John Wells Inks 9-Figure Warner Bros. Deal, Sets Expansive 13-Show Slate

The veteran producer ('Shameless,' 'Animal Kingdom') talked with The Hollywood Reporter about growing from a "boutique" production company into a mini-studio looking to foster other writers.
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John Wells

John Wells has become the latest showrunner to cash in with a new overall deal.

The veteran producer behind Shameless and ER has inked a new five-year, nine-figure overall deal with Warner Bros. TV Group, the studio he has called home since starting his career as a story editor in 1986. The new pact arrives as other outlets — including Netflix — made overall deal plays for Wells, who also briefly considered going independent after moving off of the Warners lot in Burbank last year.

Under the pact, which runs through 2024, Wells will continue to develop original projects for multiple platforms, including premium and basic cable channels, on-demand and streaming outlets as well as broadcast networks. What's more, Wells has set a massive development slate with 13 projects as his John Wells Productions banner shifts from its "boutique" history of nurturing a small number of projects to more of a mini-studio akin to fellow prolific producers at the studio including Greg Berlanti. (Berlanti currently holds the TV record for the most scripted series on the air with 17.)

Wells' slate includes projects near deals with two streamers and Showtime. For the latter, Wells — as he did with Shameless — is writing the script for Heart of a Lion, which revolves around a white nationalist who falls in love with a woman who has a black son and must confront his beliefs in a changing America in the age of Trump. The project expands Wells' relationship with Showtime beyond the upcoming 10th season of the hit Shameless. (See below for more details about all 13 projects in development.) Included in the slate are four projects that reunite Wells with scribes from Shameless and fellow JWP-produced drama Southland.

To hear Wells tell it, his company's larger goal with the expansive 13-show slate is to help foster other writers to become the next generation of showrunners.

"We want to provide more opportunities for talented people to get the opportunity to get their own work made and support them," Wells tells The Hollywood Reporter. "Giving them our support is essential in our industry. There used to be a small, limited group of people who were making shows when the [total volume] was 120 shows a year. There was an ecosystem that was pretty insular and it's been blown wide open now and we want to be helpful in giving others a chance to succeed." 

The new pact arrives as Warners has continued to make impressively large deals to re-sign its most important producers. As THR reported earlier this week, WarnerMedia is in final negotiations for a massive partnership with J.J. Abrams' Bad Robot that would keep the mega-producer at his longtime home in a pact estimated to be worth in the $500 million range. Wells, a former president of the Writers Guild of America West, noted these increasingly frequent nine-figure pacts represent more than a lump sum being deposited directly into a producer's bank account. The Shameless and Animal Kingdom executive producer opted to stay at Warners because the studio provides such key capabilities as marketing, international and domestic distribution that he would have needed to hire staffers to handle should he have opted to go independent. Instead, his nine-figure pact will help pay the salaries of his 17- to 20-person producing squad — including exec vp Erin Jontow, who spearheads his development team — as well as providing the financial resources to option intellectual property. It's worth noting that nine of the 13 projects Wells now has in development are based on IP.

"Everyone explores it and the vast majority decide to still stay within the studio system," Wells says. "I love being involved in the creative side … and didn't want to spend too much of my day pursuing those other things."

Wells' shift from a smaller production company to a mini-studio working to develop and sell multiple projects to outlets both internally — like WarnerMedia's forthcoming streaming service — and externally — Showtime, etc. — also helps to justify Warners' massive commitment to the producer. Wells noted that most of the larger talent pacts have gone to the more prolific producers — think Berlanti as well as Ryan Murphy and Shonda Rhimes — as all the major conglomerates compete for top talent amid a growing desire for content in the Peak TV era.

"With J.J. and Bad Robot, you can look and see it. Those are impressive deals but they're to support a mini-industry — in that case, J.J. and his group," Wells says. "That is really different from what overall deals were like 20 years ago. It's changed substantially in the past 10 years and in the last three or four years. This arms race [for talent] has sped up with increased volume. Everyone feels like they need distribution services to compete with Netflix and to do that, you need people who can supplement those services with content."

Next up for Warners 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. Wells remains part of a WBTV roster of producers that also includes Ava DuVernay, Mindy Kaling and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, among others.

Here are all 13 of the projects currently in development via Wells' Warner-based production company:

• My Ex-Life (no network attached)
Inspired by Stephen McCauley's novel, the romantic drama is about acceptance, self-medication and how we define home. The show is about an unconventional family whose members are experiencing a coming of age at every age. Mickey Rapkin (who wrote the Pitch Perfect book that inspired the film franchise) will pen the script. 

Red Bird Lane (no network attached)
Sara Gran (Southland) will pen the script for the psychological horror series about morality that revolves around eight strangers who arrive an isolated house — all for different reasons — and quickly realize that something sinister and strange awaits them.

Heart of a Lion (near a development deal at Showtime)
Wells will pen the script based on the Finnish film from writer Alexsi Bardi. The drama revolves around a white nationalist who 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.

Maid (no network attached)
Molly Smith Metzler (Shameless) will pen the script for the drama based on Stephanie Land's memoir, Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother's Will to Survive about working as a maid. The project is described as a beautiful and gritty exploration of poverty in America.

• The Falconer (no network attached)
Dana Czapnik will adapt her coming-of-age novel about a 17-year-old female basketball player living in New York City in the mid-1990s. (Based on the book of the same name that published in January.)

Natalie Tan's Book of Luck and Fortune (no network attached)
Based on Roselle Lim's debut novel about food, Chinese heritage and finding family in the most unexpected places. A writer for the TV adaptation has not yet been determined.

Things That Make White People Uncomfortable (no network attached)
Rodney Barnes (Wu-Tang, An American Saga) will adapt Michael Bennett and Dave Zirin's book about activist-athletes from Muhammad Ali to Colin Kaepernick. The drama explores topics including racism and police violence as well as 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. Bennett of the New England Patriots will produce alongside Anthony Hemingway.

The Unclaimed Baggage (no network attached)
Joe Lawson (Shameless) will adapt Jen Doll's novel that is set in a conservative small Southern town and follows three teens with different backgrounds as they work summer jobs at a shop called Unclaimed Baggage, where they catalog and sell other people's lost luggage. Together, through friendship, they find that they can unpack their own emotional baggage and move into the future.

The Summer Wives (no network attached)
Beatriz Williams will adapt her novel of the same name that is described as an electrifying post-war fable of love, class, power and redemption and is set among the inhabitants of an island of the New England coast.

The Best of Both Worlds (no network attached)
The romantic thriller is based on the 2003 BBC series from original Shameless creator Paul Abbott. Jacquelyn Reingold (The Good Fight) will adapt the drama about a flight attendant who feels the strain of maintaining two separate lives.

• Uptown Chess (no network attached)
Based on an original idea from writer Sherman Payne (Shameless), the drama revolves around a chess team in Harlem that bands together to solve a mystery.

The Big Presto (no network attached)
Writers Benjamin and Paul China (Sweet Virginia) will pen the script about what happens when an aspiring magician accidentally kills an audience member by cutting him in half onstage and how he begins to suspect that he was an unwitting pawn in a complex murder plot.

Bad Faith (no network attached)
The Handmaid's Tale scribe Dorothy Fortenberry will pen the script about a revolutionary nun who is compelled to confront her past as forceful and monied powers try to evict her from the convent where she lives.

Wells, whose credits include The West Wing, China Beach and Third Watch, was repped in the deal by Hansen Jacobson and Ned Haspel at JWP. CAA was involved in the negotiations until early April, when Wells, like many others, terminated his agency amid the ongoing clash over packaging fees and affiliated studios between the Writers Guild of America and the Association of Talent Agents.