It's been almost two years since I mused that Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series might find a home on TV. "It may take years," I said, "before this valuable asset becomes a TV series." Well, the series just took an important step toward becoming the next Game of Thrones hit in the high fantasy genre.
That's the gist of an exclusive report from Variety. So where is the project going next?
Legal battles over WoT's production licenses have now faded in the rearview mirror, as Comcast's NBC division handed over the property's control to Sony (NYSE:SNE). Indie production house Red Eagle Entertainment, which Jordan and his estate found impossible to work with in the past, is still in the picture, alongside billionaire Ted Field's movie house, Radar Pictures.
Radar Pictures actually has some street cred in producing the fantasy film genre. The studio's work includes the 2017 Jumanji remake, Jon Favreau's Zathura: A Space Adventure, and the Riddick franchise, starring Vin Diesel.
Variety dropped a few names attached to this project, including Rafe Judkins. Judkins got started in show biz as a contestant on the 2005 season of Survivor (second runner-up in the jungles of Guatemala), and leveraged that experience into screenwriting jobs with several major studios. His writing credits include episodes for NBC sci-fi comedy series Chuck, Walt Disney (NYSE:DIS) property ABC's superhero yarn Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and Netflix (NASDAQ:NFLX) horror show Hemlock Grove.
The usual insider suspects from Red Eagle and Radar will also get executive producer credits, along with Turbo writer Darren Lemke and a consulting producer credit for Jordan's widow, Harriet McDougal.
With those tea leaves in hand, what can we expect out of the Wheel of Time project?
Having McDougal aboard should ensure that the show pays proper respect to the original material. Time Warner (NYSE:TWX) and HBO don't stick strictly to the books in Game of Thrones, and massive fantasy series will always require some tweaking to fit into the format of movies or a TV series. But McDougal's presence is still a good sign for purists -- and this may very well have been a sticking point in studio negotiations.
Sony owns only one TV station in America, the movies-only Sony Movie Channel. That would be an unlikely broadcast outlet for a high-budget fantasy series. But Sony Pictures Television is one of the world's largest and most prolific production studios, having active deals with pretty much any broadcaster you'd care to name. Common collaborators include NBC (The Blacklist, The Night Shift), ABC (Notorious, Beyond the Tank), AMC Networks (NASDAQ:AMCX) (Better Call Saul, Breaking Bad, Preacher), and Netflix (Bloodline, The Get Down).
Pairing this list with showrunner Judkins' previous experience, Wheel of Time starts looking like a comfortable fit with ABC, NBC, or Netflix.
Who needs a big fantasy title right now?
Only one network has a true equivalent to Game of Thrones today, and that would be the original airing on HBO.
ABC lacks fantasy material, but also tends to err on the side of family-friendly. This might not be the best home for brutal Trollocs and topless Sea Folk women.
NBC runs a little bit closer to the dark side but still has to stick to the content policies of running an over-the-air network. Robert Jordan's fantasy world really belongs on cable.
That leaves us with Netflix or -- if Rafe Judkins' background turns out to be a red herring -- AMC. Both of these broadcasters have a proven ability to select high-quality projects and herd them through to award-winning realization. They don't mess with the showrunner's creative vision, and they make big investments in production quality. Either one would be a welcome final destination for Wheel of Time after all these years of legal squabbles and behind-the-scenes hesitation.
Of course, Netflix comes with the added advantage of a nearly global distribution network. Probably not a deal-breaker, but it raises the stakes for AMC and other potential bidders.
So if I were a betting man (which I'm not), I'd put my money on Netflix, with AMC as a runner-up. As a WoT fan since childhood, I'm mainly interested in seeing this series make it to the screen. It better get a big budget and great acting and directing talent, too.
It's time to toss the dice.