After months of on-again, off-again negotiations that pitted the major Hollywood studios against one another, producer J.J. Abrams has cinched separate multiyear movie and television deals at Paramount Pictures and Warner Bros. Television that together are worth more than $55 million.
At midnight Thursday, at Paramount's Melrose Avenue lot, Abrams' representatives finalized the terms of a five-year movie deal with the Viacom Inc.-owned studio. Then they drove across town to the private Regency Club in Westwood to hammer out the details of a six-year TV pact with Warner Bros.
In the wee hours Friday — 3:08 a.m., to be exact — as the Warner deal wrapped, the 40-year-old writer-producer who co-created the hit ABC television show "Lost" and made his directorial debut this year with Paramount's sequel "Mission: Impossible 3" suddenly became one of the entertainment industry's most highly paid auteurs.
Warner's eleventh-hour victory came as a big surprise to many in town, who had expected Abrams to remain at Walt Disney Co.'s Touchstone Television studio, where he had based his production company for seven years and created several ABC series.
Disney executives, including Chief Executive Bob Iger, had made a big push to keep Abrams in the fold. The ABC television network had stocked its fall prime-time schedule with three Abrams-produced shows.
But in the end, Disney held firm on one key point — that revenue from Abrams' current shows would be included in the amount of money it would have guaranteed him each year under a new deal. For Abrams, that was a deal-breaker.
Earlier in the week, Warner Bros. executives, who were curious about why Disney hadn't sealed the deal, called Abrams' team. Was the deal still available?
The answer was yes.
"An opportunity presented itself, and we went for it," said Peter Roth, president of Warner Bros. Television. "J.J. is such a unique and extraordinary talent, someone whom I've admired from a distance for years."
The TV deal cements Abrams' status as what one Warner executive dubbed "an A-plus" talent. His package rivals that of the studio's other top-flight producers, including Jerry Bruckheimer, whose credits include "Without a Trace" and "Cold Case," and John Wells of "ER" fame.
Roth declined to discuss the financial details. However, two sources said Abrams would receive at least $4 million a year for six years guaranteed and overhead costs that would average about $2 million a year for his Bad Robot production label. Two other sources close to the negotiations said Abrams' annual fee was closer to $6 million a year, which when combined with the movie deal would bring the total to $68 million.
Abrams will receive even more money if his future shows are successful. The deal allows him at least 35% of what's known in the industry as the back-end, or the revenue from DVD sales, Internet downloads and syndication sales.
On the movie side, Paramount guaranteed Abrams $2 million a year for five years and another $2 million a year for Bad Robot overhead. He also will receive an annual $500,000 discretionary fund.
For the first movie he directs, which the studio hopes will be a "Star Trek" film, Abrams will get $5 million plus some back-end profit if the movie is a hit. On movies he initiates to direct, he could earn as much as double that. For producing movies, he will get an additional $2 million at the minimum. He will always have final cut.
As is typical, Paramount will get a first look at all projects Abrams develops. Less common is a provision that limits the number of producing projects that Abrams can shop to rivals if Paramount passes. That gives Abrams an incentive to make movies at Paramount, though he can accept director-for-hire gigs elsewhere.
"We think J.J. is the next Steven Spielberg," said Paramount Pictures Chairman Brad Grey, who had been pursuing Abrams to make Paramount his movie home base since late last year when Abrams was prepping "M:I:3." "He's a triple threat: a great writer, producer and now, a first-class movie director."
Since taking the reins of Paramount last year, Grey has sought to reinvigorate the studio with fresh talent. Among other big names that now make their home at Paramount are Brad Pitt and Spielberg, whose DreamWorks SKG is now owned by Paramount.
Bad Robot will soon relocate from Disney's Burbank lot to a Westside address. The Paramount deal begins next month.
For all the riches that Abrams is about to enjoy, his agents and lawyers originally shopped a proposal for an all-inclusive movie and TV deal valued at $100 million. Every studio including Paramount balked.
But negotiations for a movies-only deal at Paramount heated up July 7, when William Morris Agency's Jim Wiatt, David Lonner and John Fogelman discussed terms with Grey and his marketing, distribution and business lieutenant, Rob Moore.
Grey outlined the parameters of a deal he could live with and then left for Herbert Allen Jr.'s media confab in Idaho on Wednesday. Paramount and Abram's team agreed to make a deal. By midnight Thursday, it was done.
For the folks at Disney's Touchstone TV, the realization that they were about to lose their biggest producer came Wednesday. According to two sources, Disney wanted to use profit from Abram's shows with the studio — "Lost," "Alias," which ended its run, "What About Brian," and the upcoming "Six Degrees" — to offset his guaranteed annual fee.
That practice, although common in the industry, would have significantly reduced the overall value of Disney's offer. By contrast, Warner Bros. was eager to get into the Abrams business.
With the shuttering of the company's WB television network, Warner no longer had its own platform to air its shows. That means that it must sell to the major television networks — ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox Broadcasting — and that is easier to do when you have heavy hitters on your team.
Warner Bros. executives said that their lack of a TV network, ironically, worked in their favor with Abrams. The writer-producer had been frustrated that Touchstone TV had sold all of his shows to its sister network, ABC.
It remains to be seen whether Paramount and Warner Bros. TV will bicker over Abrams if they believe he's being stretched too thin. Two of the TV studios in the running dropped out early over concerns that Abrams' budding movie career would overshadow his TV work.
Roth isn't worried.
"J.J. is multi-talented and a multi-tasker," he said. "I'm not at all concerned that he won't be committed to doing first-class, high-quality television."