Following the news that JJ Abrams is producing a Superman reboot, we reflect on his earlier producer-only work, from Cloverfield to Morning Glory.

Hailed in some quarters as the next Steven Spielberg, JJ Abrams is best known for directing and/or producing entries in the Star Wars, Star Trek, and Mission: Impossible series. Here at Film Stories Towers, he’s second best-known for his wicked keyboard solos. But like Spielberg, he’s also been known to throw his clout behind a few films from other filmmakers in his time.

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Primarily celebrated for its TV successes with shows like Lost and Alias, Abrams’ company Bad Robot Productions has become a household name through its franchise productions, including working with Disney on the Star Wars sequel trilogy, but Abrams has also backed one or two smaller films and started an original franchise of his own.

With last week’s announcement that Abrams and Bad Robot will produce a new Superman film, written by journalist and author Ta-Nehisi Coates, we’ve been thinking about some of the movies he’s produced in between his own directing gigs, from his early comedic endeavours to the box-office monster that got so many of us Googling what a “Slusho” is…

Early days and Bad Robot

Abrams cut his teeth in Hollywood as a screenwriter, selling scripts like Taking Care Of Business (or Filofax, to those of us in the UK) and Gone Fishin’, as well as acting as a script doctor on projects ranging from Casper to Picture Perfect.

His first co-producing credit came on 1991’s Regarding Henry, which also marked his first work with Harrison Ford. He even makes one of his lesser spotted cameo appearances as a delivery boy. Abrams’ next produced script, 1992’s Forever Young, also saw him billed as an executive producer.

As in his early screenwriting work, Abrams’ producing credits trend towards comedies. For instance, he produced 1996’s The Pallbearer, an early directorial effort by his friend and collaborator, Matt Reeves. Starring peak­-Friends-era David Schwimmer, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Barbara Hershey, the film follows a man who attends a high-school classmate’s funeral and embarks on a relationship with the deceased’s mother.

He also produced 1999’s The Suburbans, an 80s-revival music comedy written and directed by Donal Lardner Ward, who also stars in the film alongside Jennifer Love Hewitt, Craig Bierko, Will Ferrell, and Abrams himself in a cameo as a rock journalist. Despite festival premieres (Cannes and Sundance respectively) neither of these comedies were big critical or commercial hits.

Around the turn of the century, Abrams started Bad Robot and had TV hits with Alias and then Lost. The company’s first film, the horror thriller Joy Ride, (or Roadkill, to those of us in the UK) was a modest hit in 2001, but after Abrams directed Mission: Impossible III and Star Trek, Bad Robot bagged a feature development deal at Paramount.

This arrangement yielded sequels to Star Trek, Mission: Impossible, and Cloverfield, (which we’ll get to soon) but the only non-franchise films to come out of it were Abrams’ Super 8 and – more in keeping with his professed interest in big-screen comedy – 2010’s Morning Glory.

Written by screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna after the success of The Devil Wears Prada, the film stars the great Rachel McAdams as TV producer Becky Fuller, who’s tasked with turning around a morning news show that’s flagging in the ratings. Chasing respectability, she drafts in legendary news anchor Mike Pomeroy (Harrison Ford – him again!) but doesn’t bank on the acrimony between him and his new co-host Colleen Peck (Diane Keaton) that spills over into their on-air repartee.

McKenna brought the project to Abrams and found a producer who was enthusiastic about her approach to “a high-energy, old-school feeling like the movies of Preston Sturges” and the project found a home at Bad Robot and Paramount. Abrams played for and got Ford in the role of Mike expressly because it had been a long time since he’d been in a comedy, and the film was full-steam ahead from there.

It’s a sweet and funny film that unfortunately didn’t find the critical or commercial success it deserved back in late 2010 but has arguably found its audience on disc and TV showings in the past decade. We’ve covered Morning Glory more extensively on the Film Stories podcast, and you can listen to that episode below:

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The Cloverfield movies

On the more commercially successful side of things, Bad Robot’s big original franchise to date is Cloverfield. It’s also the biggest showcase of Abrams and Bad Robot’s formidable marketing chutzpah.

Directed by Matt Reeves and written by Drew Goddard, the original Cloverfield made a splash some six months before it hit cinemas when a teaser trailer popped up, unannounced, in front of Michael Bay’s Transformers, as one of the better early viral marketing stunts.

With no title revealed at this point, the trailer consists of a short home-video clip of a house party in New York City being interrupted by a blackout, distant explosions, and then the severed head of the Statue of Liberty crashing into the street outside. All cinema viewers got at the end of the teaser was “From producer JJ Abrams” and a release date of 1-18-08 (or 18th January, to those of us in the UK – hope all these notes are helping!) and the online film-speculation industrial complex went absolutely bananas.

The Abrams-produced Lost was still ongoing and popular at this time and Cloverfield’s marketing campaign capitalised on much the same mystery and intrigue, complete with viral tie-ins for movie fans who were hunting for clues online. Whether you were up on your Slusho or you just wanted to see what the fuss was about, that hype carried over to the following January (to be fair, usually a quiet time for big movies) and resulted in the biggest-ever US opening weekend for the first month of the year.

While speculation about a possible follow-up mounted over the following years, (Super 8 was widely thought to be an Abrams-directed Cloverfield sequel after its first teaser) the difficulty of synchronising Reeves’, Goddard’s, and Abrams’ busy schedules kept putting it back.

In a similar coup of movie marketing, Dan Trachtenberg’s sequel was only revealed to audiences shortly before it hit cinemas. In January 2016, a Bad Robot-produced apocalyptic thriller starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Goodman, and John Gallagher Jr was revealed, not by its working title The Cellar, but as 10 Cloverfield Lane.

About two months after that trailer appeared online, the film was in cinemas, landing Paramount and Bad Robot another critical and commercial hit. With only loose narrative ties to the plot of the previous film, the belated sequel tapped into vast potential of Cloverfield as an anthology franchise, but at that point, it looked as though the game might be up on any further big surprises.

The film press cycle was such at this point that any upcoming Bad Robot genre fare might potentially be announced as a stealth Cloverfield sequel, including Julius Onah’s God Particle, a sci-fi horror that quickly emerged as the next entry in the franchise.

Once Paramount confirmed it was an as-yet-untitled Cloverfield movie, the movie was delayed numerous times until, catching everyone by surprise, Netflix put out a trailer announcing it had acquired The Cloverfield Paradox during the ad breaks of the 2018 Superbowl and that it would be available to stream right after the big game was finished. It’s not a strategy that has been repeated for any films since, but once again, the third Cloverfield film pulled off a big surprise in a marketplace where such things are increasingly less possible to achieve.

We dare say that The Cloverfield Paradox is the only one of the three films that disappointed next to the pre-release hype, even if that hype only lasted a couple of hours this time. Still, the way in which it was announced and released put a big old spin on the potential negative hype that might come with Paramount selling off the film to Netflix.

Still, the reception for this one may be why we haven’t had any other surprise Cloverfield films since, as Julius Avery’s underrated splatter film Overlord (an R-rated Indiana Jones-style adventure, which was at one time mooted to be called Operation Cloverfield on release) was distanced from the other Bad Robot genre flicks upon its release later in 2018.

However, we learned earlier this year that Giri/Haji creator Joe Barton is working on a direct sequel to the 2008 original film, so however the film turns out, we can at least look forward to the trailer…

 

Look, up in the sky!

As mentioned, Bad Robot has co-produced a variety of franchise entries with studios and has a range of other projects in development. Currently on the docket for Abrams and company, there’s a new adaptation of Dr Seuss’ Oh, The Places You’ll Go for Warner Bros, and a live-action remake of the acclaimed anime film Your Name for Paramount, with Eric Heisserer writing and Marc Webb directing.

But as we’ve seen from the reaction over the weekend, the most anticipated project is going to be the Superman reboot. As others have commented, Abrams was once attached to Supes as the writer of the infamous Flyby script, a reimagining which gave space-dad Jor-El a larger-than-necessary part in the action and turned Lex Luthor into a government agent who turns out to have secret superpowers. But that was more than two decades ago, and (touch wood) he’s not writing the script for this one.

Read more: Superman’s latest reboot, and what Ta-Nehisi Coates brings to the Man of Steel

So, until we hear otherwise, this isn’t about Abrams the writer-director, but Abrams the producer. Therefore, it’s much too tenuous to speculate about whether this project will incorporate the breezy modern-media workplace comedy touch of a Morning Glory, or deliver on the innovative, “You will believe a man can fly”-scale must-see movie marketing that we associate with Cloverfield, but at this stage, either of those would be welcome in a Superman movie.

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