Amid falling ratings, declining advertising dollars, and an unmanageable number of series on TV and streaming, networks have had to get smarter about how they buy and distribute shows. In recent years, many have gravitated more toward series from sister studios, instead of outside production houses like Sony, Lionsgate, or Media Rights Capital.
But a new lawsuit alleges that the arrangement may have allowed TV network AMC to cheat the creator and producers of The Walking Dead—the highest-rated scripted show on US TV. The Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman and producers Gale Anne Hurd, Glen Mazzara, and David Alpert are suing AMC for profits they say they should have received in a traditional studio-network relationship.
Working with sister studios gives media companies full control over the rights of a show and allows them to profit off streaming reruns, merchandising, and everything in between. US broadcaster Fox buys shows from (paywall) sister studio 20th Century Fox Television Productions, among others. Disney’s ABC buys from ABC Studios, and CBS from CBS Television Studios. From AMC Studios, cable-TV network AMC also gets its flagship horror series The Walking Dead and spinoffs Fear the Walking Dead and The Talking Dead.
According to the complaint filed in Los Angeles Superior County yesterday, Kirkman and the three producers were each contracted to get a cut of the profits from the series if it was successful. In a TV profit-participation deal such as this, “profit” is usually measured at the production-company level. The complaint alleges that AMC kept most of its profits at the network-level so that participants couldn’t benefit.
AMC Studios was supposed to charge AMC Network a fair-market value license fee to air the show, for example. It didn’t, the complaint alleges. Instead, because the companies share a parent in common, what was seen on The Walking Dead profit-participation statements was a placeholder figure for the rights called an ”imputed license fee,” which amounted to around 68% of the show’s production costs. Normally, license fees more than cover the cost of production over the seasons, according to the complaint.
AMC was imputing a fee of $1.45 million per episode during the first four seasons of The Walking Dead, and now it’s up to $2.4 million, the Hollywood Reporter reported. The Walking Dead enters its eighth season this fall.
The complaint alleges that’s far less than AMC paid outside studios that produced other shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and Better Call Saul, which had lower ratings than The Walking Dead.
It makes sense now why Kirkman, whose comic-book series the TV show is based on, made the jump to Amazon. The company boasts deep pockets and creative freedom.
AMC is also fighting another lawsuit by former The Walking Dead showrunner Frank Darabont, who was ousted during the second season, and claims he’s owed $280 million in contingent profits.
“These kinds of lawsuits are fairly common in entertainment, and they all have one thing in common—they follow success,” AMC responded in a statement to the New York Times (paywall). “Virtually every studio that has had a successful show has been the target of litigation like this, and The Walking Dead has been the No. 1 show on television for five years in a row, so this is no surprise.”
It all comes to a head as the network prepares to release the eighth season of The Walking Dead amid waning viewership this fall.