'Star Wars' Director Drama: How J.J. Abrams Jilted Paramount for 'Episode IX'

The director takes on the Lucasfilm gig despite a $10 million obligation to his "home" studio, leaving newly crowned Jim Gianopulos to ask Disney for make-good money.
Illustration by: Laemeur

If there is one thing Paramount chairman and CEO Jim Gianopulos could use right now, it's the hope of a few hit movies. He inherited a pretty bare cupboard when he took over the studio in April, and the crushing failure of Darren Aronofsky's mother! over the Sept. 15 weekend did not help in terms of revenue or perception.

One promising thing Gianopulos found waiting for him at the studio was the prospect of a movie directed by J.J. Abrams. The filmmaker has made his home at Paramount since 2006 with a deal now said to be worth a hefty $10 million a year in overhead and development. It is very possibly the last, richest deal of its kind. But if Gianopulos hoped that pact soon would bear fruit in the form of an Abrams-directed project — which Paramount hasn't had since Star Trek Into Darkness in 2013 — he soon learned that it was not to be.

His predecessor, Brad Grey, had tried to ensure that such a film was next on Abrams' dance card. Grey was known to be furious when Abrams, in January 2013, signed on to direct Star Wars: The Force Awakens for Lucasfilm and Disney. He didn't understand how Abrams' generous deal with his studio could allow the director to take the job. So once Abrams finished his duties on Force Awakens, which was released in December 2015, Grey entered into a renegotiation obligating Abrams to direct his next movie for Paramount.

Jump forward in hyperspace to Sept. 5, when Lucasfilm parted ways with Jurassic World director Colin Trevorrow, who was supposed to write and direct Star Wars: Episode IX. With the movie scheduled for a May 2019 release, Lucasfilm needed a replacement fast. "The question was, who can drop into this world and get it done?" observes one source with knowledge of the situation. There also were the optics, with Ron Howard having just been brought in to take over the young Han Solo spinoff after Phil Lord and Chris Miller were fired. Lucasfilm did not need a prolonged who-is-going-to-direct-this-movie debate on the internet.

The solution was Abrams, 51, and though the release date was pushed to December 2019, the pressure remains. With the script still unwritten, Abrams is going to be occupied for the next two years. (His deal at Paramount runs through summer 2018, long before he finishes his work in a galaxy far, far away.) The director declined comment, but a source in his camp says he was enticed by a "once-now-a-twice-in-a-lifetime opportunity," and all parties understand that.

As for Gianopulos, the exec accommodated the move even if he was not happy, say sources. Paramount declined comment, but the studio chief is said to be irked to see Abrams get poached again — this time despite a specifically negotiated obligation. But fighting Abrams would have meant alienating the filmmaker and taking on major adversaries: Lucasfilm, Disney and possibly even Steven Spielberg, who isn't involved with Star Wars but has a long-term association with Lucasfilm chief Kathleen Kennedy and has taken credit for luring Abrams to helm The Force Awakens in the first place. And then there are Abrams' reps at CAA. With Paramount in need of all the support it can get, Gianopulos had to be realistic.

In these circumstances, sources say he did the best he could by extracting some money from Disney for maintaining Abrams in the style to which he has become accustomed. But the payment is said to be a one-time shot of less than seven figures, which isn't much to cover a two-year absence. A Paramount insider disputes that, saying the figure is higher. And obviously, given a choice between taking that negligible payment or having a film that could make money and boost Paramount's prestige, Gianopulos would have jumped at the latter.

But even if Gianopulos had been willing to take on the forces arrayed against him, one former studio chief says there's no point in trying to force a person to direct a film. "Saying, 'You're going to do something for us' and handing them millions of dollars for that project, you're putting yourself in great peril," he says. When it comes to rich deals, he adds, "How to enforce them is as complicated as the deals themselves."

So what has Paramount gotten from Abrams in his 11 years at the studio? As a director, three films: Two Star Trek movies and Super 8, which grossed $260 million worldwide in 2011. Abrams also has been a producer on several films, including three Mission: Impossibles, a third Star Trek, two Cloverfield films and a third set for release in February. Throughout his career, Abrams' films, directed or produced, have grossed more than $5.7 billion.

Still, Abrams has not fulfilled the hope that the late Grey had when he hired him to direct his first film, Mission: Impossible III, back in 2006. "We think J.J. is the next Steven Spielberg," said Grey at the time. Maybe it's more accurate to say Abrams is a Spielberg for the 21st century. His commercial instincts, his gift for salesmanship and his skill with reboots have kept him in a rich movie deal at Paramount as well as a very rewarding TV deal at Warner Bros., even if neither studio is getting as much of his attention as they would like.

Abrams is "operating a machinery, an enterprise," says one producer of his string of hit movies. And if Paramount didn't want to accommodate Abrams, someone else would snap him up "in a New York minute."

Paramount likely will attempt to renew Abrams' deal; he's valuable enough that two years is not too long to wait for his services. "You might not put him in the pantheon [alongside Spielberg]," says one studio insider, "but he's a writer, producer and director. There aren't too many of those guys." With Star Wars again beckoning, says this person, "You can't be an asshole and say no. You do the right thing, and hopefully people repay that."

This story first appeared in the Sept. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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