The news of Frank Darabont stepping down from AMC’s hit series The Walking Dead took everyone by surprise. This feeling grew even more when it was revealed that Darabont didn’t step down, but was actually fired.
With fans seeking to find out why the man who championed last year’s television phenomenon was unceremoniously fired days after appearing at Comic-Con 2011, The Hollywood Reporter is presenting the facts as they know them – including the chaotic mess in which The Walking Dead season 2 currently finds itself.
Shortly after his appearance at Comic-Con, Darabont returned to Los Angeles to work on editing an episode of the upcoming second season of The Walking Dead. With the cast in Atlanta to continue filming, Ben Davis, AMC vice-president of scripted programming, gathered the cast together for a lunch meeting. In this meeting, he broke the news that Darabont had been fired. With a simple explanation of “This isn’t working,” sources close to the series said that “It’s a crushing blow” and that "Even when you have a hit, they can still destroy you."
Even though The Walking Dead proved to be a hit – and it is the only series that AMC owns completely – the network had already announced to the producers that they would not only be cutting the budget of the series from $3.4 million to $2.7 million, but that they would also want 13 episodes produced instead of 6 episodes that made up its first season. To make matters worse, AMC also told the producers that the 30% tax credit that the series receives from filming in Georgia would go directly to the network, and not make up for some of the money that was taken out of the production budget.
The Walking Dead @ Comic-Con
AMC's fiscal irresponsibility and their lack of appreciation for those who make The Walking Dead is largely what led to Darabont being fired. Originally taking the announcement of a second season budget cut in stride, the producers of the series decided to wait until the first season premiered. After The Walking Dead began breaking ratings records for the network, the producers assumed their budget wouldn’t be cut as much as originally thought.
Unfortunately, this is exactly what happened – and Darabont wasn’t too happy about it. Known as a man who fights for what he believes in, a confrontation between AMC and The Walking Dead producers occurred. With the head of original programming for AMC, Joel Stillerman, sticking to the cut budget, the network than began to overstep their bounds and attempt to tell Darabont how to produce the series.
Instead of long, sprawling outdoor scenes, the network wanted the second season of The Walking Dead to occur 50% outdoors and 50% indoors (indoors being cheaper to film). Another note asked whether or not the audience had to always see the zombies – couldn’t they simply hear them sometimes.
Head of Original Production for AMC Jack Stillerman (on the right)
It’s been said that Darabont was involved in constant battles with the network to maintain the creative vision that drew so many fans to the series in the first place. On top of that, sources say that Darabont “doesn't like to see the cast and crew overworked and underpaid." Even with record ratings on their side, Darabont would repeatedly enter meetings with Stillerman where he would simply say, "Ratings have no bearing on this conversation." Stillerman is somewhat known for not being the “best person” to deal with. With rumors persisting that he has poor relationships with most of AMC's series creators, insiders have begun to say that "Joel [Stillerman] thinks he is responsible for the success of shows on AMC, and not the creators."
With AMC making a leap into the forefront of scripted television, there’s always been a sense of the network going through growing pains. Not only is AMC doing it on their own (they have no parent company to support them), but they’re also trying to maintain a quality which rivals that of their pay-cable counterparts, HBO and Showtime.
Unfortunately, AMC only makes 60 cents for each cable subscriber, which isn’t enough to maintain the level of quality they were once able to do when they weren’t expected to pay the same amount as the other networks for programming. That being said, it’s hard to really stand up for a network that’s being championed by someone who's a complete contrarian to the creative process.
The cast of The Walking Dead
Even if AMC was trying to do what’s best for the network (without having to operate at a loss – something that HBO does, but is evened out by HBO being owned by Time Warner), there comes a point when taking a loss for the quality of the product is more important for the long term.
As the saying goes, “Good things come to those who wait.”
AMC has been waiting a long time to make it this far. Jumping from simply replaying old movies to creating original content - this all comes with a price. While not everything will make the financial return that you’re hoping for, it rarely does when you’re first starting out. And for AMC, they’re most certainly starting out.
Hopefully AMC will make it through these growing pains intact. If not, you can sure bet that there are many other cable networks willing to take over in the place (and have the money to do it).
Now that Glen Mazzara is taking over for Frank Darabont, we’ll have to wait and see what happens when The Walking Dead season 2 premieres.
The Walking Dead season 2 premieres October 19 on AMC
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Source: The Hollywood Reporter