A long-brewing dispute over profits from the smash TV hit "The Walking Dead" just got real, with the program's former showrunner suing network AMC for a whopping $280 million.
Frank Darabont was best known as the director behind hits like "The Shawshank Redemption" and "The Green Mile" before he came across the original "Walking Dead" comic books. Inspired by the story, and with the permission of comic book creator Robert Kirkman, Darabont began approaching television networks to adapt the long-running comic book series into a horror-drama TV serial.
While several networks turned down the opportunity to adapt the gory source material, AMC was looking to develop more original content, and picked up the series with Darabont as showrunner and executive producer.
Darabont was responsible for "The Walking Dead's" highly lauded first season and had already begun production on the second season when AMC fired him.
The network blamed Darabont for a director's screw-up in the early shooting of the second season, according to the Hollywood Reporter.
But Glenn Mazzara, who became Darabont's successor, testified in a deposition that Darabont went above and beyond to smooth out problems on-set -- including flying to Georgia ahead of shooting to meet with the religious family who owned the second season's famous "Herschel Greene farm" to convince them to allow the show to shoot there.
The real reason AMC canned Darabont, the former showrunner said in his lawsuit, was because of disputes over the show's budget. Despite the fact that "The Walking Dead" was AMC's most successful show -- with its biggest-ever premiere -- executives slashed the budget by $400,000 per episode, according to the deposition obtained by the Hollywood Reporter.
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.
The network also pocketed tax credits it received from shooting in Georgia, the rural setting of the show's first few seasons, Darabont alleged in his lawsuit.
The disagreement between Darabont and AMC wasn't the first time the network has been slammed for slashing the budgets of its most successful franchises to squeeze more profits out of them. In 2011, production on AMC hit "Mad Men" was delayed when the network told showrunner Matthew Weiner to cut three minutes from each new episode to accomodate more commercials, according to a story in The Atlantic. The network also told Weiner to drop two characters from the show per season -- six in all -- to save on casting budgets, and incorporate additional product placement into the show, which was set in a 1960s advertising agency. Companies like Heineken and Hilton paid to have their products and services shown or mentioned on "Mad Men."
With "The Walking Dead," Darabont was particularly incensed that AMC kept him on long enough to promote the show's second season at the 2011 San Diego Comic Con, then fired him shortly after that.
Darabont's attorneys arrived at the $280 million number for damages based on the former showrunner's initial agreement with the network, which promised him 10 percent of profits after production costs. AMC cheated Darabont out of the bulk of that money with creative accounting and by licensing the show to itself at a dramatically reduced rate, Darabont alleges in his lawsuit.
The network issued a terse statement disputing Darabont's claims.
"Plaintiffs' damages claim has no basis in reality and we will continue to vigorously defend against this lawsuit," AMC wrote in the statement.
Although additional details of the case have become public as Darabont's legal time official filed its suit, the trial won't begin until 2018 at the earliest, according to reports. During a conference with attorneys for both sides on Sept. 27, Justice Eileen Bransten said her court calendar for 2017 was already filled, and tentatively scheduled the trial for the following year.