J.J. Abrams TV Deal Sweepstakes Slowed by Writers' Fight With Agencies

J.J. Abrams arrives at the Los Angeles premiere of HBO's 'Westworld'  - Getty - H 2019

The ongoing battle over packaging fees and affiliate production between the Writers Guild of America and Association of Talent Agents has slowed one of the industry's biggest talent pursuits: the quest to land an overall deal with prolific producer J.J. Abrams and his Bad Robot banner.

Abrams and Bad Robot have stopped working with longtime agency CAA in all areas (save for directing). That has impacted the dealmaking process as Bad Robot had been taking meetings all over town for a potential new place to call home. With CAA no longer leading the charge, the process has slowed considerably, though one source familiar with the negotiations notes the pursuit "still has heat on it." Bad Robot's attorneys and internal team have now taken over the lead in those negotiations.

Sources tell THR that Comcast, WarnerMedia, Sony Pictures Entertainment and Apple, among others, have all had meetings about signing Bad Robot (Westworld, Castle Rock) to a lucrative new overall deal. Some sources note that such a pact could be worth as much as $500 million when film, digital and other areas are factored in.

Reps for CAA and Bad Robot both declined to comment.

Abrams initially did not sign the WGA's Statement of Support in late March. Instead, on March 27, he joined the writers' call to "end agencies' conflicted practices" with a note sent to WGA members.

Abrams and Bad Robot are considered the biggest fish currently swimming in the overall deal waters. Multiple studios and streamers at least kicked the tires on a possible rich pact with the super-producer. Netflix, Apple, Amazon and fellow media behemoths WarnerMedia, Comcast and Sony were among those who met or explored a deal with Bad Robot in the past few months. Abrams and Bad Robot execs, including head of television Ben Stephenson, took meetings all over town as they considered moving their overall deal from Warner Bros. TV, where the company behind Fringe has been based since 2006.

Warners is among the companies pulling out all the stops in a bid to keep Abrams in-house. According to multiple sources, one big consideration weighing on WarnerMedia CEO John Stankey was a desire to keep his prized producer within the company fold. Sources say Bad Robot co-CEO (and Abrams' wife) Katie McGrath — who is also a founding member of Time's Up — conveyed to Stankey in no uncertain terms that Warner Bros. CEO Kevin Tsujihara's continued presence was a "values" issue as she and Abrams explored their company's options. Tsujihara stepped down March 18 following THR's publication of texts revealing that the executive had engaged in an affair with British actress Charlotte Kirk and then attempted to help her land roles in Warners television shows and movies.

Abrams, who is currently editing Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker for Disney, is among the top producers in Warners' TV fold at a time when brand-name showrunners are in increasingly high demand. Warners, Comcast and Disney are each planning streaming services of their own in a bid to compete with billion-dollar spenders including Netflix, Amazon and upstart Apple. Netflix helped explode the market for proved hit-makers when it signed Shonda Rhimes and, later, Ryan Murphy to nine-figure overall deals, prompting both producers to exit their longtime homes at ABC Studios and 20th Century Fox Television.

On the TV side, Abrams is prepping an HBO drama, Lovecraft Country (with Jordan Peele), and also executive produces Castle Rock and Westworld alongside showrunners Lisa Joy and Jonah Nolan. (The married Westworld duo inked a nine-figure overall deal of their own last month and departed Warners for Amazon.) Abrams also is working on Demimonde, the first series he has written and created since Alias. The genre drama landed at HBO following a multiple-outlet bidding war, with the premium cabler also landing the hot script They Both Die at the End from Abrams and The Other Two breakout Chris Kelly. Abrams and Bad Robot also have three shows in the works at Apple: Stephen King adaptation Lisey's Storystarring Julianne Moore; Sara Bareilles' Little Voiceand the Jennifer Garner vehicle My Glory Was I Had Such FriendsAll three were picked up straight to series amid competition from multiple outlets.

All of those projects are produced by Warner Bros. TV, which last year extended mega-producer Berlanti with an overall deal said to be worth $400 million. (Berlanti presently holds the TV record for the most scripted originals currently airing.)

With WarnerMedia expected to unveil its direct-to-consumer subscription platform in the fourth quarter, keeping Abrams in the fold is considered a high priority for the independent studio.