AMC’s The Walking Dead has been through hell and back.
The zombie drama based on Robert Kirkman’s comic book series has weathered multiple lawsuits, four showrunners and more cast departures and bloody deaths than fans could keep track of. And now that the flagship series is ending — the series finale airs Sunday — AMC, like a corpse that reanimates, is bringing the show that started it all back in several new ways.
The multibillion-dollar franchise debuted on Halloween 2010 after being rejected by NBC and HBO and became a hit right out of the gate. Without any expectations that the show would become a global phenomenon and launch the careers of Steven Yeun and Danai Gurira, among others, AMC signed an unprecedented deal with Fox International Channels for all international rights to The Walking Dead. In addition, the streaming rights to the drama that originally starred Andrew Lincoln (Rick) and Jon Bernthal (Shane) were sold years ago to Netflix.
Those international and streaming rights became increasingly valuable as the series, developed for TV by first showrunner Frank Darabont, took off like a group of survivors fleeing the undead.
Fast-forward to present day and ratings for The Walking Dead, while still a hit by today’s standards, have tumbled to less than 2 million same-day viewers. That’s down more than 10 million from the horrific April 2016 season six finale that introduced Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s Negan and ended with a cliffhanger as viewers had to wait six months to find out that both Yeun and Michael Cudlitz (Abraham) were shockingly killed off.
As valuable streaming and international rights are tied up, the cost of making The Walking Dead has continued to skyrocket even as viewership has cratered. Fan favorite Norman Reedus — who easily has top billing after the departures of Lincoln and Gurira — inked a franchise deal with AMC in late 2018 that’s worth between $50 million to $90 million.
“Ad sales was the only way to make money on The Walking Dead [flagship show] at this point,” one source familiar with the show’s financial structure told THR in 2020.
With booming costs and softer ratings leading to declining revenue in ad sales, AMC got creative with its crown jewel. In September 2020, the basic cable network announced that The Walking Dead would end with a supersized 11th season and that two more spinoffs were in the works. Historically, when a TV season is “supersized,” it’s a way for networks to avoid giving cast and crew previously negotiated salary increases. Season 10 grew the number of episodes from The Walking Dead’s average of 16 to 22 and the final run featured 24 episodes, creating cost savings for AMC as the network could have easily used those extra episodes for a formal 12th season.
Additionally, with its announcement of spinoffs, AMC is now able to sell streaming and foreign rights to both series that — shocker — feature fan favorites Reedus, Lauren Cohan (Maggie) and Morgan. At the same time, the budgets and licensing fees for both spinoffs will also be reduced. That paves the way for AMC to better monetize The Walking Dead after the cable network said farewell to critical darlings Better Call Saul and Killing Eve.
In short, AMC may have removed any suspense from the series finale of the flagship by cementing the fates of fan favorites Maggie, Carol (Melissa McBride, who dropped out of the Reedus spinoff) and Negan. And AMC hopes to better monetize the franchise with new offshoots of the flagship series.
Here’s a look at the future of The Walking Dead franchise, which continues to be overseen by chief creative officer and former flagship showrunner Scott M. Gimple:
• Fear the Walking Dead
Season eight of the first spinoff is due in 2023 with original star Kim Dickens (Madison) set to return from the presumed dead. The show, which saw Lennie James (Morgan) join from the flagship back in season four, is overseen by showrunners Andrew Chambliss and Ian Goldberg. They took over for original series creator Dave Erickson in season four.
Originally conceived as an ongoing drama, AMC shifted the young adult-themed offshoot to a two-season “limited series.” It ended with little fanfare after two seasons in late 2020.
The episodic anthology series overseen by Gimple afforded the franchise the opportunity to revisit characters who may have come and gone and other elements that were of interest to both fans and producers. The six-episode season aired in the summer and is awaiting word on its future.
Formerly known as Isle of the Dead, this spinoff stars Cohan and Morgan and features Maggie and Negan in New York. Eli Jorné is showrunner on the six-episode season, which is expected to debut in April and features a cast that includes Friday Night Lights vet Gaius Charles.
Originally set to star Reedus and McBride, the latter wanted to stay close to home and dropped out of the spinoff that is now built around Daryl as he winds up in Paris. Showrunner Angela Kang, who steered the flagship series from season nine through its series finale, also exited for a gig at Marvel. Former ER showrunner David Zabel replaced Kang at the helm of the series. The cast also includes Clémence Poésy (The Essex Serpent) and Adam Nagaitis (Chernobyl). Daryl is expected to premiere in 2023.
• Untitled Rick and Michonne limited series
Original star Lincoln, who exited the flagship series in season nine, was poised to star in three feature-length movies that were slated to be distributed theatrically by Universal Pictures in a deal with AMC. The films, first announced in late 2018, evolved to become a six-episode limited series with Gurira picking up Michonne’s katana for the first time since exiting in season 10. The limited series, expected to air in 2023, will focus on the couple’s continued love story as AMC looks to deliver a resolution to fans of the on-screen favorites. Gimple serves as showrunner.