Frank Darabont and AMC are on opposite ends of a wrongful termination suit. Darabont, creator of the hit television series Walking Dead, charges that executives at the cable network not only ad words to say regarding the allegedly lily-livered behavior of studio execs on location for hiding in air-conditioned offices, but explained how he had to manage a crisis at the beginning of the second season of the show, and discusses the extremely dubious situation surrounding his firing.
The claim in Darabont’s suit is that AMC breached his contract, depriving him of tens of millions of dollars in profits from the hit series by making a sweetheart deal licensing the show to itself. Most recently, the case has turned its attention to whether AMC rightfully reduced his profit share, claiming he left the show in the middle of season two. Darabont claims he was showrunner for the entire second season — though his attorneys admit that he wasn’t providing those service full time after July 11, 2011.
In his deposition, Darabont talks about the early days of the show, saying that despite the massive ratings success of Walking Dead, AMC created budget problems for the series.
Darabont says, “I remember Joel Stillerman [president of original programming and development for AMC], in a meeting in my office, when we were all discussing the issues of the upcoming season, we said to him, ‘Surely that the success of the show, which, by the way, you guys are bragging about because we keep getting e-mails saying, ‘Hey, we’re breaking viewership records in 120 countries around the world by hundreds of percent, in some countries by over 1,000%,’ at the same time we’re hearing how successful the show is for you, you’re telling us that this, this budget issue is not going to budge at all. And he said, ‘The success of the show has no bearing on this discussion,’ in a rather icy manner.”
According to Darabont, AMC cut the budget from $3.4 million per episode to $3 million. “That was bad enough, but then they dropped the bomb on us that, oh by the way, they’re keeping the tax credit,” he testified. “They’re going to pocket the tax credit. So, between the two you’ve got a full 25% cut across the board.” Darabont said this hurt the cast and crew, who he described as “busting their butts, leaving it all on the field, to earn.”
“When they did rarely show up on the set,” said Darabont, “[they] would … drive in from the airport in their air conditioned car, race into the air conditioned tent we had there so the actors could have a break and not pass out from the heat, poke their heads out on occasion, and half an hour later jump back in their car and fly back to their air conditioned office in New York. I had a tremendous lack of respect for them.”
Darabont thinks the AMC executives should have “put on some combat boots” to see the cast and crew working in 110-degree heat and “picking ticks off their groin and their ankles at night.”
The problems escalated, according to Darabont, who said he was managing “crisis-level problems arising on the first episode of the second season.” The footage turned in by the director for that episode wasn’t up to snuff, he says, so he told the executives that he would have to step away from the writers’ room, where they were attempting to develop the latter episodes of the second season of Walking Dead in order to shoot additional footage and put focus in the editing room. Darabont says he spoke with Susie Fitzgerald, Vice President of Scripted Programming for AMC. He asked her whether she agreed with this approach, and remembers her saying, “Absolutely I agree with your assessment. You have to do the crisis management. I understand that that’s going to delay those scripts coming in by three weeks.”
Later, Fitzgerald apparently denied having the conversation, a denial which floored Darabont. “So, she out and out just lied to my face in front of everybody,” he testified. “I can prove that because after the meeting I went back to the editing room to tell my editor to finish up a few things there that day anyway that needed finishing and to tell my editor what had happened.”
As for why Darabont says he was fired, he testified that executives “concocted” a reason. “They accused me of not having directors tone meetings,” he said, referring to the way in which a showrunner is supposed to sit down with each director of each episode to go over the script — scene by scene — and convey the tone of the show. “And I said, ‘That’s absolutely not true, I have had a directors tone meeting with every single director this season.’ ”
Of Darabont’s testimony, an AMC spokesperson told the Hollywood Reporter that “Frank Darabont has made it clear that he has strong opinions about AMC and the events that led to his departure from The Walking Dead. The reality is that he has been paid millions of dollars under the terms of his contract, which we honored, and we will continue to vigorously defend against this lawsuit.” Fortunately, Darabont’s deposition isn’t the only testimony to go public. Glen Mazzara, had become Darabont’s strong right hand on Walking Dead, and took over the showrunning duties in the middle of the second season before leaving himself after the third, also testified. When asked whether AMC treated Darabont unfairly, Mazzara answered “yes”.
Darabont was performing his responsibilities, said Mazzaro — delivering scripts, being in touch with the cast, dealing with department heads, even securing use of the famous “Hershel Greene farm” when a religious family who owned it didn’t want to let AMC film there because of an objection to the content of the zombie drama.
“I believe Frank flew to meet with them and met with them and described the show and I think listened to them and reassured them of the type of show he wanted to do,” Mazzara recalled. “And I believe that it was after that that they agreed to let us use that farm.”
Mazzara also said that Darabont’s influence was evident throughout all the episodes, even though Darabaont himself was forced out midway through the second season. As the creator of the show, Darabont was entitled to as much as 10 percent of profits from the series, but because he was fired in the middle of the second season, AMC only counted him as three-quarters vested, meaning he only got 7.5 percent. This, combined with the $400 thousand per episode budget cuts and the assignment of ownership of the show to the show itself, makes AMC’s firing of Darabont look like a simple money grab.
On cross-examination, Mazzara was asked whether it would have killed The Walking Dead if he had not taken over as showrunner. Mazarra responded, “Given the status of Episode 201, I would like to say that I did think Episode 201 was a show killer. I did say that.” What he did not say was that Darabont himself would have killed the show – only that the situation, given the conditions AMC had set up for Darabont, would have killed it.