The courtship process is heating up, the one that will bring JJ Abrams and his Bad Robot banner — film, television and possibly other platforms — away from Paramount and into a big new studio deal or an independently financed alternative.
Sources with knowledge of the bake-off said that Universal, Disney and Warner Bros are the major studios battling it out, with Disney and Warner Bros. — which has housed Bad Robot’s TV division — considered favorites, but with Universal pulling out all the stops to win the deal. Apple is also an intriguing alternative, as the cash-rich company looks to make Abrams a fulcrum for its own creative content ambitions in Hollywood.
No term sheet was submitted by Abrams’ advisory team of CAA and attorneys Alan Wertheimer and Jim Jackoway. Interested parties were told that Abrams’ bold plans encompass major initiatives in video games via its recently launched venture Bad Robot Games, live theater and music in addition to Bad Robot’s established output in film and television.
Apple’s tech prowess could play in its favor, and it could be a landing place for Bad Robot, though observers also do not discount a potential bid from streaming giant Netflix, or even deep-pocketed Amazon, which had been on the hunt for a mega film-TV deal with A-list talent. Word is that Sony, a traditional film-TV studio whose parent company has strong positions in electronics and gaming, also is making a play for Bad Robot.
It has been left up to the suitors to make proposals on size of the deal, put pilots and features, and other every other facet. Sources said Paramount will not try to keep Bad Robot in the fold. But it is expected to come down to the studios that have the biggest platforms, including theme parks, music labels, TV, merchandising and concrete plans for streaming services that can best suit Bad Robot’s creative ambitions. People in the mix said Abrams is making a big play here to establish his legacy, on a host of platforms. He plans to ramp up, very aggressively.
Paramount has been paying an eight-figure yearly overhead on Bad Robot, but the outcome has been a mixed bag, and the relationship hasn’t always been easy. The late Brad Grey and his team brought in Abrams in 2006, after their collaboration on Abrams’ feature directorial debut on Mission Impossible III. Abrams directed three features in the first seven years of the partnership, two Star Trek films and Super 8, but the filmmaker, who is not exclusive to Paramount as a director, has spent most of the last five years at Disney, directing Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Star Wars – Episode IX, stepping in when Lucasfilm parted ways with Colin Trevorrow. The latter has a December 2019 release date, and word is Abrams once again couldn’t pass up a chance of a lifetime. A Bad Robot extension came with an agreement he would direct a film for Paramount, but he did his second Star Wars film instead.
There is a feeling at Paramount that if Abrams wasn’t so preoccupied with his directing projects that creating billions of dollars in revenue for rival Disney, Abrams’ creative expertise could have helped producing projects like the underperforming Overlord and The Cloverfield Paradox, latter of which was offloaded to Netflix, which launched with a Super Bowl spot. It was also roundly panned by critics.
Some of those who question how high to go on this deal note that while heavyweights like Steven Spielberg, James Cameron and up and comers like James Wan originate franchises, Abrams’ great gift has been to rehabilitate and breathe new life into existing IP. That is something that Jon Favreau has also done exceptionally well, turning Disney animated classics The Jungle Book and The Lion King into live-action films. Abrams has done this not only by relaunching Star Wars for Disney and helming Star Wars: Episode IX, but also with Star Trek and Mission: Impossible for Paramount. Latter film has been Paramount’s brightest franchise since Abrams and Tom Cruise worked together to resurrect it when the franchise seemed out of gas.
But even if he hasn’t hatched much new IP, Abrams is viewed as the equivalent of a five-tool baseball player free agent. His value as director, producer and talent magnet makes this an overall deal that doesn’t come around that often. Particularly since he will bring both his film and television deals under the same roof. According to industry sources, if established creators like Shonda Rhimes, Ryan Murphy and Greg Berlanti boast TV deals worth $300 million or more, Abrams could top all of them and perhaps reach $500 million, for everything.
So who will win the deal? Some close to the jockeying said that it might be Disney’s to lose, for a number of reasons. The studio has a network and the most successful movie studio in town, by far, and that its theme parks also become attractive. In addition, they say that Abrams has developed a close relationship with Disney chief Bob Iger, forged in the editing room on those Star Wars films. The studio is making a strong OTT play that would allow Bad Robot to be as prolific as it desires, and the studio could give Abrams his own silo to generate theatricals. He could become Disney’s answer to Spielberg. The potential downside: Disney already has its established silo system, with Pixar, Lucasfilm and Kevin Feige’s Marvel Studios, plus a program of transferring animated classics into live-action family films that leave little room for anything else on its slate. Plus, Disney contracted to inhale the film and TV assets of 20th Century Fox, and the digestion process hasn’t yet begun. It is going to be a crowded place.
Warner Bros’ strength is deep pockets, and an established relationship with Abrams through its television division. Bad Robot has been a prolific supplier of series, including Westworld, the Stephen King homage Castle Rock, Person of Interest, Almost Human and Fringe. The company has three upcoming scripted series, Demimonde at HBO, which marks the first TV series solely created by Abrams since Alias; a limited series starring Jennifer Garner at Apple and romantic dramedy Little Voice, also at Apple.
Bad Robot has significantly ramped up its TV operation since bringing former BBC drama chief Ben Stephenson to head the division, expanding the company’s portfolio at an opportune time as it is seeking a new home.
As it is preparing for the next chapter, Bad Robot also has been bulking up its film slate, recently announcing six new feature projects from a number of up and coming filmmakers.
But in terms of the most toys: Warner Bros shed its co-ownership of the Six Flags theme parks. Time Warner and its partner Boston Properties last February sold Six Flags to Premier Parks for $965 million, plus the assumption of $890 million in debt.
Warner Bros subsequently opened a branded theme park with development partner Miral in the United Arab Emirates and its Warner Bros World Abu Dhabi is said to be every bit as thematically ambitious as the Disney and Universal theme parks. Does it matter? Warner Bros’ most successful franchise, Harry Potter, has a massively lucrative theme park component: at Universal. The park pays Warner Bros handsomely for the wildly popular Harry Potter attraction Wizarding World, but if Abrams wants to go to a place which has every toy, Warner Bros doesn’t check that box.
Universal has many of the toys Disney does, including strong global broadcast platforms with NBC and Sky, its own theme parks and strong movie and TV divisions. But if you are considering intangibles, here is one: Although Abrams directed the film Super 8 as loving homage to mentor Spielberg, does he want to be at the place where Spielberg casts such a long shadow? Spielberg has gotten more selective in recent years, and Universal has a strong track record for franchise launching with its silos Illumination Entertainment and Blumhouse. They’ll push that success rate as Abrams moves into more of a franchise hatcher.
And then there is the indie route, with some noting that it would be tempting for Abrams to try and build his own empire. There likely won’t be a shortage of financiers willing to pony up big money to back such a venture, with some observers pointing TPG, which owns a majority stake in Abrams; agency CAA, as a possibility. Stay tuned. The drama is expected to begin playing out over the next week or two.