How AMC Almost Lost 'Breaking Bad' Spinoff 'Better Call Saul' to Netflix

6:00 AM PST 09/18/2013 by Marisa Guthrie, Lacey Rose
AMC
"Breaking Bad"

The streaming service, which has been credited with helping to boost ratings for Vince Gilligan's critically acclaimed show, was one of several potential buyers ready to pounce had the AMC deal fallen through.

A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

AMC is moving forward with spinoffs of two of its most popular series.

On Sept. 11, the network revealed plans for a Breaking Bad prequel, tentatively titled Better Call Saul, which centers on Bob Odenkirk's lawyer character Saul Goodman. An official series order is contingent on Odenkirk and creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould inking deals with studio Sony Pictures TV. 

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Then, on Sept. 16, AMC announced a "companion series" for top-rated The Walking Dead that likely will not be based on characters from the comics by Robert Kirkman, who will join Gale Anne Hurd and David Alpert as executive producers. AMC president and GM Charlie Collier called the decision "literally a no-brainer" because Dead averaged 11.4 million viewers during its third season and is television's No. 1 scripted series among viewers 18-to-49.

Meanwhile, Bad, which ends its run Sept. 29, hit a record 6.4 million viewers for its Sept. 15 episode, with THR's chief TV critic Tim Goodman calling it the "best" ever. Indeed, it was the series' acclaim, rather than the ratings, that had multiple interested distributors -- including Netflix, new scripted entrant WGN America and FX, for which Bad was "the show that got away" -- ready to pounce on the prequel if AMC could not reach a licensing deal with Sony, say informed sources. Netflix, credited with boosting Bad's ratings by allowing fans to catch up via streaming, was seen as an especially strong suitor with deep pockets. AMC had an exclusive negotiating window for rights to the spinoff, but multiple sources say there was discord over the timeline of that window, as well as what the licensing fee would be. Negotiations dragged on late into the summer, with a deal done at the eleventh hour.

Though Sony couldn't lock in the talent deals until the licensing deal was finalized and the studio was clear on the budget arrangement with AMC, multiple sources suggest this step won't prove the same hurdle. (Gould, who will run the series as it is he who created the Saul character during season two, will have to repopulate the writers room too, as many of Bad's writers already are staffed on other projects. Given the industry-wide praise for the flagship, it shouldn't be hard to find willing scribes.)

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Sealing both deals was crucial for AMC considering the network has struggled to launch new series of late. Hell on Wheels has been relegated to Saturday nights, The Killing was canceled after its recently concluded third season averaged 1.5 million viewers, and new drama Low Winter Sun has dropped precipitously since its Aug. 11 premiere managed 2.5 million viewers in the post-Bad slot. And though insiders say AMC execs have not discussed a spinoff of Mad Men --a modest ratings hit, but an awards magnet that helped define the AMC brand -- with creator Matthew Weiner or the show's studio, Lionsgate, the network announced Sept. 17 plans to stretch out its run by splitting the final season in two.  

"If Low Winter Sun, The Killing or Hell on Wheels were getting 10 million viewers, I don't think they'd be looking at making these series," says Horizon senior vp research Brad Adgate, who adds that spinoffs rarely match their flagships' ratings success. Still, the Dead companion, slated for 2015, could fill the schedule during a long drought between seasons of the original. Noting the show's rabid fan base, an executive at a rival network called the companion series "a pretty f---ing smart business move."

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