When “The Walking Dead” showrunner Frank Darabont abruptly quit in the middle of production for the show’s second season — just days after promoting the zombie series at Comic-Con — fans were puzzled that the man who spent five years getting the beloved comic adapted to TV would just walk away from AMC’s most-watched show. Well, now it makes sense: Darabont didn’t quit; he was fired.
In a sprawling investigation, The Hollywood Reporter reveals that AMC removed Darabont, it seems, because he objected to the network slashing the show’s budget and remained intent on his “feature-film approach to television,” even though sources “with ties to the show insist it was on schedule and on budget.” In addition, the network has discouraged the cast from speaking about Darabont’s exit by “terrorizing” them: “‘They’re scared,’ confirms another insider. ‘They’re on a zombie show. They are all really easy to kill off.'” Although THR’s article is balanced and well-reported, AMC nevertheless comes off as legendarily cheap and short-sighted. Some of the details of the network’s ineptitude are astonishing:
This drama makes it a hat trick: Within a space of months, AMC has become embroiled in messy public fights with the creators of its top three shows — Mad Men, Breaking Bad and now Walking Dead. The battles have been about money, but in this case, at least, it was more of a slow burn than a sudden flare-up. Sources say last fall, even before the first episode of the show had aired, AMC let it be known that it would effectively slash the show’s second-season budget per episode by about $650,000, from $3.4 million to $2.75 million. AMC cut the budget and pocketed a [30 percent] tax credit [from filming in Georgia] previously applied to the show. An AMC source says the size of the cut cited by sources is “grossly inflated” and that the second-season budget represents a more typical and sustainable number for a basic cable show…
AMC had its own ideas about how to make the show more cheaply. The show shoots for eight days per episode, and the network suggested that half should be indoors. “Four days inside and four days out? That’s not Walking Dead,” says this insider. “This is not a show that takes place around the dinner table.” That was just one of what this person describes as “silly notes” from AMC. Couldn’t the audience hear the zombies sometimes and not see them, to save on makeup? The source says Darabont fought “a constant battle to keep the show big in scope and style.”
Despite the show’s success, AMC stuck to its original position on the second-season budget. When those involved with the show protested that the network was taking chances with its biggest hit, AMC’s head of original programming, Joel Stillerman, is said to have declared, “Ratings have no bearing on this conversation.”
On the off chance you think Stillerman is competent at handling other talent, “Mad Men” showrunner Matthew Weiner no longer speaks to him.
I’m not going to sit here on my couch and say that I know how to run a network, because I absolutely do not. AMC has an excellent history of developing high-quality shows, but those shows are expensive and the history is short. I’m sure that the budgetary concerns are very real for what is still a relatively small cable network. That said, hamstringing and then firing the one person who was most responsible for your company’s greatest success? It’s proof that even the smartest Hollywood executives are f*cking stupid.