'Walking Dead' Expansion Plans Revealed: Andrew Lincoln to Lead 3 AMC Movies

[This story contains major spoilers from episode 905, "What Comes After," of AMC's The Walking Dead.]

"There is more story to tell, and we'll be telling it."  

Those are the words of The Walking Dead chief content officer Scott M. Gimple, who tells The Hollywood Reporter that leading man Andrew Lincoln — following his departure Sunday from the flagship serieswill reprise his iconic role as Rick Grimes in a series of three big-budget, feature-length TV movies for AMC. Gimple is currently writing the first of the untitled series of telepics, with production set to begin in 2019. Still to be determined is an air date and where the movies will film, as Lincoln departed The Walking Dead in order to spend more time with his family in England. The trio of movies are the first of multiple new scripted ventures that will come from Gimple as AMC kicks off its long-term plan to grow its multibillion-dollar franchise.

"The story of Rick will go on in films," Gimple says. "Right now, we're working on three but there's flexibility in that. … Over the next several years, we're going to be doing specials, new series are quite a possibility, high-quality digital content, and then some content that defies description at the moment. We're going to dig into the past and see old characters. We're going to introduce new characters and new situations."

The three TV movies grew out of a conversation that Gimple and Lincoln had as far back as season four of the AMC zombie drama. The duo, who both have what Lincoln describes as "young families," decided that the actor would exit the series in season eight. In an extensive interview, Lincoln told THR that the original plan was for his Rick Grimes — the face of the franchise and comic series on which it is based — to be killed off in season eight. That plan evolved. Lincoln — who loves the character and world of The Walking Dead — and Gimple — the former showrunner who was promoted earlier this year to oversee the franchise's expansion at AMC — jointly decided to continue Rick's story in a way that made better logistical sense for the actor and offered a way for AMC to expand the overall franchise. While details are still being sorted out, the current plan calls for Lincoln to be in production on each movie for two months. That's a far cry from the nine months he spent every year for the past decade filming the series in the Atlanta heat.

"Rick Grimes is an amazing character and Andy has done an amazing performance. There were story ideas brewing that, as the years went on, seemed very compatible with continuing to tell the Rick story in another format that would allow him time with his family," Gimple says, confirming that (spoiler alert) Rick does indeed survive his injuries.

The movies are the first part of the Gimple-led expansion of the Walking Dead universe. The movies will be AMC Studios Original Films, will likely air on AMC and, in success, a second party as the cabler looks for a partner to share the costs.

"We look at this as a very long-term proposition," AMC programming president David Madden tells THR of the larger goal for the franchise. The Rick-centric movies, the executive says, will not be like a bonus or extended episode of the show, but rather a "large, big scope movie that will feel like a major motion picture," with a runtime anticipated to come in at around two hours and a feature film-level budget.

Since its launch a decade ago, The Walking Dead has become a global phenomenon. The tale of survival amid the apocalypse was, at one point, the biggest series on all of television — averaging an envious 10.7 rating among the advertiser-coveted adults 18-49 demographic and 21.5 million viewers (with seven days of DVR). While season nine has hit a string of series lows, Walking Dead still ranks among the top five shows on TV in the demo (excluding sports). Season nine currently averages a 4.0 in the demo and 9.4 million viewers.

Madden, with Gimple and former AMC president Charlie Collier (who recently departed for a top job at "New Fox"), have been among those deeply involved in plotting out the future of the Walking Dead universe. The desire to grow the brand coincided with Lincoln's desire to leave and Gimple's interest in exploring how other parts of the world are being impacted by the apocalypse. "We're trying to expand into as many different places as the show fits," Madden says. "We think this is a franchise that could live across formats. We want to do it carefully, be strategic and do it right. There is a multiple-year plan that could include additional series, digital content and specials. We're looking to broaden this into a universe where the movies that Andy will be in are the highest-profile things that we do."

Gimple's vision for The Walking Dead universe is similar to what comic creator Robert Kirkman's Image imprint, Skybound, has done with that version of the franchise. After the 15-year-old comic series took off, several other stories have been broken out in other mediums, like the Rise of the Governor novel, a Michonne one-shot and multiple video and mobile games filled with new characters and more. "There are a lot of different ways to tell The Walking Dead and we're going to tell it in different ways," Gimple says.

The Rick movies will join a growing Walking Dead slate that includes the flagship series — currently in its ninth season and considered a lock to return for a 10th (and likely more) — as well as prequel Fear the Walking Dead. (Both shows are now interconnected, a decision that Kirkman — who moved his overall deal from AMC to Amazon in 2017 — initially balked at.) The franchise has also taken a page from Skybound's playbook and featured numerous digital shorts, including Red Machete, Flight 462 and Passage. Gimple's vision stretches beyond that and includes introducing content with brand new characters, revisiting old fan-favorite and obscure ones and, maybe, spinning off others in shows that could run anywhere from 16-episode seasons to short-order miniseries.

"We don't want to see people doing the same thing, with the same motivations or people with the same lives; it needs to be differentiated from each other in the types of stories that they're telling, themes and the tones we're exploring," Gimple says, noting he's also looking for the "next generation" of storytellers to be part of the expansion. "A variety of locations is absolutely critical to this. Seeing other parts of the world and making sure that we're not trying to do the same thing that Michonne, Maggie and Carol and everybody have been doing. We want to tell different stories but in different corners of the world. That's the exciting thing about it: There is so much possibility with that, and so much of this comes from the audience asking questions over these past eight-plus years.

Also on the table: telling earlier stories featuring the returns of fan-favorite characters who are no longer with the series. "I have one of those stories in progress right now," Gimple teases. "[That would] not only give us a chance to work with these wonderful people again, but to answer questions about their characters."

As for the movies, they will follow what happens to Rick after his experience in Sunday's "What Comes After" episode, where foe-turned-friend Jadis (Pollyanna McIntosh) rescues a near-death Rick and accompanies him on a helicopter to an unseen new community, while his friends and family believe the former sheriff is dead. Gimple confirmed Lincoln will indeed be in all three AMC movies, which he says will explore the period between Rick's helicopter rescue and the years-later time jump that was featured at the end of Sunday's episode — and stretch beyond that period. Each movie will tell a complete story about Rick. "It is about who he is and who he's going to be — and certainly how he deals with the situation he's in," Gimple says. "We know Rick Grimes; he would want to be home."

Other characters from the franchise — like Rick's romantic partner Michonne (Danai Gurira) and Daryl (Norman Reedus) — appearing in the movies (or elsewhere) is also a definite possibility. (Madden notes he has "high hopes" that Rick and Michonne's paths will cross again, despite the fact that Lincoln has filmed his last episode of the flagship series.) The first pic will be told from Rick's point of view and explore what Gimple called the "vast mythology" behind the other mysterious community looking for "A or B"-type people. "That serves the overall story to this next story we have for Rick," Gimple says.

As the mothership series ended Rick's storyline with a cliffhanger of sorts, the first movie is expected to arrive "sooner rather than later," Gimple says. The former showrunner turned content chief is also cognizant of not flooding the market with Walking Dead offshoots after Disney experienced diminishing returns for some of its recent Star Wars offerings. He compared the rollout process to that of Star Trek. "Oversaturation is a word I've been thinking about. We're not putting all this stuff out at once but have a very long view of everything. And we're not going to show them all at the same time," he says.

From a development perspective, Gimple isn't looking at any of the Rick movies as backdoor pilots for other potential spinoffs, but rather as a way to continue telling stories with the beloved character (who continues to be alive and well in the comics). "We are going to be introducing a new corner of the world in The Walking Dead and it has its own history, its own rules and its own situations going on," Gimple says. "And those absolutely will feed other stories in the universe in an ancillary way. There are aspects of the movie that could result in other content but not utterly directly; we're not looking at it like it's a backdoor pilot; these are going to feel more like features."

While content from The Walking Dead universe will all exist in the same world — similar to Marvel's "it's all connected" approach — Gimple stressed that other originals will tell different stories. "It is the same rules but the environment of the walkers dictates its look," Gimple said when asked how his plans to compare to franchises like CBS' CSI, which spanned versions of the same show in different cities. "So somewhere across the world, because of the climate, walkers might look very different. But this is still the same world of The Walking Dead. … There is always the possibility of interconnectivity but we don't just want to tell those stories."

Still, the top priority will be ensuring the health and longevity of the mothership series as Gimple and Kang chart a new, post-Rick course for the show following Sunday's years-long time jump. "The Walking Dead series is an anchor to all this, spiritually, and we want to make sure that series is healthy and strong. … There's a very long plan and within the movies, there are ways that things could maybe cross-pollinate," Gimple says of keeping the core cast on the flagship series. "But we're not going to see them fly off in their own helicopters.