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AMC fires Darabont: WTF?


AMC may be taking their new tagline too literally ...

AMC, American Movie Classics, has undergone an Amazing Massive Change over the last several years. First, came Mad Men, in 2007. A slow-paced period piece about an advertising agency in the 1960's, delving into social and political issues of that turbulent decade. Containing some of the best writing and acting on TV, Mad Men quickly established AMC as a front-runner in character-driven original drama on television. The next success was Breaking Bad, in 2008; the story of a science teacher with terminal cancer who turns his chemistry expertise into high-quality crystal meth. Both shows have won numerous awards, loyal followings, and critical acclaim, and neither would have appeared on network TV - too edgy - or on regular pay-cable stations - not enough spectacle! Finally, last year, AMC hit the consumer jackpot with The Walking Dead - a horror-comic adaptation which won the highest ratings in the coveted 18-49 age group ever.

The change from a television channel which focused on replaying movies new and old to one on the forefront of original programming is a massive change - and to be massively successful in that, the way AMC has, and to have that kind of a turnaround in only four years, is unique in the business. Obviously, someone on the programming side has their head in the right place. They are giving a chance to shows which otherwise would never see the light of day and doing a great job of it! So why do they seem so intent on screwing it up?

First, back in March, negotiations for the next season of Mad Men threatened to break down completely, reportedly over three issues: the network wanted to trim two minutes per episode to allow for more commercials, the network planned budget cuts which would result in reductions in the cast, and increased product placement. On March 30, showrunner Matthew Weiner addressed the issues directly, on the Mad Men fan site Basket of Kisses. The story-behind-the-story seemed to be that AMC was offering Weiner, personally, increased salary to agree to the three conditions stated, and that he was resisting for reasons of artistic integrity. If that's true, then wow, there's a decision to be respected. (And please pardon the cynicism in the phrase 'if that's true.' It's possible, if unlikely.) In the end, they agreed to a two-minute reduction in run time, bringing each episode to 45 minutes, but Weiner may complete 47-minute episodes for VOD and DVD releases. Mad Men, with Weiner, signed on for seasons 5 and 6, with a possible 7th tabled for the time being.

Then, in early August, negotiations for Breaking Bad were breaking down, badly; and there were rumors that the show was looking to potentially move to another network. The primary issue in this case was that the network wanted to cut the fifth season from 13 to 6 or 8 episodes. Eventually, it seems, they came to an agreement with a 16-episode deal, which may be spread out over two seasons.

But most shocking was the recent termination of showrunner Frank Darabont from The Walking Dead. Occurring just days after Darabont had appeared at the San Diego Comic-Con, the announcement that Darabont was leaving the show came as a shock to fans and people close to the show as well. Several reports have speculated that Darabont left due to AMC's budget cuts and other ideas for changing the show in Season 2.

Back in May, Darabont began commenting publicly on the possibility of Season 2 budget cuts for the show. In a roundtable discussion with other drama showrunners, Frank Darabont responded to a question from Kurt Sutter (Sons of Anarchy) as follows (view the video of the roundtable discussion here):

Kurt Sutter: I'm actually curious, Frank, with those budget cuts, that you are talking about, did they also come in and try to fix the show? In terms of, 'we wish it had a little bit more of this, or people didn't like that'? Were they trying to push creative influence as well?

Frank Darabont: No, not really, creatively I have no complaints thus far. I think they are pretty good that way. But, I believe that if they do move ahead with what they are talking about (budget cuts) it will affect the show, creatively, in a negative way; which just strikes me as odd. You know, if you have an asset, why would you punish it?

This exchange is particularly interesting in light of the above Kurt Sutter's recent Twitter posts regarding Frank Darabont and the Walking Dead. On Twitter, Sutter stated that Matthew Weiner's successful negotiations for Mad Men was the direct cause of budget problems on the other two shows, "No one else wants to fucking say it, but the greed of Mad Men is killing the other two best shows on TV -- Breaking Bad and Walking Dead." Later posts stated, "(Mad Men) gutted AMC." As a direct result of the ensuing controversy, Sutter cancelled his Twitter account.

So what happened with Darabont? Apparently, the network's ideas for changes to Season 2 were too much to bear. This included taking the show from 6 episodes, as in Season 1, to 13 episodes. They also proposed making the show half-indoors, which would dramatically reduce the costs. Finally, and a bit unbelievably, they wanted to keep more of the zombie action off-screen: as in, maybe sometimes we could just hear the zombies off-screen, rather than see them on-screen. You can actually see why suggestions in this vein would drive a showrunner nuts. And, while Breaking Bad is owned by Sony, allowing them to shop to other networks when negotiations broke down, The Walking Dead is wholly owned by AMC, eliminating that possibility.

AMC President Charlie Collier addressed the budget changes to The Walking Dead as follows: "If you look at pilot budgets vs. pattern budgets usually the pilot budget is much higher than what ends up being the pattern budget. With The Walking Dead, instead of doing a pilot, we went straight to 6 episodes because we believed in the team and the talent in front and behind the camera. Then we came back with a 13-episode second season, and amortization over 13 episodes is very different than over 6. But we settled into one of the highest pattern budgets for a basic cable series."

So will AMC continue to be synonymous with character-driven drama, or will they become the channel that ruined our favorite shows? Season 2 of The Walking Dead is still set to premiere this October. Season 5 of Mad Men just started filming, and Season 4 of Breaking Bad has the show's highest initial viewership so far. It's possible that the shows will come through in the end, despite AMC's difficult year of negotiations. But it's tragic that Frank Darabont, the creative energy that brought one of my favorite comics to the screen, is a casualty of those growing pains.

Of course, Darabont won't be held back by this: according to THR, he's already received interest in a proposal for an unspecified hour-long TV drama project he's currently shopping around Hollywood. Go Frank!


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#1 RE: AMC fires Darabont: WTF? smartman 2011-12-02 23:13
Good for Darabont, he deserves another show. He gave AMC everything he had and they threw him out on the curb. Greedy all they were being was greedy. If they try this stunt with Mad Men i'll never watch their network again.

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