Dear J.J., Welcome to the New Warner Bros…

J.J. Abrams
Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images
Matthew Belloni
June 12, 2022

Yes, that was J.J. Abrams sitting quietly in the lobby of Amazon Studios in Culver City a couple weeks ago. Abrams, sometimes dubbed the Spielberg of his generation, had journeyed east of the 405 for a meeting with Amazon’s content chiefs Mike Hopkins and Jennifer Salke. Ostensibly the chat was to gauge interest in Amazon buying a piece of Bad Robot, which Abrams and his wife/partner Katie McGrath have grown into one of the premiere independent film and TV companies. But Abrams is also attempting to salvage his $200 million-plus sci-fi series Demimonde that HBO, which had been developing the show with Bad Robot for four long years, just rejected in very public fashion.

Networks pass on expensive series all the time, even if this would have been the first show Abrams created himself since Fringe in 2008, as well as a nice pickup for Channing Dungey, head of Warner Bros. Television, HBO’s sibling company and Bad Robot’s TV home since 2019. What’s more intriguing about the meeting, though, as well as similar conversations with Apple that have taken place lately, is the question of whether J.J. will take Bad Robot’s entire deal from Warners to another home. After all, new Warner Bros. Discovery C.E.O. David Zaslav has let media reports circulate that not only is Demimonde a no, he’s also not thrilled with the output of Bad Robot, which has a 5 year, reported $250 million deal for film and TV. Given Abrams’ stature in Hollywood, that qualifies as a slap in the face.       

You can almost picture Zaslav hearing about the Demimonde standoff, then asking for a copy of the Bad Robot deal he inherited from AT&T C.E.O. John Stankey and former Warners TV chief Peter Roth. After spending a couple minutes ruminating over the terms, I see him turning to his inner circle and asking, incredulously, What the eff is this? It’s not the dollar amount; Zaslav might be charged with trimming $3 billion from the new company, but he knows that $250 million (plus many millions in incentives) is the cost of doing business with the guy behind Lost and the Star Wars and Star Trek reboots. Rather, it’s the lack of exclusivity—Abrams is now at work on a Trek sequel for Paramount, not Warner Bros.—and the real issue, the one that keeps coming up when Team Zaz evaluates their new Hollywood assets, is: What are we actually getting for our money? 

For years, and for a certain level of talent, the studios and networks knew better than to ask that impolite question. It wasn’t about the return on every pricey overall deal, it was about being in the so-and-so business, about giving the best talent the best possible situation in which to create. The projects and, eventually, in the aggregate, the financial return, would follow. Many of the overalls don’t generate hits, but many do, and hey, if we don’t lock this guy down, the shop down the street will. Warner Bros., which sells shows all over town, has been particularly aggressive in the overall business, and has reaped billions from relationships with Greg Berlanti, Chuck Lorre and other creators with shows at multiple outlets. Being platform-agnostic is how WB landed Abrams in the first place.    

But now, amid the streaming slowdown, the decade-long run-up seems to be giving way to new thinking on guaranteed money. Namely, Zaslav (and, to a lesser extent, his peers) would prefer not to hand it out. Or at least that’s what agents and TV executives are telling me. The eight and nine-figure deals are still happening, but there’s a bit of a Janet Jackson mantra going around: It’s not What have you done, it’s What have you done for me lately? I wouldn’t have predicted that J.J. Abrams, who was considered untouchable for a big chunk of the 2000s and 2010s, would now become the face of the new, more R.O.I.-obsessed Hollywood. But I also wouldn’t have predicted that Zaslav would kill CNN+ just weeks after launch, and here we are.

With Bad Robot, I think people are conflating two related but separate issues. First, there’s Demimonde, which, as an original sci-fi series not based on a book or I.P., would have been risky. Given its multiple showrunners, all the problems on the similarly ambitious Westworld, and HBO’s penchant for developing far more than it actually makes, is anyone that surprised that HBO chief Casey Bloys cut it loose? Its chances weren’t great, regardless of the recent ownership change.

The second issue is Zaslav’s frustration with Bad Robot’s output, which has more far-reaching implications. He’s not wrong. Abrams and Co. have a ton of projects in development. But how many are actually being made? Very few. That’s a problem, and while Bad Robot may have totally legitimate explanations for what’s going on with each project (plus, it has labored under three separate Warner regimes in three years), these platforms are under such pressure to deliver shows now, they can’t really afford to wait around.    

This isn’t just a J.J. issue, of course. I’m sure every Warner Bros. talent under an overall—Bill Lawrence (Ted Lasso), Mindy Kaling (Sex Lives of College Girls), Ava DuVernay (Queen Sugar), to name a few—is checking their output, given the new regime. But Abrams is somewhat unique. Bad Robot shows tend to be expensive, their development can be slow, and Abrams himself has, in the past, not been super active on them (though that’s apparently changing, I’m told). This is a key point, because most of the talents I mentioned above are intimately involved in their shows. 

Even going back to Lost, which is often cited as Abrams’ most successful series, he ceded the reins to showrunners Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof after the pilot. That’s fine, there’s also a long history of TV powerhouses whose companies stand for a certain type of show but whose founders don’t actually make most of them. But TV today, especially at the premium level, is often constructed with that big overall deal talent at the center of it all. Look at Dan Fogelman (This Is Us) or Benioff and Weiss (Game of Thrones), who are intimately involved in every episode. Even the brand-name “megaproducers”—the Berlantis, the Dick Wolfs, the Shonda Rhimeses—are still the final say on big decisions, even if they don’t write most of the words. The days of “supervising” from the set of Star Trek are probably waning, at least for producers who want to make the big money.      

I wouldn’t worry about J.J. Abrams, of course; nobody’s saying he’s lost his fastball. I’m told the Bad Robot leaders are talking to the Warners people about how to be good partners, and what is expected of Abrams himself if the relationship is to continue. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t. Bad Robot has acknowledged the slow development, and seems to recognize that industry expectations are changing, even for people at Abrams’ level. Even if he takes his talents elsewhere in 2024 or before, the Bad Robot imprimatur still means a lot. Zaslav must understand that. 

But the timing of this dustup isn’t great, especially since Abrams, McGrath and Bad Robot President Brian Weinstein have engaged Liontree, Aryeh Bourkoff’s boutique firm specializing in media M&A, to explore selling part of the company. (Hence the Amazon meeting.) Abrams has always been super-savvy about his own public profile, and he seems to understand he needs to fix the impression that he marches to his own beat. Like Spielberg, who took directing gigs at multiple studios despite co-founding DreamWorks, Abrams wasn’t great to Paramount, which had Bad Robot under contract but played second fiddle when Abrams decided to make two Star Wars movies for Disney. Now, ironically, Paramount may do the same thing to Warners. For how long is the question.