August 11, 2011

Why was Frank Darabont FIRED from The Walking Dead?

News that showrunner Frank Darabont was off AMC's The Walking Dead broke shortly after Comic-Con where, ironically, Darabont was on-hand to promote the upcoming second season. I've been sitting on my comments until more details became available. Now, The Hollywood Reporter has posted a story outlining the probable cause of  Darabont's departure.

The Walking Dead has become AMC's most watched show, and Darabont was instrumental in getting it made and giving it the cinematic scope it deserved. So what's going on? According to THR:
"When Frank Darabont appeared on a Comic-Con panel July 22 to promote The Walking Dead, he didn't realize he was a dead man walking. Neither did the cast and crew. Everyone was shocked when news broke three days later that AMC had taken the extraordinary step of firing Darabont from the network's biggest ratings hit.

In hot, sticky Atlanta, where production on the second season had been under way since June, the cast was summoned to a lunch meeting with AMC vp scripted programming Ben Davis, who confirmed that Darabont was out. The crew was briefed separately. One insider says those gathered were stunned at 'the duplicity of AMC' for having used Darabont to promote the show at Comic-Con before firing him. And they were angry about the lack of explanation; they were simply told, cryptically,'This isn't working.' Above all, they were disheartened. 'It's a crushing blow,' says the insider. 'Even when you have a hit, they can still destroy you.'

Here's my summary of this hot zombie mess based on the report from THR

  • Darabont is unwilling to talk to the press and the cast is maintaining a code of silence.
  • The Walking Dead is the jewel in AMC's crown of profitability. Their highly respected and award-winning shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad only average 2.3 and 4.3 million viewers respectively whereas The Walking Dead landed 5.3 million viewers when it premiered and the season finale snagged 6 million. 
  •  Despite its success, AMC has had long-standing plans to cut the budget. AMC owns The Walking Dead show, so they shoulder all the financial risks. As a result, "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 tax credit 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."
  • Darabont has been treating the show production like the production of a feature film, but he's also been a vocal supporter of keeping the budget and cast/crew salaries high to maintain the show's cinematic quality (arguably one of the show's selling points).
  • Darabont's desire for a cinematic show was probably butting against AMC's plans to shoot the show for less. According to THR, "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.' " 
No matter what, AMC is going to come off looking like an asshole here. Darabont was a large draw for horror and genre fans. He seemed knowledgeable and passionate about the zombie genre and the source material. Under his stewardship, the show was nothing but a success. Hollywood rumours abound that Darabont is hard to work with, but even if that is the case, if his departure is mainly a result of AMC's desire to slash the budget, Darabont is only going to look better if The Walking Dead's quality takes a nosedive without him or the bigger budget for which he advocated. On the other hand, if the show's quality remains more or less the same, AMC is going to look like a dick for removing the leading creative force of the show so unceremoniously.

AMC is risking not only derailing its top show but also alienating the more vocal genre fans.

Indeed, this is a hot mess. Fights like these usually come down to one of two things: sex or money. In this case, it looks like the quest for the all-mighty dollar is what gave Darabont the boot.