I don’t know J.J. Abrams personally, nor have I worked with him, but I’m friendly with people who do know him and have worked with him, and the universal position on the man is that he’s a mensch. He’s also fairly brilliant, and he’s given us some pretty spectacular entertainment over the last three decades. Alias made Jennifer Garner a star and was one of the first spy shows with a female lead. He followed it up with Lost, which was a pretty remarkable series even if it did briefly go off the rails in the middle and had a questionable ending — not that he should have to bear the brunt of the blame since he wasn’t running the show.
I know it’s not the most popular opinion, but I greatly enjoyed Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek reboot, and though his Mission: Impossible entry isn’t among the best of those movies, it did reset the franchise, and his stewardship as one of its producers has helped turn it into the premiere action franchise of late, even if he’s not listed as a producer on the two upcoming sequels.
Abrams has certainly had some clunkers over the years — high-priced projects that didn’t exactly set the world on fire, such as his 2011 Steven Spielberg tribute film Super 8, and TV shows like Undercovers, Alcatraz, and Almost Human, just to name a few. Then again, he also directed the highest-grossing film in domestic box office history, Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens, which is beloved by many (not me) but has not aged well in the seven years since its release, nor has Abrams’ follow-up, Episode IX — The Rise of Skywalker, which, I’m sorry, is absolute garbage. But that’s beside the point, since that movie made a whole wad of dough, too.
Overall, however, Abrams’ winning percentage is pretty high, and his big wins are much, much bigger than his largest losses. Even if his success rate of late has been up and down — Westworld got off to a great start before it petered out (and was recently removed from HBO Max), and his other HBO series, Lovecraft Country deserved more than the one season it got — it would be moronic to bet against him. With Bad Robot, he has created an empire that is the envy of just about every other production house in Hollywood, a fact that Warner Bros. understood when it gave Abrams and Bad Robot a five-year development deal worth a whopping $250 million, which called for series orders, put projects, overhead costs, and all the accompanying A-list accouterments.
Here’s the problem: Bad Robot has produced next to nothing for either HBO Max or Warner Bros. Pictures in the three-plus years since the deal was closed, and while I know Abrams is a big fan of the Mystery Box style of storytelling, this feels like he’s taking it too far. At some point, you actually have to make something and release it.
New WBD overlord David Zaslav is understandably perturbed about how little bang his company has received for its formidable bucks. Considering how devoted Zaslav is to the bottom line and saving money any possible way he can — including removing several HBO series from HBO Max in an effort to avoid paying residuals, which seems like a bridge too far for me, in case anyone was wondering — the CEO’s fury should come as no surprise.
Apparently, he and Abrams actually have a good relationship, but that didn’t stop Zaslav and HBO boss Casey Bloys from pulling the plug on Abrams’ planned Demimonde series, which carried a price tag of nearly $250 million, a staggering amount for a series not based on a piece of major IP. So no matter how close Zaslav and Abrams are, there’s trouble brewing in Burbank, where Zaslav is known to often quote the line from Jerry Maguire about how “It’s not show friends, it’s show business” to explain his business decisions.
Perhaps that’s what Abrams has been thinking these past few years while setting up numerous projects at other studios. There’s a scripted Netflix series about U2, the Apple TV+ series Presumed Innocent starring Jake Gyllenhaal, and of course, he’s developing a new Star Trek movie for Paramount, to which we will return shortly.
But first, we must ponder what’s next for J.J., and where he goes from here. There are a few DC Comics productions in the works, including a Black Superman movie project with author Ta-Nehisi Coates, an adult animated series following Batman, and Constantine and Zatanna shows, as well as a couple of other non-DC television projects that are in various stages of development. Of course, all of these projects were put into motion before James Gunn and Peter Safran took over the DC Studios. While it’s unclear whether Abrams will be part of the new DCU, a better question might be whether he’ll stick around on the lot long enough to see any of these projects come to fruition. Even if some do come together, it still doesn’t feel like much of a payoff given the studio’s enormous investment.
While the DC projects are said to still be moving forward under the label’s new leadership, there has been little news about them since Gunn and Safran’s arrival on the lot. The animated series Batman: Caped Crusader is scheduled to begin streaming somewhere later this year, but updates regarding the others have been few and far between as rumors swirl that the Black Superman project has stalled in development, especially with Michael B. Jordan still said to be working on his own Val-Zod limited series.
Should the Black Superman movie fail to get off the ground, it would be a surprising setback for Abrams, and with that in mind alongside his overall success with established franchise properties, perhaps he’d move on to greener pastures, especially if Gunn and Safran don’t soon find something for Bad Robot to produce within their newly reenvisioned DCU.
Indeed, given Abrams’ reputation for unbridled fan service (think Star Trek and Star Wars), it’s rather odd to me that there hasn’t already been some kind of assurance of his involvement with the new DCU in some way, shape, or form. Abrams even famously wrote a script for a Superman movie that almost took flight some years back, and while it was a vastly different take on the Man of Steel than what we’re used to, it still would’ve been better than the dreck that Zack Snyder gave us.
But since Gunn and Safran have yet to unveil their master plan for the DCU, or tip their hand as to whether Bad Robot will play a large part in its future, I wonder if the best move Abrams could make right now would be to go off and make that fourth Star Trek movie himself bringing back his original cast — Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldaña, and the rest — to finish the tale they started telling 14 years ago. The fact that Star Trek 4 can’t keep a director should be a sure sign that to get it moving and into production, J.J. should just take the reins himself. After all, this is the cast he assembled, so if Paramount is willing to give them another shot, he should be captaining the ship. Plus, the franchise could really use him. It would certainly beat whatever he’s up to now, which is… not directing anything. I mean, directors direct, even while they keep their fingers in a variety of producing pies (see: Steven Spielberg), and it’s high time for Abrams to return behind the camera.
I’m not lobbying for Abrams to break his contractual responsibilities to WBD because that would be crazy and I saw The Insider, but at this point, the fact that we’re well over halfway through the one-sided deal’s lifespan and Bad Robot has so little to show for it tells me that it’s unlikely Zaslav will renew it. He might be better off trying to lure Ryan Murphy away from Netflix, where he caught a lot of flak before delivering hits like Monster and The Watcher in the latter half of last year. Abrams hasn’t had to operate under quite the same microscope, but he’s starting to feel the heat of the hot seat… as he probably should.
That said, there aren’t a lot of Hollywood players with resumes as long and impressive as J.J. Abrams’, so even if his current deal doesn’t work out so well for WBD, his next one won’t be particularly hard to come by. Not in this environment. But I suspect that someone with his list of credits isn’t just going to kick back and rest on their laurels… he’s gonna grind this out to the end. If nothing else, there’s pride on the line here, so I still want to believe that there will be a torrent of content emerging from Bad Robot over the next 12 months. What that content will be and where it will debut is another story for a different day.
Neil Turitz is a journalist, essayist, author, and filmmaker who has worked in and written about Hollywood for more than 25 years, though he has never lived there. These days, he splits his time between New York City and the Berkshires. He’s not on Twitter, but you can find him on Instagram @6wordreviews.
You can read a new installation of The Accidental Turitz every Wednesday, and all previous columns can be found here.