J.J. Abrams inks five-year deal with WarnerMedia

The deal between film-maker J.J. Abrams’ company, Bad Robot, and WarnerMedia is said to be worth more than US$250 million (S$343 million).
The deal between film-maker J.J. Abrams’ company, Bad Robot, and WarnerMedia is said to be worth more than US$250 million (S$343 million).PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA

NEW YORK • With the world's largest entertainment and tech firms circling, Sony decided to make an all-hands pitch for Star Wars director J.J. Abrams.

The Japanese electronics giant - owner of Columbia Pictures - flew the writer-producer and his senior staff to the sleek compound of Sony's PlayStation video-game division in San Mateo, California.

During the flight, entertainment chief Tony Vinciquerra and lieutenants took turns pitching Abrams on their business.

It was not enough. Abrams announced on Thursday that his company, Bad Robot, had signed a five-year deal with WarnerMedia.

He will make films and shows for AT&T's newly acquired entertainment division, just as the phone giant and others launch new streaming services to address the shift to on-demand video from traditional television.

The deal for Abrams, believed to be worth more than US$250 million (S$343 million), says a lot about the frenzy among companies to lock up top talent as the streaming battle begins.

Abrams, 53, is a particularly big catch, thanks to his decades of creating television hits such as ABC's Alias (2001-2006) and Lost (2004-2010), as well as his successful reboot of film franchises such as Star Trek, which he first tackled in 2009.

He wants to turn Bad Robot into a household name. Not only does he want to produce TV shows and movies, but he also wants characters from those projects to become toys, theme-park rides and video games.

And he wants his company to own a piece of everything.

With separate deals with Warner Bros and Paramount Pictures expiring around the same time, Abrams had a unique opportunity to create a single pact certain to be one of the richest in Hollywood.

For several months, some of the most powerful executives in media and technology ventured to Bad Robot's offices in Santa Monica, California. There, they met Abrams' wife and co-chief executive officer Katie McGrath, and his business partner Brian Weinstein.

Abrams typically joined via Skype because he was in London shooting Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker, scheduled to hit theatres in December.

He expected the winner to provide hundreds of millions of dollars to cover his staff and the development of new projects, and he also wanted them to help Good Robot, the company's philanthropic arm.

Bad Robot drew interest from Apple, Amazon, Comcast, Disney, Netflix, Sony and Viacom.

The courtship was slow, according to multiple participants.

Abrams wants to see his movies in theatres, a big reason why streaming companies such as Apple, Netflix and Amazon could not lure him away.

Standing in the wings was a suitor both old and new: Warner Bros, now owned by AT&T. Bad Robot has worked with Warner for more than a decade, producing hits such as Fringe (2008-2013), Person Of Interest (2011-2016) and HBO series Westworld (2016-present).

While many of the shows he produced in recent years have failed, the two have a long history.

But in addition to new ownership, Warner was also under new management, led by Mr John Stankey, a career AT&T executive little known in Hollywood.

Bad Robot could make big movies for Warner, or smaller ones for the new streaming service HBO Max.

He could make television shows for HBO or TNT, or venture into streaming himself, given the company's huge network of Internet and mobile-phone customers.

On Thursday, Mr Stankey took a victory lap and sent a message to all of Hollywood: "We are uniquely positioned to offer our creative partners a multitude of platforms to realise their artistic goals and ambitions."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 14, 2019, with the headline 'J.J. Abrams inks five-year deal with WarnerMedia'. Print Edition | Subscribe