By Alex Stedman
Producer, director, screenwriter and composer J.J. Abrams has worked his way up to serious Hollywood powerhouse status, but not everything he touches turns to gold.
Abrams has had his share of flops, such as the commercially disappointing FOX series “Alcatraz.” Whether or not a show of his is a success could have a lot to do with the roles he plays as an executive producer. Shows where he takes a hands-on approach typically do well, such as the ABC hit “Lost.” Shows where he’s only attached as executive producer, however, usually fall flat.
Duties of an executive producer include developing the concept, participating in story meetings, recruiting the cast and crew, working as a liaison with network and financial backers and approving final cuts, among others. Many also serve as writer/directors, as Abrams did on “Lost.” However, a producer could simply invest in the program, put their name on it and have little creative involvement—which is what Abrams did with “Alcatraz.”
“Lost” was a hit. The pilot brought in 18.6 million viewers and the series lasted six seasons. Abrams co-created it and directed and co-wrote both parts of the award-winning pilot. According to Marita Grabiak, who directed the eighth episode of the first season, Abrams was “dominant over everything” in “Lost,” and his hands-on approach added a lot to the show. “He was very involved in every aspect of the outline, the first draft, the second draft—just constant phone calls,” she said. “He would just kind of make my bones shake being in the room because you know you’re in the room with somebody of such a genius level.”
However, one of the shows he put his name on, “Alcatraz,” was no such hit. The season premiere brought in 10 million viewers, but plummeted down to 4.7 million by the season finale and was cancelled after the first season. Abrams had very little creative input on “Alcatraz.”
“The truth is that I didn’t create this show,” Abrams told Collider.com Jan. 23, 2012 about “Alcatraz.” “What I’ve been trying to do is help. But, the truth is, whether I was doing ‘Star Trek’ or not, this was a show that was always going to be run by Jennifer [Johnson] and Dan [Pyne].”
Comparing “Lost” and “Alcatraz” brings up a crucial pattern in Abrams’ career. Out of the ten major television shows he’s been involved with, he’s only been creatively involved in five. Of those five, four were major successes.
“Felicity,” his first television project, helped him burst onto the scene. He co-created the series and wrote many episodes during the first two seasons. The show lasted four seasons and won several awards.
“Alias” had a series premiere that brought in 15 million viewers and it lasted five seasons. It was entirely Abrams’ idea and he wrote several episodes until season three.
“Fringe” found a cult following and lasted five seasons. Abrams was heavily involved with at least the first season, having co-created it.
The single exception to the rule is “Undercovers.” Abrams was heavily involved with the series and it barely made a dent in ratings. Still, 80 percent of the shows Abrams was creatively involved in were successes.
There are another five shows in Abrams’ career, though. Similar to “Alcatraz,” Abrams had barely any creative involvement in these shows and was simply listed as executive producer.
“What About Brian,” a show he was listed as executive producer on, managed to last two seasons, but faded away due to dismal ratings. Abrams was also executive producer on “Six Degrees,” which only lasted seven episodes.
Abrams’ two most recent television projects with him only as executive producer, “Revolution” and “Person of Interest,” are not terrible flops, but not quite the hits the world has seen him make. “Revolution” had 8.7 million viewers for its mid-season finale, but only after a slipping ratings slope all season. “Person of Interest” premiered at 13.3 viewers and is currently on its second season.
While “Revolution” and “Person of Interest” are decent successes, shows that Abrams is creatively involved in clearly do better. So why continue putting the Abrams stamp on a show and leaving it at that?
“Oftentimes, a network or a studio has a far greater degree of comfort in deciding to green light a show if they know that somebody is on board who has credentials that have been proven again and again,” said David Balkan, professor of the Practice of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. “That’s why J.J. Abrams has a great deal of value when his name is attached to a product.”
Abrams’ work on “Star Wars” may or may not cut down on his involvement in television productions, but the amount of the creative input he offers a show has shown to make or break it.