Producer John Wells has a new outlook on the industry these days.
After more than 20 years in offices on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, John Wells Prods. recently relocated to a 10,390-square-foot building that Wells purchased in Hollywood, a stone’s throw from Paramount Pictures on Melrose Avenue.
The JWP banner continues to be in business with Warner Bros. TV under a long-term overall deal. But Wells decided last year he wanted to change up the working environment and for the first time bring staffers toiling on the company’s TV series and movies together under one roof.
Right now, JWP is prepping for the June 7 launch of 1970s-set drama “American Woman,” starring Alicia Silverstone and Mena Suvari, on Paramount Network. The company known for “ER” and “The West Wing” is also home to TNT drama “Animal Kingdom” and Showtime’s long-running ensembler “Shameless.”
“I wanted to be in a place where everybody could be together at the same time,” Wells said. “This feels more creative and communal.”
The two-story building was refurbished to emphasize open spaces, glass-walled offices and gathering areas — starting with a well-stocked kitchen. The open architecture design, earth tones and wood paneling give the space an airy feel. And as a bonus, he got to name all of the building’s parking spaces after characters from his shows, e.g. “Ross,” “Bartlet” and “Leo.”
The physical relocation of the company coincides with shifts in the industry that have at once made it easier to sell shows and harder to get business agreements done. Wells has a lot of flexibility within his TV pact at Warner Bros. In film he’s a free agent. The hurdles of dealmaking can be frustrating for producers who just want to “get stuff made,” he said.
“The business is changing so rapidly and so constantly, you have to constantly be placing lots of different bets in lots of different avenues to get stuff made,” Wells said. “It’s difficult for the big studio suppliers. There’s been a very predictable business model [for series] for a long time, but it’s just not there any more. Everything is about ownership or co-ownership.”
“The business is changing so rapidly and so constantly, you have to be placing lots of different bets in lots of different avenues to get stuff made.”
Wells predicted that the creative community will increasingly shift to working under so-called cost-plus deals in which producers negotiate their profits up front as a predetermined percentage of the license fee paid for a show. That’s the basic model for Netflix, which is upending industry tradition in scooping up virtually all worldwide rights for shows it commissions. It’s a shift from the focus on the back end and hoping for a profit windfall if a show does well in syndication.
“I think in the future there will be a lot of creative people who are more than willing to trade something that may or may not materialize in seven to eight years for the [certainty] of a cost-plus deal,” Wells said.
The new digs for JWP dovetail with the appointment of a new head of TV for the company, Erin Jontow, formerly with Amazon and Media Rights Capital. She signed on in April after longtime JWP executive Jinny Howe left to join Netflix. Jontow works closely with Claire Rudnick Polstein, president of theatrical motion pictures.
Jontow said she’s been impressed in her short tenure to date at what an asset Wells is when pitching projects. In this Peak TV moment, showrunners are worth their weight in gold. Wells, who made his name as the developer and showrunner of “ER,” is one of the most highly regarded writer-producers of the past 25 years. “People know when they’re thinking about doing a project with us that we have this great resource of producorial knowledge in John,” she said. “He makes sure everything runs smoothly on the shows. I’m not having to put out fires all the time.”
In recent years Wells has made a point of spending more time writing screenplays and episodes for JWP series. Back in the days when the company was turning out 22-24 episodes apiece each season of “ER,” “The West Wing” and “Third Watch,” hunkering down with a blank page for a single episode was nearly impossible. The cable model of 10-13 episodes provides welcome relief. He still supervises all JWP shows and offers varying degrees of help — depending on where the creative team needs him most — but he’s also able to run the writers room on “Shameless.”
“I missed the fun of working with writers and directors,” Wells said. “The emphasis for me is getting to a place where I had more creative time.”
Wells and Co. have also been energized by the strong response from a younger generation of viewers to “ER” after all 331 episodes of the NBC medical drama landed on Hulu earlier this year.
Wells hasn’t sought out the show since it left the air in 2009 — “watching something you did a long time ago is like looking at your senior class picture,” he said — but the fact it resonated with viewers who have no shortage of options has been gratifying. He does not, however, want to revisit “ER’s” County General, despite TV’s mania for reboots and sequels.
“Shows that were good in their time will stand the test of time, and people will rediscover them. Television is good at long-term curation of an audience,” Wells said. “I think it’s important for people to see that viewers in any era will show up for good storytelling and characters they care about.”