Abrams's first job in the movie business started when he was 16 when he wrote music for Don Dohler's film Nightbeast. During his senior year at college, he teamed with Jill Mazursky to write a feature film treatment. Purchased by Touchstone Pictures, the treatment was the basis for Taking Care of Business, Abrams's first produced film, which starred Charles Grodin and Jim Belushi. He followed that up with Regarding Henry, starring Harrison Ford, and Forever Young, starring Mel Gibson.
Abrams collaborated with producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Michael Bay on the 1998 film, Armageddon. That same year, he made his first foray into television with Felicity, which ran for four seasons on The WB Network, serving as the show's co-creator (with Matt Reeves) and executive producer. He also composed its opening theme music.
Under his production company Bad Robot, which he founded with Bryan Burk in 2001, Abrams created and executive-produced ABC's Alias and is co-creator (along with Damon Lindelof and Jeffrey Lieber) and executive producer of Lost. He later co-wrote the teleplay for Lost's third season premiere "A Tale of Two Cities". As with Felicity, Abrams also composed the opening theme music for Alias and Lost.
In 2001, Abrams co-wrote and produced the thriller Joy Ride, and wrote an unproduced screenplay for a fifth Superman film in 2002.
In 2006, he served as executive producer of What About Brian and Six Degrees, also on ABC. Abrams directed and wrote the two-part pilot for Lost and remained active producer for the first half of the season. That same year he made his feature directorial debut in 2006 with Mission: Impossible III, starring Tom Cruise.
In 2008, Abrams produced the monster movie, Cloverfield. In 2009, he directed the science fiction film Star Trek, which he produced with Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof. While it was speculated that they would be writing and producing an adaptation of Stephen King's The Dark Tower series of novels, they publicly stated in November 2009 that they were no longer looking to take on that project.
In 2008, he co-created, executive produced, and co-wrote (along with Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman) the FOX science-fiction series Fringe, for which he composed the theme music for as well.
Abrams is featured in the 2009 MTV Movie Awards 1980s-style digital short "Cool Guys Don't Look at Explosions", with Andy Samberg and Will Ferrell, in which he plays a keyboard solo.
The NBC network picked up Abrams's Undercovers as its first new drama series for the 2010–11 season. However, it was subsequently cancelled by NBC in November 2010.
He wrote and directed the Paramount supernatural blockbuster Super 8, while co-producing with Steven Spielberg and Bryan Burk; it was released on June 10, 2011.
Abrams is currently directing the untitled sequel to Star Trek. The film is scheduled for release in May 2013.
Under development (due in 2013) is Abrams' film with Paramount Pictures and Bad Robot Productions, Mystery on Fifth Avenue. It is based on the New York Times article "Mystery on Fifth Avenue" about the renovation of an 8.5 million dollar co-op, a division of property originally owned by E.F. Hutton and Marjorie Merriweather Post. In 2008, it was widely reported Abrams purchased the rights to the Times article for six figures, and enlisted comedy writers Maya Forbes and Wally Wolodarsky to write the adaptation. According to the article, a wealthy couple Steven B. Klinsky and Maureen Sherry purchased the apartment in 2003 and live there with their four children. Soon after purchasing the apartment, they hired young architectural designer Eric Clough, who devised an elaborately clever "scavenger hunt" built into the apartment that involved dozens of historical figures, a fictional book and a soundtrack, woven throughout the apartment in puzzles, riddles, secret panels, compartments, and hidden codes, without the couple's knowledge. The family didn't discover the embedded mystery until months after moving into the apartment. After Abrams purchased the article, Clough left him an encrypted message in the wall tiles of a Christian Louboutin shoe store he designed in West Hollywood