J.J. Abrams Officially Closes Sizable WarnerMedia Film, TV Partnership

J.J. Abrams and Katie McGrath-Getty-H 2019
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It's official: J.J. Abrams has solidified his future at WarnerMedia.

Abrams and his wife and Bad Robot co-CEO Katie McGrath have inked a new five-year, all-encompassing overall deal with WarnerMedia. The agreement — which multiple sources say is worth more in the line of $250 million as opposed to the previously reported $500 million estimate — marks the first time that Abrams has had both his film and TV deals under the same roof. The new pact, which runs through 2024 and is described as "exclusive," also for the first time includes video games and digital content. Abrams is expected to create original feature films for WarnerMedia.

The formal announcement comes more than three months after The Hollywood Reporter broke the news that WarnerMedia had won the sweepstakes for Abrams and Bad Robot's services following a nearly yearlong courting process that was shrouded in secrecy and during which multiple suitors pursued the prolific producer.

Still to be determined is whether Abrams will have the opportunity to pursue feature film directing jobs for studios other than Warner Bros., though sources stress Abrams will honor pre-existing commitments to his former feature home Paramount and previously announced deals covering Star Wars. Also unclear is whether WarnerMedia landed an investment stake in Bad Robot, though multiple sources say that's a distinct possibility.

Bad Robot's deal keeps Abrams at the studio he has called home since 2006. With the new contract, Abrams and company will continue to create and develop new projects for WarnerMedia and supervise other producers across film, TV and digital platforms. The deal will also continue to let Bad Robot sell to third-party suppliers — a detail said to be of the utmost importance to Abrams.

The months-long process of moving Bad Robot's feature film deal over from Viacom-owned Paramount Pictures began in June and was recently completed, which prompted the official announcement from the media behemoth. "It's bittersweet to be leaving our longtime moviemaking home, Paramount Pictures," Abrams said Thursday in a statement to THR. "It's been an unforgettable ride. We are incredibly grateful to the studio team — past and present — especially the incomparable Jim Gianopulos and the super talented Liz Raposo. We still have a number of great stories to tell together, and for that, I feel exceedingly lucky."

Sources say WarnerMedia CEO John Stankey made courting Bad Robot his top priority. In its decision to stay, Bad Robot turned down more lucrative offers from tech companies and were impressed with Stankey and his ability to deliver such a wide-ranging deal. The courting process saw Bad Robot pitch itself to companies such as Disney, Netflix and Apple as a larger consumer brand and seek, with traditional studios, a guaranteed number of releases per year.

"WarnerMedia and AT&T are delighted to launch a long-term collaboration with our world-class partners and colleagues J.J. Abrams and Katie McGrath. We are extremely excited about the potential to deliver remarkable and memorable stories and characters across multiple platforms to audiences around the world. J.J., Katie and all of Bad Robot bring extraordinary vision, exquisite filmmaking and exemplary industry leadership to this endeavor and our company," Stankey said. "Across all forms of content, we are uniquely positioned to offer our creative partners a multitude of platforms to realize their artistic goals and ambitions and to ensure that their stories have the best possible opportunity to connect with the right audience. I'd also like to recognize the leadership of Warner Bros. Television Group president and chief content officer Peter Roth, who has known J.J. and Katie for many years and developed opportunities that turned into a long-standing, mutually beneficial partnership, which will now flourish for many years into the future across the entire WarnerMedia and AT&T family."

Abrams and Bad Robot's pact officially has the prolific producer in the same financial vicinity as Greg Berlanti ($400 million from Warners), Ryan Murphy ($300 million from Netflix) and Shonda Rhimes ($100 million from Netflix). The biggest difference separating the Bad Robot deal from Berlanti's and Murphy's is the lack of a library backend to buy out. Warners, for example, bought out Berlanti's backend points on shows such as Arrow and The Flash. Still, while sources say the deal is valued at $250 million, it could reach the billions should Abrams successfully create an original feature film franchise. Similar to TV backend points, the WarnerMedia content agreement includes sizable financial incentives in Abrams-created feature films. That is said to have been a key point in the dealmaking process.

Abrams and Bad Robot were considered the biggest fish in the insanely competitive overall-deal waters. Multiple studios and streamers at least kicked the tires or engaged in a hypercompetitive effort to woo Abrams and McGrath on a possible rich pact for the company behind hits that include HBO's Westworld and Hulu's Castle Rock, among others. Netflix, Apple, Amazon and fellow media titans WarnerMedia, Comcast and Sony Entertainment were among those who, sources say, met or explored a deal with Bad Robot. Sources also say 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. While outlets like Apple and Sony came close, sources stress that WarnerMedia emerged on top in the spring when it became apparent that Bad Robot prioritized being part of a larger company with TV and film distribution — including WarnerMedia's forthcoming SVOD service, HBO Max.

WarnerMedia, now under the leadership of Stankey, is among the companies that pulled out all the stops in a bid to keep Abrams in-house. According to multiple sources, one big consideration weighing on Stankey was a desire to keep his prized producer within the company fold. Sources say 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.

Further complicating the bidding process was the ongoing war between the Writers Guild of America and agencies over packaging fees and affiliated studios. Abrams and Bad Robot stopped working with representatives at CAA in all areas save for directing. With CAA no longer leading the charge, the process had slowed considerably and dragged into the spring and early summer, but sources say Abrams continued to meet with Warner Bros. TV Group president Peter Roth and Stankey, with whom he has had an ongoing relationship.

"It is a thrill for Katie, Brian [Weinstein] and me and the rest of our team at Bad Robot to call WarnerMedia our company's new home," Abrams said. "John Stankey has a powerful vision for the future of WarnerMedia and is committed to storytelling that connects people around the world. We are excited and gratified to be a part of this new chapter under his and Ann Sarnoff's thoughtful leadership. I could go on for hours, and probably will, about the extraordinary Peter Roth and the entire Warners television group, with whom we've worked for over a decade, and I've wanted to collaborate with Toby Emmerich and his team for as long as I can remember. I am grateful for the chance to write, produce and direct work for this incredible company and to help create films and series with a diverse and vast collection of inspiring storytellers. We can't wait to get started."

Abrams, who is currently editing Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker — the final installment in the Skywalker saga — for Disney, was 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 planning streaming services in a bid to compete with Netflix, Amazon and Apple. Netflix helped explode the market for proven hitmakers when it signed Rhimes and, later, Murphy, to nine-figure overall deals, prompting both producers to exit their respective longtime homes at ABC Studios and 20th Century Fox Television. Between the ramp-up for content produced in-house for those forthcoming streaming platforms and the feud between writers and agents, demand for top writers and producers has further elevated these already jaw-dropping pacts for top creators. The market for such creators has also grown so fierce that some showrunners are now signing multiple TV deals — offering their services exclusively to broadcast and streaming.

On the TV side, Abrams is prepping an HBO drama, Lovecraft Country (with Jordan Peele), and executive produces Castle Rock and Westworld alongside showrunners Lisa Joy and Jonah Nolan. (The latter duo exited their longtime home at Warners for a lucrative five-year, $150 million deal with Amazon Studios.) Abrams also is working on Demimonde, the first series he has written and created since Alias (which also recently changed showrunners). The genre drama landed at HBO following a multiple-outlet bidding war, with the premium cabler also acquiring 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: the Stephen King adaptation Lisey's Story, starring Julianne Moore; Sara Bareilles' Little Voice; and the Jennifer Garner vehicle My Glory Was I Had Such Friends. All three were picked up straight to series amid competition from multiple outlets, with Apple also making an aggressive play for Bad Robot. The company also launched its video game division, Bad Robot Games, in 2018 in partnership with Tencent and Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment.

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 holds the TV record for the most scripted originals currently airing (19 across seven outlets and more in the works). His deal also includes financial incentives when he reaches increasing numbers of shows.

With WarnerMedia expected to unveil its direct-to-consumer subscription platform in the fourth quarter (in beta), keeping Abrams in the fold was considered a high priority for the independent studio. Following the departure of Joy and Nolan to Amazon, re-upping Bad Robot was increasingly important to the studio, which continues to aggressively pursue top talent. The studio recently signed Mindy Kaling and Ava DuVernay to rich overall deals. For its part, Warners promoted Susan Rovner and Brett Paul to presidents of the TV studio as they assume day-to-day oversight of the unit from longtime exec Roth. Roth, who remains under contract through 2020, will continue to serve on the Warner Bros. interim leadership team alongside Toby Emmerich and Kim Williams during the studio's search for an exec to replace the ousted Tsujihara. Next up for the studio will be inking mega-producer Chuck Lorre (The Big Bang Theory, Young Sheldon, Mom, The Kominsky Method) to a new pact as his overall with WBTV expires in June 2020.

Bad Robot is repped by Jackoway Austen.