Meredith Grey (Grey’s Anatomy), Olivia Pope (Scandal), Annalise Keating (How to Get Away With Murder), and Queen Charlotte and the entire Bridgerton world, all of whom arrived on Netflix Christmas Day 2020, commanding the attention of a record-breaking 82 million households globally.
However, Beers’ work is not solely an inspiration because of her credits. She speaks so often about producing because she’s acutely aware you are likely asking yourself right about now: What does a producer actually do? Therefore, demystifying the job description has become part of her career mission. It’s a means to remove confusion around the lofty title, as well as to celebrate a line of work she didn’t know existed until she was in it.
So, for the record: Beers’ role as a creative producer means she touches every creative aspect of the shows she works on (“except write, direct, and act,” she clarifies) and problem-solves everything from on-set shooting logistics to publicity to the rollout of programming. All the while, she and Rhimes have also built an entertainment empire where inclusion and diversity are constantly at the forefront of everything they do, on and off screen.
Ahead, Beers shares more about her unintentional path to becoming a producer, the deeply intentional career she’s created in television, and why she loves her work as much as we love watching it.
"When [Shonda and I] first started, we literally were trying to develop something we wanted to watch. And as it turns out, what we really wanted to watch definitely challenged what was expected."
ON BECOMING A PRODUCER WITHOUT KNOWING WHAT A PRODUCER DOES
When I was first starting out, I wanted to be an actor. Sadly, I was not a particularly good actor. But I did better at comedy and ended up in an improv and sketch group in New York City where we would write and put on shows. I ended up doing all of this noncreative, the nuts and bolts, strategic stuff for the group. Essentially, I was doing a lot of what a producer does, without knowing what a producer does. I discovered I liked doing all this organizational, practical work, at the same time being deeply entrenched in the world of building the show creatively. This was a harbinger of things to come.
Then when I moved to Los Angeles, I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to get involved in reading scripts for various movie companies. I learned that I had an aptitude for analyzing creative storytelling and figuring out ways of solving problems, not only in the physical realm but also on the page. So little by little I learned all the different aspects of what a real creative producer does, which is to bring to life the vision of the creator by collaborating with them on anything and everything—from pitching, script, design, casting, physical production all the way through post. In short, a project from concept to completion.
ON THE BIGGEST NO SHE’S NAVIGATED
There’s not just one no! There were a ton of nos when Shonda and I were trying to make Grey's Anatomy. At every stage. We were the last pilot picked up to film, the last pilot to get picked up to air. Yet no matter how much skepticism we encountered during the process, we believed so fully and totally in the show that we wouldn't give up. We had to make this show because we loved it and hadn't seen anything like it.
The anecdote I always tell is about a group of male executives at ABC who were less than thrilled when the show got picked up. In a meeting we had with them, one of these execs went on and on about how the show was terrible, insulting to medicine, and how he didn't understand how any decent woman in her right mind could identify with, or want to watch, a protagonist who had gotten drunk the night before her first day, met a dude at a bar and took him home. He said, “Who would ever do anything like that?” I was so angry, I blurted out the truth. “Me! I did that. But worse, I think I was probably still drunk when I went to work the next day!” You could have heard a pin drop in the room. Nobody wanted to be the one who would say to me, “Yes indeed, you are a slut!”
I will never forget the smile on Shonda's face. I think it was at that moment she realized, “Okay, this is going to work really well!”
ON THE IMPORTANCE OF CREATIVE PARTNERSHIPS
I’ve always thought that relationships at work are incredibly important. I was lucky to work with people early on who had a strong vision and passion and inspired me. I loved finding mentors and bosses who encouraged me to grow and take chances. I have tried to do the same over the years for the people who work with me. I cannot survive, nor am I interested in being in an environment that isn’t engaging, supportive, and creative, with a range of points of view. Also, I spend so much time at work, it better be fun!
I was incredibly lucky to meet Shonda when I did because we were both new to, and passionate about, television. It has meant everything to me that, over the past 20 years, I’ve had a work partner who has grown to know me so well and who I've grown to know equally as well, somebody for whom I respect so much. Every day I feel like I am one of the fortunate people who get to work with someone who inspires me to do my best work. And I think she feels the same way.
ON PERSONAL STYLE
Given not only the nature of my job, but who I am, I like to present myself as casual, approachable, accessible, and, hopefully, fun. In some ways, it’s the best representation of my personality. I guess I want to wear my inside out. It’s about me feeling comfortable and confident and creating an environment where other people feel like they can be themselves, open up, and do their best work.
ON CHALLENGING THE STATUS QUO
When [Shonda and I] first started, we literally were trying to develop something we wanted to watch. And as it turns out, what we really wanted to watch definitely challenged what was expected. Competitive, messy characters who wear their hearts on their sleeves and have lots of different aspects of their personality. Those were things that reflected my life. I don't think it's as much about setting out to challenge the status quo as it is about creating worlds the way we see them that can inherently challenge things.
There are ways as a company that we aggressively try to challenge the status quo. We are making sure that inclusion and diversity are gigantic parts of our world, both on-screen and off. That's what I'm proudest of. The expectation of who your work friends can be and how many new interesting work friends you can meet—we're really trying to contribute to a wider view of what that is.
ON FUTURE PROJECTS THAT EXCITE HER
What I am excited about is the thing I haven’t done yet. That could be a different genre, a different way of telling a story. It just needs to be a new journey. I want to do more comedy, I love documentaries and I love mysteries. But as importantly, it’s finding the story you want to tell and finding the best genre to tell that story. A great character and story spark what I want to do next.
ON CHAMPIONING FUTURE PRODUCERS
From the outside world—and sometimes from the inside world—the easiest thing is to eliminate the producer. It's the job that sometimes is misunderstood and undervalued. And moving forward, I want to make sure that everybody knows the job exists. I want to make sure that people who want to work in this business might find their bliss doing the kinds of things that I do. Because in hard times, when budgets are being cut and everybody's tightening their belts, one of the first things that happens is you look at the things you don't totally understand and sometimes those things are expendable. I never ever want this job to be considered that.
I just really want everyone to know what an incredibly rewarding, frustrating, tough, challenging, exhilarating job this is. It gives someone an opportunity with a lot of skills and interests to combine them all in one place and truly be of use in the best possible way. That goes for me and for everybody who does a part of the producing job, from people who do physical production to post-producers. It’s a great way to be part of a team and collect some of the best work friends you can find.
"I cannot survive, nor am I interested in being in an environment that isn’t engaging, supportive, and creative, with a range of points of view."