Fox scares up J.J. Abrams’ ‘Fringe’

Two-hour pilot budgeted at over $10 million

Nearly 15 years after “The X-Files” launched, Fox is looking to scare a new generation of viewers with “Fringe,” a spooky skein from the minds of J.J. Abrams, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci.

Net has made a series commitment to the Warner Bros.-Bad Robot production, which will start off with a two-hour pilot budgeted at more than $10 million. Abrams, Kurtzman and Orci — the brain trust behind Par’s new “Star Trek” feature — wrote the project on spec and shopped it to nets this week.

Trio will exec produce “Fringe” along with Bryan Burk (“Lost”). A search has begun for a pilot helmer as well as a series showrunner.

Deal also marks Fox’s acceptance of a new digital template hammered out by Warners and ABC last month (Daily Variety, Sept. 6). Pact gives Fox broad streaming rights to Warners shows in their first season and lets Warners start monetizing skeins via digital platforms by season two.

“Fringe” mixes elements of “The X-Files” and Paddy Chayefsky’s “Altered States” with what Abrams calls “a slight ‘Twilight Zone’ vibe.” It will focus on brilliant but possibly crazy research scientist Walter Bishop, his estranged son and a female FBI agent who brings them together.

Episodes will explore self-contained mysteries of the paranormal, as well as the relationships between the three leads.

“So much of the story is relatable people in extraordinary situations,” Abrams said. “The show is definitely a nod to ‘Altered States’ and ‘Scanners’ and that whole Michael Crichton/Robin Cook world of medicine and science.”

There’ll also be an overriding mythology that will come into play from time to time, as well as a healthy dose of humor.

“It does the stuff my favorite TV shows and movies do, which is to combine genres that shouldn’t fit together,” Abrams said. “It’s definitely meant to scare the hell out of you, but it’s also meant to make you laugh… It pushes all the buttons of things we loved from our childhood.”

Driving the show will be the Walter Bishop character, a larger-than-life figure who bears some resemblance to the titular character in Fox’s “House.” In the pilot, he’s in a mental hospital.

“Imagine that your father is Frankenstein mixed with Albert Einstein,” Orci said. “He’s someone who has the mental ability to solve so many problems but is so different that communicating with them is almost impossible.”

Fox Entertainment chairman Peter Liguori said he’s been circling “Fringe” for months, starting with a meeting he had with Abrams in February. Project hadn’t taken shape yet, but Liguori knew he wanted to be in business with the hyphenate.

“I was really impressed by how much he felt his voice was a Fox voice,” Liguori said. Exec then heard that “Fringe” was coming together on spec and, along with Fox Entertainment prexy Kevin Reilly, began keeping tabs on it.

“With the sensibility of those guys and the territory they were exploring, it felt like it had to end up at Fox,” Reilly said. “It feels like it’s a bull’s-eye for us.”

While Reilly and Liguori have already set up several major projects in recent weeks, Liguori said he thinks “Fringe” will particularly benefit from Reilly’s hand during the production process.

“He can drain every bit of quality out of this and help create something that will be a standout,” he said.

Abrams said he and his co-creators didn’t want to go the usual development route and pitch an idea without a script.

“We wanted to write the script we wanted to see (on the air) and just put it out there, rather than pitching something that may or may not result in the show you want,” he said.

Greenlight for “Fringe” means there are now three projects at three different nets centering on characters exploring freaky mysteries a la “The X-Files.”

CBS has given a series order to the Warners- and Jerry Bruckheimer-produced “11th Hour,” which is based on a Brit format (Daily Variety, Sept. 19). And ABC has ordered six episodes of the Zak Penn-produced “Section 8,” which involves a team of investigators with mental abnormalities (Daily Variety, Sept. 27).

Reilly said he believes the Eye and Alphabet shows are a bit more science-oriented, while “Fringe” delves a bit more into sci-fi.

“May the best show win,” he said.

“Fringe” marks the first series commitment for Abrams since he signed his mega-deal with Warners last year. It also comes in the wake of news earlier this week that Abrams had set up a drama pilot, dubbed “Boundaries,” at ABC with scribe Jill Soloway (Daily Variety, Oct. 4).

Abrams has turned in a pilot for HBO but is still talking to the cabler about the fate of the project. Kurtzman and Orci, who worked with Abrams on “Alias,” are now readying a sequel to their summer smash “Transformers.”