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Fans of The Walking Dead might notice a high-profile name missing from the credits when Fear the Walking Dead premieres Sunday on AMC: Frank Darabont, who created the original series (from the graphic novels of Robert Kirkman, who co-created Fear and executive produces Walking Dead).
It’s customary for TV creators to get credit as a producer or as the creator of the characters on spinoffs of their series, and some of the revenue. So what happened with Darabont?
Walking Dead fans likely will remember that Darabont was fired from the show during the second season. A year and half later, he and his talent agency CAA sued AMC claiming he was wrongfully fired (a claim he has since withdrawn) and AMC is withholding from him tens of millions of dollars of revenue from the highest-rated show on TV.
In the lawsuit, Darabont says AMC pushed him out of his right to benefit from “derivative works” (that could include spinoffs — which in contractual terms are defined by having characters from the original series — sequels or potentially other ancillary offshoots.) Darabont argues his contract for Walking Dead gives him the “right of first negotiation” to work on such projects and “passive payments” if he declines. The lawsuit largely addresses what Darabont argues is another derivative work, the recap talk show Talking Dead, but mentions “a scripted spinoff” — and now Fear the Walking Dead is that show.
AMC, for its part, has been very careful not to refer to Fear the Walking Dead as a “spinoff” of Walking Dead in its marketing or press materials. Instead, it calls the show a “companion series,” set in the same world of the top-rated first show but with an entirely new cast and storyline. “There’s no plan to see any original characters” from The Walking Dead in the upcoming series, Fear,” showrunner Dave Erickson tells The Hollywood Reporter.
In court documents, AMC has revealed nearly nothing about how it will dispute Darabont’s argument that he should have negotiated or received pay for Talking Dead and Fear. But it is suspected that AMC will argue that neither Talking Dead nor Fear the Walking Dead are derivative works, and that they do not trigger any obligations to Darabont. “Frank Darabont had no involvement with these projects and simply has no legal rights with respect to them,” AMC attorney Marc Kasowitz tells THR.
The network might argue Darabont’s firing invalidated the contractual provisions about derivative works. Or, it might contend Talking Dead and Fear the Walking Dead, with no overlapping characters, are not “derivative works” covered under the contract. Considering that Walking Dead is cable’s top-rated show and Fear is set to follow in its footsteps, the stakes for the network and AMC are high. Until AMC files pretrial motions (likely in early 2016), its full legal strategy will remain just one of the questions the new series raises.
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