Inside AMC Networks' plan to make Walking Dead live forever
LOS ANGELES—AMC Networks Inc. wants to keep “The Walking Dead” on its feet for years to come.
The company, which owns the popular zombie-apocalypse series, plans to produce multiple movies and new TV shows based on the graphic novels that spawned the series, according to people familiar with the plans. AMC has talked to several large media companies about partnering on the projects, which collectively could cost several hundred million dollars, said the people, who asked not to be identified because the plans are still being worked out.
The discussions are part of an ambitious plan to keep the grisly tale cocreated by Robert Kirkman filling the company’s coffers for another 10 years, as chief executive officer Josh Sapan told an investor conference last week. The show’s popularity, along with past hits like “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad,” has allowed AMC to double revenue over the past five years through ad sales, fees from pay-TV providers and deals for reruns.
With the original show entering its ninth season, AMC is looking for ways to expand the series into a franchise that lives on in many forms, like “Star Wars” and “Star Trek,” and not overextend a property that’s already showing signs of fatigue. After peaking at 19 million nightly viewers in 2015, the audience for “The Walking Dead” declined to an average of 11 million in the most recent season.
“We have a plan that goes well into the future,” Sapan said at a Sept. 12 conference, without offering specifics.
While AMC is still working on the details, the pillars of its plan are becoming clear. The company wants to produce several movies for a TV network or streaming service that could spin off into different series, said the people. The company would also take the franchise overseas, setting at least one series in another country. “The Walking Dead’’ is one of the most popular shows in dozens of countries.
Scott Gimple, who produced several seasons of “The Walking Dead,” is overseeing development of different narrative possibilities. He was named chief content officer for both “The Walking Dead” and its prequel “Fear the Walking Dead” in January.
Charlie Collier, president of the AMC channel and studio, is leading the business effort. He joined the company in 2006 and has helped transform the company’s flagship network from a home for old movies to a destination for high-end dramas, like the award winners “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad.”
No show has meant more to AMC than “The Walking Dead,” which still ranks as one of TV’s most-watched shows after eight years. Viewers were so eager to pick apart every moment that AMC created a talk show to discuss each episode. Hosted by Chris Hardwick, “Talking Dead” often ranks among the most-watched shows on cable as well, and has inspired a number of copycats.
In addition to the prequel and talk show, the program has spawned web series, mobile games and live events. Fans gather in the tens of thousands for meetups called “Walker Stalker Con,” where they collect autographs, shoot cut-outs of the undead with nerf guns and get zombie makeovers. It’s also the first series developed by AMC studios, meaning the company gets more from merchandising and the sale of reruns.
But a hit show can’t just be a hit show in this era of atomized media consumption, where more TV shows than ever compete for attention with mobile apps, video games, online series, movies and more.
Walt Disney Co., Comcast Corp.’s Universal Pictures and AT&T Inc.’s WarnerMedia are all crafting “cinematic universes” with their most popular characters. Disney has already succeeded twice — with Marvel and “Star Wars.”
Collier and Sapan have some tough choices to make and are weighing whether AMC should do everything itself or bring a partner, such as a streaming service, that can provide money and global exposure. They’d like to air any new series on their network, and could use the franchise to boost their nascent streaming service AMC Premiere.
But they also need to satisfy investors who may not be happy if the company commits hundreds of millions of dollars to production and passes up a rich offer from an online service or broadcaster such as Disney, Amazon, Hulu or NBC. AMC has already licensed “The Walking Dead” to Netflix and “Fear The Walking Dead” to Hulu, banking millions.
“Ownership of that content — call it ‘Walking Dead,’ ‘Fear the Walking Dead’ — allows us to determine the fate of that content, so we can navigate as we choose,” Sapan said at the conference.
AMC has told potential partners that all rights to “The Walking Dead” are on the table, said the people. On Oct. 7, the show returns for its ninth season, the last for series star Andrew Lincoln.
“If we manage it properly it has a long life, which is not to say it will always look like a TV series,” Sapan said.