With J.J. Abrams in Play, Bad Robot Co-CEO Nudged WarnerMedia Toward Firing Kevin Tsujihara

JJ Abrams Katie McGrath John Stankey Kevin Tsujihara - Getty - H Split 2019
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A week after WarnerMedia cut ties with Warner Bros. CEO Kevin Tsujihara amid an investigation into his relationship with an actress he promoted, a key detail is emerging about the run-up to the company’s decision. According to multiple sources, one big consideration weighing on WarnerMedia CEO John Stankey was a desire to keep prized producer J.J. Abrams in the company fold.

Abrams and his Bad Robot Productions shingle have been signed to a major deal at Warner Bros. Television since 2006, a relationship that has led to hits including HBO’s Westworld, Hulu’s Castle Rock and Fox’s Fringe. But the super-producer is currently in play, with competitors poised to offer mega-deals potentially worth in the $500 million territory. Sources say Abrams' wife, Katie McGrath — who is a founding member of Time's Up and is co-CEO of Bad Robot — conveyed to Stankey in no uncertain terms that Tsujihara's continued presence was a "values" issue as she and Abrams explore their company's options.

WarnerMedia and Bad Robot declined comment. A source with knowledge of the situation tells The Hollywood Reporter, "Many voices were part of the conversation, inside and outside the company."

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. Tsujihara apologized for “mistakes” and his attorney told THR that the exec had "no direct role" in Kirk's hiring in two Warners films, Ocean’s 8 and How to Be Single. In a statement announcing Tsjuihara's departure, Stankey said the studio chief's "mistakes … could impact the company's ability to execute going forward."

Beyond the Kirk relationship, questions were raised about Tsujihara's conduct in late fall 2017, after producer Brett Ratner parted ways with Warners in the wake of sexual-misconduct allegations (Ratner has denied them). The Warners chairman was been known to travel and socialize with Ratner and his former partner James Packer, whose RatPac Entertainment co-financed the Warners film slate.

McGrath and Abrams are founding donors to the Time's Up Legal Defense Fund, which was established by a group of Hollywood figures to combat sexual harassment in all industries in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein revelations. McGrath recently was involved in the search committee to find a CEO for the nonprofit organization.

Warners is now engaged in its third investigation into the allegations regarding Kirk. The company initially launched an inquiry when THR raised questions about Kirk in November 2017 and then again after an anonymous letter to Stankey flagged the allegations in 2018. At that point, Warners hired Munger Tolles & Olsen to investigate, but the company said the probe resulted in no finding of wrongdoing.

Abrams, who is currently editing Star Wars: Episode IX for Disney, remains 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 now Apple. Netflix helped explode the market for proven 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.

Abrams and Bad Robot have been hearing pitches from studios including Disney, Universal and Warners as well as streamers like Netflix, Apple and Amazon as each looks to land one of the town's biggest creatives. 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. 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. All of those projects are produced by Warner Bros. TV, which last year extended mega-producer Greg 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.