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All Just May Be Possible for Abrams With Disney

The decision by ABC to put three of his shows in its fall TV lineup may be a precursor to an extensive partnership.

May 17, 2006|Meg James and Claudia Eller | Times Staff Writers

NEW YORK — When ABC announced Tuesday that its fall slate would include three series created by star television writer-producer J.J. Abrams, Hollywood insiders suspected that there was a bit more behind Abrams' trifecta than the success of his hit show "Lost."

For weeks, Abrams' representatives have been floating a proposal to ABC's corporate parent, Walt Disney Co., and to several other entertainment companies that have expressed a keen interest in being in the J.J. Abrams business.

Even before Abrams' film directorial debut, "Mission: Impossible 3," opened in theaters May 5, his agent and lawyers had been offering studios the chance to bankroll a new "creative collective" -- a major stand-alone label that would employ many co-creators, story editors, staff writers and producers with whom Abrams has worked for many years.

So Abrams' three-show score, unveiled by ABC Entertainment President Stephen McPherson at the network's annual upfront presentation for advertisers, prompted many of the executives gathered here -- especially those from rival studios -- to muse about Disney's motives.

Renewing "Lost," which Abrams co-created, was a no-brainer, they said, and his pilot, "Six Degrees," had promise. But several industry veterans saw only one explanation for why ABC opted to stick by Abrams' drama "What About Brian?" which until last week had lower ratings than "Invasion," which ABC canceled: Wooing TV's 39-year-old golden boy.

"We really love that show," said McPherson, adding that he believed that "What About Brian?" which revolves around young married couples in their 30s, was just starting to find its audience. "And J.J.'s involvement is a big thing for us."

Disney Chief Executive Bob Iger has declared himself an Abrams fan. In a meeting last month, Iger told Abrams he believed that the young filmmaker would bring the same kind of passion and vision to live action that John Lasseter brings to animation, according to three people who were there.

Lasseter, of course, is the director of such hits as the "Toy Story" films and is the pioneering creative guru behind Pixar Animation Studios, which Disney recently bought.

Iger was not available for comment. Abrams neither confirmed nor denied that Iger had compared him to Lasseter, though he said any such comparison would be very flattering.

Although Abrams has based his TV production outfit at Disney's Touchstone TV for the last seven years (the deal expires in July), it is unclear how far Iger will go to ensure that Disney becomes Abrams' home for both television and movie production.

According to people who have been briefed on Abrams' proposal, the dollar figures being sought are huge, even by Hollywood standards. In addition to $5 million a year in overhead, sources confirm that Abrams is seeking a $10-million signing bonus, major back-end participation (40% for any TV show he creates to be shared with his co-creators) and bigger-than-usual advances.

For directing feature films, sources say, Abrams is seeking $10 million against 10% of first dollar gross; writing fees of $3 million at the minimum and up to $5 million if he receives sole credit; producing fees of $2.5 million against 5% of first dollar gross, escalating up to 12.5%; and 35% of home video revenue.

Overall, the proposed deal would cost a studio about $100 million over five years -- a sum that made all potential bidders balk.

"It's the most aggressive deal I've ever seen," said one person who was pitched the proposal.

Abrams' agent, David Lonner of William Morris Agency, said Tuesday that the proposal was simply meant to provide a jumping-off point.

"We laid out the talking points as a starter," he said.

Studio executives were asked to come to Lonner's Beverly Hills offices. When they arrived, they were greeted by posters of Abrams' past hits -- among them, TV's "Felicity" -- and were handed a piece of paper outlining the terms of the proposed deal. They were allowed to take notes on the proposal, but not to leave with a copy of it.

Lonner said his client's track record merited such a sales job.

"When you look at how much 'Felicity' helped brand the WB, how 'Alias' and 'Lost' helped rejuvenate the fortunes and perception of ABC, and you consider his ability to take on the size and scale of 'Mission: Impossible,' I think that means something," he said.

Initially, it appeared that Abrams would land at Paramount Pictures, since he had enjoyed working with studio chief Brad Grey and his team on "Mission" and recently signed a deal to try to revitalize the studio's "Star Trek" movie series.

But while Grey remains interested in signing Abrams to an overall deal, so far he has been unwilling to meet the financial demands being proposed.

Grey declined to comment.

According to Lonner, he currently has "four interested parties" at the bargaining table. He said he and Abrams planned to evaluate their counterproposals this week.

Lonner declined to identify which studios were suitors, though sources confirmed that they were Disney/ABC, Paramount, Sony Pictures Entertainment and Fox.

Will Abrams end up at Disney? Certainly his desire to expand his Bad Robot production boutique into a major creator of not just new TV shows and feature films but also video games and other new media seems to jibe nicely with Iger's oft-stated goal of pushing Disney to become a purveyor of entertainment across multiple platforms.

Touchstone Television president Mark Pedowitz stressed that ABC's decision to pick up three Abrams series was "made on the merit of the pilot and the shows" -- and nothing else.

James reported from New York and Eller from Los Angeles.

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