One of the longest relationships between a writer-producer and a studio will continue. John Wells has signed a massive new five-year overall deal with Warner Bros. Television Group. Under the pact, believed to be in the nine-figure range and to run through 2024, Wells and his John Wells Prods. will remain based at the studio where the veteran writer-producer-director has been working for virtually his entire TV career to date, since landing a story editor job there in 1986.
Since then, Wells has executive produced a slew of successful and critically praised series for Warner Bros. TV, including ER, The West Wing, Southland, Shameless and Animal Kingdom.
JWP currently has more than a dozen projects in the works, including the provocative Heart of a Lion, written by Wells based on a: Finnish film, which I hear is in talks at Showtime. Marking the first TV project Wells has written since adapting Paul Abbott’s British series Shameless, Heart Of a Lion centers on a white nationalist. He falls in love with a woman who has a black son and has to confront his own past, his family and beliefs in a rapidly changing America in the age of Trump.
JWP’s development slate also includes The Red Bird Lane, penned by Sara Gran (Southland), which I hear is eyed for a pilot order at WarnerMedia’s streaming platform, My Ex-Life, written by Mickey Rapkin (Pitch Perfect) inspired by the Stephen McCaul novel, which I hear is in discussions at Apple, Maid, written by Molly Smith Metzler (Shameless) based on the book by Stephanie Land, co-produced by Margot Robbie’s LuckyChap, and Best of Both Worlds, a new adaptation of a British series by Shameless creator Paul Abbott. (You can see a the entire slate with details on the development projects at the end of the story.)
So far, JWP’s development plans do not include revisiting some of the series Wells has been closely associated with, ER, Southland and The West Wing, though the veteran showrunner indicated to Deadline that he would be open if the right idea came along.
It has been a white-hot overall deal marketplace with the prices tags for prolific showrunners able to juggle multiple successful series at the same time skyrocketing.
I hear Wells took a lot of meetings at various traditional TV studios and digital platforms. In the end, “Warner Media ended up being the place that made the most sense for us,” Wells said. “I’ve been there a long time and have a great amount of fondness, and we’ve all had a lot of success together.”
But the studio did not rely solely on the sentimental pull of a long-time home, it offered Wells what he wanted — independence.
“At Warners, they were very prepared for us to continue to be very independent in the sense that we would be allowed and able to sell all over town to all different kinds of outlets, which was very important to me, that we have an opportunity to find the best place for the material,” Wells said. “Warners was very clear that that’s the direction they are taking in this rapidly changing marketplace, and that was very attractive to me and to us.”
The studio also stepped up financially in a competitive situation. Wells would not comment on the size of his new deal but admitted that “it is commensurate with other deals that are out there.”
“It has been a heated marketplace, and I think what you’re seeing in particular is that there is a real premium on those of us who have had experience doing many shows at once, and that’s because of the additional output that everyone needs — with HBO doubling what they’re doing, and Netflix losing a lot of the licenses and having to dramatically increase what they’re doing.”
In the era of giant TV overall deals, it has been easier for incumbent studios to come up with competitive offers for prolific creators/producers as they often have the advantage of being able to sweeten their overall deal proposals with advances toward the producers’ backend. That is believed to be the case with giant renewals such as WBTV’s re-ups with Greg Berlanti and Wells and the pending one with J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot.
The pact for JWP includes “substantial” overhead and discretionary funds for acquiring IP and hiring writers for in-house development. The company has extensive infrastructure that Wells says allows it to produce multiple shows. JWP’s executive ranks include Erin Jontow, who runs the TV division, and EVP Ned Haspel who handles business and financial affairs.
A longtime broadcast staple with series like ER, Third Watch and The West Wing, Wells made the transition to cable when cop drama Southland was canceled by NBC and rescued by TNT a decade ago, Since then, Wells’ efforts have been focused primarily in the cable and streaming space, including JWP’s two current series, Shameless, heading into its 10th season on Showtiunme, and Animal Kingdom, now in its fourth season on TNT, as well as the bulk of its development. Would Wells return to broadcast television?
“Well, never say never,” Wells said. “I think what’s happened is that, with the pressure from premium cable and the streaming services, the broadcast networks are expanding what they’re prepared to put on the air, so I’m hoping that that opens up the broadcast networks to ideas that they haven’t been as open to over the last years.
The announcement of Well’s new deal comes more than two months after the WGA severed ties with the ATA and asked its members to fire their agents. More than 7,000 did, including Wells, one of the most prominent guild figures of the past couple of decades who served as President of WGA West in two stints. Here is how Wells describes the deal-making process on his new pact.
“This process of meeting around town and talking and negotiating has been going on for eight months, so my attorney, Tom Hansen, and Don Steele over at Hansen Jacobson Teller have been involved all along, along with Ned Haspel, who runs all the business affairs here, and then at CAA up until early April, Steve Lafferty, Mike Rosenfeld and Joe Cohen were all very involved.”
Wells also talked about developing series without agents’ involvement. Many of the projects on JWP’s development slate are with writers the company is working with, has worked with or has wanted to work in the past.
“This is all new to all of us,” Wells said. “How are we going to continue to find writers, particularly projects for books or things that you have, outside of the sphere of people that you already know? So you ask a lot of questions, you talk to other people that you know, you try and put as wide a net as you can, and that’s how we’re finding it so far. It’s very early into this process, and hopefully there’s going to be a resolution to this impasse between the Writers Guild and the ATA and we won’t be having to do it that way for too much longer.”
As for Wells’ personal development, Heart of a Lion, he said he felt compelled to write it after watching the Finnish movie. “I was very moved by it and I just couldn’t get it out of my head,” he said.
On tackling the sensitive subject of white nationalism and race relations in America, Wells said, “We’re in a time, politically, in the country and with everything else that’s going on, where my personal opinion is, we have to be discussing these issues and the different issues in different parts of the country to address how we have ended up at the place where we are. But of course you have to be very sensitive about the subject matter and about the messages that you’re sending or not sending in what you’re doing.”
n addition to executive producing Emmy-winning The West Wing and ER and Peabody Award–winning Southland, during his tenure at WBTVG, Wells also co-created drama series Third Watch, which ran for six seasons on NBC; and executive produced CBS’ China Beach. Series produced by Wells have received more than 300 Emmy nominations, with 65 wins, six Peabody Awards, three Golden Globe Awards, three Producers Guild Awards, and a Humanitas Prize.
Here is a list of JWP’s series in development:
MY EX-LIFE (in talks at Apple)
•WRITER: Mickey Rapkin (author of PITCH PERFECT that inspired film franchise)
•LOGLINE: Inspired by the bestselling novel by Stephen McCauley — a romantic drama about acceptance, self-medication and how we define home. This is a show about an unconventional family whose members are experiencing a coming-of-age-at-every- age.
RED BIRD LANE (eyed for pilot order at WarnerMedia)
• WRITER: Sara Gran (BERLIN STATION, SOUTHLAND)
• LOGLINE: Morality and psychological horror series about eight strangers who arrive at
an isolated house—all for different reasons—and quickly realize that something sinister and strange awaits them.
HEART OF A LION
• WRITER: John Wells
• LOGLINE: A white nationalist falls in love with a woman who has a black son and has to confront his own past, his family and beliefs in a rapidly changing America in the age of Trump. Based on Finnish film titled Leijonasydän directed by Dome Karukoski and writer Alexsi Bardy
• WRITER: Molly Smith Metzler (SHAMELESS, ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK)
• PRODUCERS: LuckyChap (Margot Robbie’s prod co)
• LOGLINE: Based on the bestselling memoir Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s
Will to Survive by Stephanie Land, about working as a maid. A beautiful and gritty exploration of poverty in America.
• WRITER: Dana Czapnik (author of novel adapting)
• LOGLINE: Coming of age tale of a 17-year-old female basketball player living in New York
City at the mid 1990s. Based on book of same name by Dana Czapnik published in January 2019
NATALIE TAN’S BOOK OF LUCK AND FORTUNE
• WRITER: TBD, based on Roselle Lim’s novel
• LOGLINE: Lush and visual, chock-full of delicious recipes, Roselle Lim’s magical debut
novel is about food, Chinese heritage, and finding family in the most unexpected places.
THINGS THAT MAKE WHITE PEOPLE UNCOMFORTABLE
• WRITER: Rodney Barnes (WU-TANG, AN AMERICAN SAGA)
• PRODUCERS: Michael Bennett (author of book, New England Patriots), Anthony Hemingway Productions
• LOGLINE: Following in the footsteps of activist-athletes from Muhammad Ali to Colin Kaepernick, Michael Bennett adds his unmistakable voice to discussions of racism and police violence, Black athletes and their relationship to powerful institutions like the NCAA and the NFL, the role of protest in history, and the responsibilities of athletes as role models to speak out against injustice. Based on IP by Michael Bennett and Dave Zirin
• WRITER: Joe Lawson (SHAMELESS, BOJACK HORSEMAN)
• AUTHOR OF IP: Jen Doll
• LOGLINE: Set in a conservative Southern town — three teenagers with very different backgrounds work summer jobs in a store called Unclaimed Baggage, where they catalog and sell other people’s lost luggage. Together they find that through friendship, they can unpack some of their own emotional baggage and move on into the future.
THE SUMMER WIVES
• WRITER: Beatriz Williams (author of novel adapting
•LOGLINE: An electrifying postwar fable of love, class, power, and redemption set among the inhabitants of an island off the New England coast.
BEST OF BOTH WORLDS
• WRITER: Jacquelyn Reingold (THE GOOD FIGHT, GRACE & FRANKIE, IN TREATMENT)
• CREATOR OF IP: Paul Abbott 2003 BBC series
• LOGLINE: Romathic thriller about a flight attendant feels the strain of maintaining two separate lives.
• WRITER: Sherman Payne (SHAMELESS)
• LOGLINE: Chess team in Harlem band together to solve a mystery.
THE BIG PRESTO
• WRITERS: Benjamin and Paul China (SWEET VIRGINIA)
•LOGLINE: When an aspiring magician accidentally kills an audience member by cutting
him in half onstage, he begins to suspect that he was an unwitting pawn in a complex murder plot.
• WRITER: Dorothy Fortenberry (HANDMAID’S TALE)
• LOGLINE: A revolutionary nun is forced to confront her past as powerful and monied
powers try to evict her from the convent she lives in.