By by Nicole LaPorte and KC Ifeanyilong Read
Bad Robot’s Santa Monica, California headquarters–intentionally mislabeled “The National Typewriter Company” in raised Futura lettering–features a small gold placard above the buzzer asking a question that unsuspecting visitors will soon find relevant: Are you ready?
In the reception area, two shelves are packed with toys and curios: old-school board games, a plastic skull in a bell jar, retired typewriters, and, of course, robots. A sign encourages guests to please create, and rows of colored pencils and giant sheets of newsprint are provided.
Suddenly, dozens of Bad Robot employees, armed with bagels and coffee procured from the kitchen, begin heading into one of the building’s theaters, an expansive, dark-gray room that doubles as a postproduction soundstage. It’s 9:30 a.m. on a Monday: Time for an all-hands gathering. But today the energy is heightened.
The proceedings kick off with a Star Wars–themed game of charades in honor of the man casually slouched in one of the perimeter seats, his gravity-defying hair forming a tousled mop.
J.J. Abrams is back.
Abrams, who started his career as a screenwriter almost three decades ago and has grown into a megawatt player, thanks to creating such culture-defining projects as Alias and Lost, and directing reboots of Mission: Impossible and Star Trek, has spent most of the past year shooting Star Wars: Episode IX in England and Jordan.
Abrams blends in with the other Bad Robot employees in his dark jeans, black boots, gray T-shirt, and hoodie. But all eyes are fixed on him right now, and the room quiets to an almost deafening silence–this is, after all, a highly soundproofed space–when he finally speaks. Abrams, who returned to L.A. a week ago, is clearly jazzed to be back, and he revels in sharing details about making Star Wars on one of the tightest schedules he’s ever faced, and how it forced him and his team to problem-solve on the fly the way he did back when he was making Super 8 movies as a kid.
“I wasn’t supposed to be there,” Abrams says after the town hall. “I wasn’t the guy, ya know?” (That was Jurassic World director Colin Trevorrow, who left the Star Wars project unceremoniously in September 2017.) Abrams admits that his decision to take over the film at the request of Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy was a “leap of faith,” but “this crazy challenge that could have been a wildly uncomfortable contortion of ideas and shoving in of answers and Band-Aids and bridges . . . I feel like we’ve gotten to a place–without jinxing anything–where we might have something incredibly special.”
Typically, Abrams’s homecoming from a set means organized chaos at Bad Robot. His directing work on a project is far from over after filming wraps, and the company’s cushy facilities become a convenient base of operations for further work. Over the past few years, additional scenes for The Force Awakens have been shot on Bad Robot’s roof, and a bar scene for Star Trek Into Darkness was filmed in one of the company’s screening rooms. But this time, his return has been particularly dramatic. He’s brought 23 postproduction technicians with him to help finish “trIXie,” Episode IX‘s code name, in time for the film’s December release. (Time’s Up, which works out of Bad Robot’s offices, stemming from co-CEO Katie McGrath’s role in organizing the group, moved across the street into another Bad Robot building in order to make room.)
Abrams is also coming back to a new Hollywood. Disney’s $71.3 billion acquisition of most of 21st Century Fox is the latest consolidation as the entertainment industry seeks to compete against giant tech companies such as Amazon, Apple, and, especially, Netflix, which are upending the TV and movie ecosystem. While WarnerMedia and Comcast restructure themselves as they prepare to launch streaming services sometime in the next year, new entertainment mediums keep emerging. Consider the video game Fortnite, which generated $2.4 billion in 2018–surpassing The Force Awakens‘ $2.07 billion in global box office. Fortnite is now hosting concerts for its more than 200 million players, a nod to how experiences, whether in virtual worlds or theme parks, represent yet another storytelling opportunity. Competition is everywhere.
For Abrams, who has spent years experimenting beyond TV and film, what good are all these new interactive platforms without great stories? He has an unparalleled track record in reviving franchise properties–Mission: Impossible, Star Trek, and Star Wars–at a moment when media conglomerates crave titles that inspire fans to lose themselves within an entire world. (Harry Potter, for example, is estimated to be worth $25 billion across its books, movies, theme parks, merchandise, and so forth.) Abrams, Bad Robot’s chairman and co-CEO, is now reconfiguring his company so he can build–and own–more of his own immersive spheres.
“This entire enterprise has been a response to the question, ‘What if?’ ” Abrams says. “The great stories, the ones I love, all seem to come from a ‘what if?’ ” The idea is for Bad Robot’s various divisions to create, and frequently collaborate on, a wide array of projects–albums, music videos, films, TV shows, video games, and even toys–that the company is significantly invested in over the long haul, creatively and financially. Bad Robot Games, which launched last June with an investment from Chinese tech giant Tencent (the largest gaming company in the world), has partnered with Epic Games (maker of Fortnite), among others, to explore the future of narrative storytelling. Bad Robot has always had its own sound studio, inspired by Abrams’s love of music (he wrote the theme songs for Alias and Lost, among others), but eight months ago he launched his own record label, Loud Robot, to help artists create multimedia projects. What if Bad Robot finds a new toy and it–not a studio or a network–goes directly to a toy maker to discuss a franchise, rather than waiting for the toy to become popular and then making something out of it? Bad Robot is doing that, too. “There are a million production companies, and anyone can buy the book or the pitch,” Abrams says.
“My favorite thing is finding storytellers who have an idea–a song or a book or a game–and finding ways to realize those things.” To help fund this ambition, Bad Robot plans to replace its traditional movie and television distribution partners with what Variety dubbed a “Record-Shattering Overall Megadeal” that could support everything from movies to digital content to theme-park attractions. (Its TV pact with Warner Bros. expires in May and the film one with Paramount in March 2020.)
If Ryan Murphy (American Horror Story) can command $300 million from Netflix and Greg Berlanti (The Flash) is worth $400 million to Warner, what is Abrams’s value to a media or tech company? Will he be the first creative unicorn? And what can that money buy Bad Robot? “I do feel like we’ve been a bit at the kids’ table on the business side of things,” Abrams says, leaning forward in his chair. “I want Bad Robot to be at the grown-ups’ table.”
“The dream was to blow people’s minds about how much we could do under one roof,” McGrath says one afternoon on a tour of the Bad Robot workshop, an open space on the first floor of the company, where a full-time staff crafts items like cribbage boards and wooden slide puzzles. “We have all of these weird machines–you have no idea,” she says. Walking by a whirring one that is slowly extruding a sticker the size of a workbench, she says dryly, “You can wrap a car in that.”
Looking more like a grad student than a Hollywood executive in her long dark sweater and black platform loafers, McGrath is a vibrant presence at the company, and has been Abrams’s business partner overseeing management and operations as well as leading its diversity and inclusion efforts–well before #MeToo. (She’s also his spouse of 22 years.) McGrath describes what goes on at the workshop as “folly”–i.e., there is no plan to monetize any of the tchotchkes and trinkets (yet), some of which wind up as gifts for Abrams’s movie crews. One time, after Elon Musk gave Abrams and others a tour of Tesla, SpaceX, and the Boring Company, Abrams used the workshop to make Musk a hat that bore a Boring Company logo of Abrams’s design. Musk adopted the logo–and went on to sell 50,000 hats.
“Creativity happens in every corner of the building,” McGrath says, and as if to prove her point, she takes us to a crook of the workshop, where a collection of brightly colored figurines with googly eyes is being forged in a toaster oven. If anything exemplifies Bad Robot’s future ambitions, it’s efforts like these. Abrams first spotted the palm-size pop-eyed monsters, made from Sculpey clay, a decade ago when he and his eldest son were shopping at Meltdown Comics, a shrine to nerddom on Sunset Boulevard. (It closed last year.) He was immediately captivated. “You look in their eyes, there’s something desperate,” he says excitedly. “There’s something sneaky. There is something terrified. There’s something uncertain. Each one felt like an insecurity or a problem. Every good character in Star Wars is desperate,” he adds, by way of comparison. “Maybe not Chewie, but everyone else. There was a feeling associated with them that I thought was really valuable.”
When he inquired about who had made these figures, which were on display by the register, he was told it was an employee named Leslie Levings. She was off that day, so Abrams emailed her. She didn’t respond right away. “I thought my coworkers were messing with me,” says Levings, a soft-spoken sculptor with short blondish hair.
When the two finally met, “I said, ‘Listen, I don’t know what to do with this,’ ” Abrams recalls. But he invited Levings to set up shop at Bad Robot to try and figure out what could become of her monsters, which she had been calling Beastlies. “I’m somewhere between an artist-in-residence and a stowaway,” she says.
Over the years, Bad Robot has turned down offers to make Beastlies into a movie or TV series with a complementary toy line. “The rush to figure it out has not been a part of the equation for us,” says McGrath. Abrams has hoped to create something akin to the Muppets or the Simpsons, two properties–both now owned by Disney, for those keeping score–that are enjoyed equally by kids and adults.
Ultimately, Bad Robot partnered with Mattel in February 2018 to bring Beastlies toys to market. (There is no announced launch date.) “The fact that J.J. was thinking about what these characters could be on multiple platforms, starting with a toy, was something we were incredibly excited about,” says Richard Dickson, president and COO of Mattel.
Bad Robot president and COO Brian Weinstein says that the rollout will also include “a robust video strategy” involving some form of episodic content, and there’s talk of bringing the Beastlies to AR and VR platforms. Comedians from the Upright Citizens Brigade have been brought in to explore voices and comedic threads for the monsters. Animators have wallpapered a room with drawings of Beastlies under headings like “Exploring Shape” and “How Can Beastlies Emote?” (Another area of inquiry: Can Beastlies fart?)
In Bad Robot’s new era of figuring out ways to control–and monetize–its creations, Beastlies is Project X. “It’s probably going to be the first thing we take out into the marketplace in a significant way that is wholly owned” by Bad Robot, says McGrath. “That feels exciting. [Beastlies are] the kind of bets that we want to make.”
Most notably, as Abrams points out, “this toy deal was not inspired by a release date of a movie in a tentpole-driven system where everyone knows exactly what’s going to happen. It’s a toy. Let’s figure out how to make those the greatest toys.”
We’re upstairs in Abrams’s office and the lighting isn’t quite right.
“I’m just going to turn these blinds down a bit because it’s so bright,” he says, as he moves toward the long rectangular window behind us. “I want to make sure I can look at you.” Abrams’s two-room inner sanctum functions as a curiosity shop of its own. A rack of packaged magic tricks stands in one corner, looking like it was lifted directly from a toy store. Dozens of packs of magicians’ playing cards are lined up in rows in a glass shadowbox coffee table. Next to where he sits is a bust of actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr., head thrown back in mid-shriek. A book-lined wall near Abrams’s desk doubles as yet another trick: When you pull out a copy of Louis Tannen’s Catalog of Magic, the wall swings open and reveals a private bathroom.
Abrams never set out to start a company, he explains in his fast-paced staccato. All he ever wanted to do was support filmmakers, something he learned from his dad, Gerald Abrams, a prominent TV producer in the 1970s who became chairman of Hearst Entertainment. “I’d hear him on the phone all the time,” recalls Abrams, whose room was next to his dad’s home office. “He was dealing with writers and producers and running projects while I was editing my Super 8 movies or drawing. I spent a lot of time in my room.”
Abrams met his future Felicity producing partner Matt Reeves when, at 15 years old, they entered the Best Teen Super 8mm Films of ’81 festival in Los Angeles. A news article about the event caught Kathleen Kennedy’s eye, and she persuaded Steven Spielberg–whose production company, Amblin Entertainment, she co-ran–to hire the duo to preserve Spielberg’s own childhood Super 8 films, kick-starting Abrams and Spielberg’s nearly four-decades-long relationship.
While Abrams was developing Alias in the early 2000s, the series that would launch Jennifer Garner’s career, then ABC Entertainment president Steve McPherson asked him why he didn’t have a pod deal. Abrams’s response: “What’s that?”
Bad Robot, the “pod” (or production company) he formed shortly after, has gotten approximately 30 film and TV projects made in 18 years. ” J.J. went from] arguably one of the three to five top creators of TV series,” says Peter Roth, who runs Warner Bros. Television, “into a world-class entertainment mogul.”
At the same time, like Spielberg, who cofounded the multimedia company Dream-Works in the mid-1990s, Abrams has dabbled in media that reflects his varied interests. Apple recognized Bad Robot’s Action Movie FX app, which lets users add special effects to their own videos, as one of the apps of the year in 2012; he collaborated with writer Doug Dorst on an experimental novel, S, which became a New York Times best seller in 2013; and he helped bring the British stage comedy The Play That Goes Wrong to Broadway in 2017. It won a Tony Award for Best Scenic Design.
Around that time, Abrams and McGrath were ready to get more serious about their experiments. They brought on COO Weinstein, who’d run global client strategy at the CAA talent agency, which represents Abrams, to add “more business acumen and muscle,” McGrath says. Weinstein’s mandate has been to formalize operations in certain areas of the company, such as games and music, while still respecting his partners’ desire for “folly.” As Abrams admits, “I don’t feel like we’ve ever approached our business strategically. We’ve approached it instinctively.”
Weinstein is also pursuing that “megadeal” for Bad Robot. He jokes that he’s the only one at the company who wears a sport coat, but he’s learning how to relate to the staff, particularly the guy who’s often shooting a blockbuster on another continent. “There’s lots of tricky stuff we have to deal with,” Weinstein says, “and the best way to get J.J. to [address] the tricky stuff is to send him an email about the font guy that he’s thinking about [hiring].” Or “send him an email and be like, ‘Somebody’s interested in this model kit.’ Or, ‘What do you think about this graphic novel?’ You get an immediate response, [even] in the middle of Star Wars. As opposed to, ‘Hey, listen, there’s this really important business decision we have to deal with, what do you think?’ It’s crickets.”
Bad Robot’s growth strategy is simple: Focus on the things that Abrams is most excited about that are also the best market opportunities. Consider games, which Abrams has always loved. “In [Felicity], there are elements of an alternate reality game,” says Dave Baronoff, head of Bad Robot Games, citing the series finale’s time-traveling, multifaceted structure.
The global gaming industry is a $135 billion business (more than three times larger than the global movie business) and growing more than 10% annually. “Games are a natural extension of the type of content that J.J. has been very successful in creating,” says Tal Shachar, chief digital officer at the esports company Immortals and a onetime digital-media strategist for BuzzFeed and the Chernin Group. “Why not go into an adjacent market that’s really, really big?”
Gaming platforms have “reached a point where they are sophisticated enough to deliver almost cinematic experiences,” says Clive Lindop, creative director at Bad Robot Games, but the medium’s “storytelling craft is still quite nascent. So the idea that you can tap into [our] different storytelling experience–in television, film, production design, world building, music–is an incredible force multiplier for trying to make a great immersive experience.”
Bad Robot Games currently has six titles in development, across a variety of genres. Thus far, the only publicly announced one is Spyjinx, an espionage strategy game it’s making with Epic Games and Epic’s developer studio Chair (maker of Infinity Blade). “J.J. and I were playing Infinity Blade a bunch,” says Baronoff, explaining how the project came together, “and we appreciated how amazing its approach was to gameplay on a mobile device. We reached out without a specific agenda, and said, ‘We’re fans of what you guys do, and if there’s an opportunity down the line for us to collaborate, great.’ ” Spyjinx is slated to be Epic’s follow-up to Fortnite. “We don’t control the camera anymore,” Baronoff says of transitioning from filmed spy narratives such as Alias and M:I to video-game ones. “But we can think about the way we want our audience to feel when they’re watching one of our shows or a movie, and create those scenarios within the gameplay.”
When it comes to music (another industry growing faster than movies, at 8% versus 1%), Bad Robot’s approach is to forgo signing traditional recording contracts with artists in favor of more flexible terms that could be as simple as producing a specific project. Loud Robot has signed three performers so far. One is the Afro-Japanese artist Umi, who is working on a conceptual EP that touches on the lack of racial diversity within anime. “These four songs are one narrative story,” says Nicky Berger, co-GM of Loud Robot. “Where [artists are] looking to build a world and gel with their fan base through visual content,” adds Berger’s counterpart, McKee Floyd, “that’s an area where we can really be a good partner.” For now, the business model is unchanged–Loud Robot has partnered with Capitol Records–but the goal is to do bespoke projects with artists that a large record label isn’t equipped to handle.
Over the course of this past winter guessing where Abrams would land his “megadeal” was Hollywood’s favorite parlor game. Among the reported contenders were Apple, Comcast/Universal, Disney, and WarnerMedia. Disney and Apple have surfaced as most people’s top bets, and each can stand in for the value that a traditional media or technology company could bring to Abrams.
Abrams has proven his worth to Disney for almost two decades, from Alias to Star Wars. The Force Awakens was such a smash that within weeks of its December 2015 release, a valuation expert at the Stern School of Business estimated Lucasfilm to be worth $10 billion; Disney had purchased the company for $4 billion a little more than three years earlier. As one film exec who’s worked with Abrams says, “Disney could add Bad Robot to its line of brands [Pixar, Marvel, and so forth], plus Fox–that would be pretty incredible.” The late-2019 launch of Disney+, which will need a lot of original content, would make having Abrams as an in-house producer even more compelling. On the other hand, as another exec notes, “Disney can get J.J. whenever they want. Why buy the cow?” Abrams made the Star Wars movies despite his deal with Paramount, much to the consternation of Paramount executives.
With Apple, however, there would be a different sort of alignment. When asked which companies inspire Abrams, Weinstein says, “J.J. loves Apple and has for many years. So much admiration.” Neil Cybart, an independent Apple analyst, adds, “Given that [entertainment production] is all new to Apple, having names on board gives its efforts legitimacy in ways that Netflix already has and that Disney won’t necessarily need.” However, others laugh at the idea of an Apple-Abrams pairing. “They’re too much alike,” one exec says. “They would both say everything isn’t good enough and have no one to blame.”
No matter what happens, Abrams will have to monitor his compulsive tendencies. He has occasionally been known for spreading himself too thin, resulting in such fiascos as The Cloverfield Paradox. Abrams had decided to retrofit an existing script onto his Cloverfield franchise in 2012, but he later admitted that it began filming without a clear enough story. Abrams was reportedly set to rework parts of the film in post-production, but he was pulled away to start Star Wars: Episode IX. Paramount sold the film to Netflix for $50 million to avoid a likely box-office disaster. “There are lessons learned all the time,” Abrams says readily, when asked about his multitasking. “I take full responsibility for all of our failures.”
Lucasfilm’s Kathleen Kennedy thinks Abrams will decide based on instinct. “That’s the way he approaches business and everything he does creatively,” she says. When the question is put to Abrams, he says, “All I care about is telling stories and making sure that there is a partner that can get those stories to people. Watching the way our kids consume media now . . . I don’t know if they care so much where it comes from. They just want access to the thing.”
He credits companies like Netflix and Amazon for “shaking things up and making people look twice at traditional templates for everything.” In the next breath, though, he acknowledges that some traditions exist for a reason. “At a certain point, you go, well, the studios have a wardrobe department because you need a fuckin’ wardrobe department.”
Essentially, Abrams wants it all. His eyes practically twinkle behind his signature black-framed spectacles as he thinks about what Bad Robot’s future can mean for storytellers and creators. He wants to open as many avenues as possible–regardless of whether he has to work within the system or create a new one.
“I love to do something where someone says, ‘How did you do that?’ ” Abrams says. “Whether it was a little stupid magic trick or a little movie I would make [when I was a kid], when my parents or friends would say, ‘How did you do that?’–that was literally the end-all.”
[Into The J.J.-Verse photos: François Duhamel/Paramount Pictures (Super 8); TM 2015 Lucasfilm Ltd. (Star Wars: The Force Awakens); David James/Paramount Pictures (Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol); Michele K. Short/Paramount Pictures (10 Cloverfield Lane); John P. Johnson/HBO (Westworld); Zade Rosenthal/Paramount Pictures (Star Trek Into Darkness); Scott Garfield/Paramount Pictures (The Cloverfield Paradox); Peter Mountain/Paramount Pictures (Overlord); ABC/Vivian Zink (Alias); ABC/Mario Perez (Lost); Keith Hamshere/Paramount Pictures (Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation); Chiabella James/Paramount Pictures (Mission: Impossible—Fallout); Art Streiber/Hulu (Castle Rock); Touchstone Television/Jefferey Thurner (Felicity); ABC/Eric Liebowitz (Six Degrees); Ben Mark Holzberg/Hulu (11.22.63); Julian Burgueño (Umi); Kwadwo Bediako (Nnena); Luke Theobald (DWY)]