'The Walking Dead': What Really Happened to Fired Showrunner Frank Darabont

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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.

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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."

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Darabont -- like many showrunners, not known for a small ego or manageable temperament -- had been working on an edit in Los Angeles. After he was sent packing, he returned to give some final notes. He sent farewell e-mails to  associates on the show. But he has maintained a steady silence in the media as his representatives work out the terms of his departure. Through his lawyer, Darabont said he has no interest in talking to the press.

There also have been no public comments from the cast, and a source with knowledge of the situation says AMC has been "terrorizing" them and their representatives to discourage them from speaking out on Darabont's behalf. "They're scared," confirms another insider. "They're on a zombie show. They are all really easy to kill off."

AMC issued a statement after Darabont was dismissed, expressing gratitude for his "innumerable" contributions to the show. Asked to comment on criticism for the handling of his departure, a spokesperson said, "We have nothing further to add."

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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 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.

At a glance, it would appear AMC is taking a big risk with its only huge commercial success. Mad Men and Breaking Bad are Emmy magnets that average 2.3 million and 4.3 million viewers, respectively. But Walking Dead, based on a series of graphic novels, attracted an astonishing 5.3 million viewers when it premiered on Halloween. The season finale in December drew more than 6 million viewers. In the 18-to-49 demo, it chalked up the biggest number ever for any drama on basic cable.

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AMC has enjoyed stunning success since it stopped relying on old movies and plunged into original series with Mad Men in 2007. But given its recent battles, several sources involved with its signature shows say AMC does not seem ready to handle its success. "It feels like they don't have the experience of being on top," one fumes. "They're total ball-busters, and that pisses people off."

But being on top can be more about perception than profit. It's no coincidence that these flare-ups have come at a time when success for the network will be defined in far more specific terms. In July, AMC was spun off from parent Cablevision as AMC Networks (which also includes Sundance Channel, IFC and others). AMC has been preparing to face Wall Street's scrutiny as its expenditures on programming have shot up. (According to SNL Kagan, the network's programming budget has climbed from $123.3 million in 2006, the year before it got into original series, to an estimated $174.5 million this year --actually not that much given the network's 180.)

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What is also hugely significant is that Walking Dead is the only show AMC owns, which means the network bears all the financial risk (and could reap much greater rewards in success). That is not the kind of chance that the network had been willing to take before. AMC developed Mad Men and even fully financed a pilot before the company decided that the cost of the first season, about $25 million, was too much to bear. So AMC sold the idea to Lionsgate and licensed it from the studio. Lionsgate owns Mad Men, and Sony Television owns Breaking Bad.

And despite "being on top," AMC is still a newcomer in the world of original programming and still small potatoes compared with more established competitors. The network costs distributors about 26 cents per subscriber each month, compared to $1.08 and 60 cents for TNT and USA, respectively, according to SNL Kagan.

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A source on Walking Dead says wistfully that if a studio owned the show, the producers might have gotten help in the battles with AMC. In the case of Breaking Bad, Sony responded to the network's decision to cut the number of episodes from 13 to six or eight by shopping the series to FX, which isn't possible with Walking Dead. (Breaking Bad now appears likely to remain on AMC.)

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Even when there's a studio involved, the fights have been tough. The conflict with Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner has been abundantly documented and concluded with Weiner getting $10 million per season for up to three more seasons and AMC getting more commercial time. The fracas didn't burnish any reputations with the public. Now sources involved with Breaking Bad are venting displeasure with the network. One says AMC could have dealt with Breaking Bad in a more timely and collaborative manner and come to an easier resolution, adding, "You hate when it comes down to the point where it gets stupid."

Laments a producer on one of the signature shows: "AMC may have had too much success too soon, and they think they know how to do it. But showrunners like Matthew Weiner and [Breaking Bad's] Vince Gilligan are so rare -- you can't replace people like that." 

In the case of Walking Dead, AMC has replaced Darabont with executive producer Glen Mazzara, by many accounts a strong talent. But sources associated with the show say Darabont was an integral part of a lightning-in-a-bottle formula that had been working. "Everybody loves Frank and has had an amazing experience," says a talent rep with a client in the mix. "He's brilliant, and we want him there."

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According to an insider, many members of the cast and crew feel the same way. "Frank's fingerprints are all over every single aspect of the show," this person says. "I heard a Teamster saying, 'How are we going to do this without Frank?' "

The rupture doesn't make sense for Darabont, either. His other best credit, The Shawshank Redemption, dates to 1994. Despite his public complaints about the grueling hours on the show, Darabont was hardly walking away from Walking Dead.

But AMC's budget-cutting upset him. "Frank doesn't like to see the cast and crew overworked and underpaid," says a show insider. As recently as the end of May, with the show's second season poised to go into production, Darabont seemed to be holding out hope that AMC would relent. "Creatively, I have no complaints thus far," he said at a THR roundtable. "But I believe if they do move ahead with what they're talking about, it will affect the show creatively … in a negative way. Which just strikes me as odd. If  you have an asset, why would you punish it?"

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An agency source says Darabont is "notoriously a pain in the ass" known for "taking a feature-film approach to television," which is meant to suggest that he didn't manage the brisk pace of television well. But an insider says Darabont's approach was what made Walking Dead special. "Frank fights for the show," says an insider. "He doesn't just do what the network wants him to do. … He's a filmmaker, and that's why the show was as good as it was." Sources with ties to the show insist it was on schedule and on budget.

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What remains a central mystery, even to those closely involved, is what triggered AMC's move to fire Darabont. As noted, AMC's decision to cut the budget dated to the previous fall, when the network instructed Darabont to produce 13 episodes for a second season, up from six for the first season, for less money. Not only would the show get a lower budget, but AMC also decided that Walking Dead would no longer reap the benefit of a 30 percent tax credit per episode that came with filming in Georgia. Now the network was going to hold on to that money.

At the time, a source says, the show's producers decided not to get into a confrontation. "To have a fight over a number when they didn't know what the show was going to do didn't make sense," says this source. But when Walking Dead began to break AMC records, those involved figured that a negotiation would take place and the cuts might be reduced.

But this source says that 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."

The show went into production on its second season in June. Sources say an early episode came in with footage that was not usable. The director had shot a successful first-season episode and was a mutually agreeed-upon choice. Darabont was editing the episode in an effort to fix it but by then, an insider believes, AMC was looking for a pretext. "Joel thinks he is responsible for the success of shows on AMC, and not the creators," this person says. This person blames Stillerman for the decision to fire Darabont. (Stillerman also has a strained relationship with Mad Men's Weiner, who declines to speak to him.) Through an AMC rep, Stillerman declined comment.

With Walking Dead in the middle of production on its second season, a number of very key and capable players are still involved, including Mazzara, Walking Dead comic creator Robert Kirkman and effects master Greg Nicotero. Only time will tell whether the Dead will suffer when they return or -- who knows? -- maybe even rise. If the show stumbles, many of its most passionate fans will blame AMC for firing Darabont, and he will become an even bigger martyr in their eyes than he already is.           

WHO'S WHO IN THE DISPUTE

  • Charlie Collier: AMC's president is finding that success creates its own challenges.
  • Joel Stillerman: AMC's head of original programming had ideas about how to keep costs down.
  • Glen Mazzara: The man taking over for Darabont joined the show after its first season wrapped.

CORRECTION: In the original version of this story, the ratings for Mad Men and Breaking Bad were transposed. The current version reflects the correct ratings for the two shows.

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