[Editor’s note: If you haven’t watched “The Walking Dead” Season 9, Episode 5, “What Comes After,” read on at your own risk.]
Now that “The Walking Dead” has revealed the fate of Rick Grimes — he’s essentially been kidnapped, not killed — fans won’t have to wait long to see the character’s further adventures. Kicking off AMC’s plans to turn “The Walking Dead” into a multi-platform universe, star Andrew Lincoln has signed on to reprise the role in a series of movies that are set to start production next year.
In Sunday’s episode — billed as Lincoln’s final appearance after nine seasons — Rick manages to survive being impaled and being chased by a zombie herd, before disappearing in an explosion. He’s presumed dead by his family and friends, but the character is actually rescued in the episode’s final moments, and whisked away by unknown forces in a helicopter.
That’s where the first film will pick up, according to Scott Gimple, who serves as chief content officer for “The Walking Dead” universe. “Rick will find himself at the center of something very big, and he will be very small,” Gimple said. “But he’ll be drawn into it. These Rick Grimes series of films introduce a new corner of the world to ‘The Walking Dead.’ And it’s very much in its own kind of situation and has its own rules.”
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The movies will allow Rick Grimes to live on in the universe, but also give Lincoln — whose family is in the U.K. — more personal flexibility compared to the amount of time he previously spent on “The Walking Dead’s” Georgia set. (Gimple doesn’t rule out even shooting the films overseas to accommodate Lincoln’s schedule.) The announcement also allows AMC to stay true to its word, that this is it for Rick Grimes on “The Walking Dead” itself: Per Gimple, Lincoln will not show up again on the flagship series.
“I think it’s important to say that we’re not planning to do that,” Gimple said. “We’re planning to do these movies and people shouldn’t expect to see him popping up. We have a plan for Rick Grimes to tell some amazing stories for him, for the audience. And that’s where they can expect to get their Grimes fix.”
Gimple said the movies are expected to air on AMC. But he doesn’t rule anything out, including perhaps a theatrical release or a partnership with a streaming service. AMC Studios and the producers behind “The Walking Dead” have met with various outlets (including Netflix and Amazon) to pitch a new multi-prong universe featuring films, specials, series, digital content, and more.
“The plan right now is that they are AMC Studios Original Films,” Gimple said of the Rick Grimes projects. “They are meant to be feature quality, feature timelines, feature budgets, big epic evolutions. We have been talking to other people, so there are possibilities of people seeing them elsewhere. But right now the plan is for people to see them on AMC. One of the reasons we’ve been talking to folks is that things are changing every day in television, the way that things are [produced], or distributed, or consumed. We’re just trying to keep up with that and make sure that with this long-term plan we’re looking at the future. And different possibilities for different places.”
AMC already runs the spinoff series “Fear the Walking Dead” on its own air; its in-house AMC Studios unit produces both shows. Plans for an even larger “Walking Dead” universe were first announced in January, when longtime series showrunner Gimple was named chief content officer of “The Walking Dead” TV universe.
At the time, AMC hinted that Gimple would develop “potential brand extensions on a variety of platforms” — although it wasn’t specified what that might mean. Now it’s clear: a hodge-podge of all sorts of storytelling inside the expanded world of “The Walking Dead.”
“There’s these films, and we’re also working on a number of different things,” Gimple said. “Specials, series. Also series of different lengths. We could have some much shorter series. Different aspects of digital content, some crazy content that defies description.
“One of the most important aspects is that it all isn’t related to each other. It’s all in the same world, it’s all on the same planet,” he added. “But it’s not like everyone’s going to know each other and interact with each other. They will walk the same earth. And there will be stuff that really does inform and speak to each other. And then there’s stuff that won’t. We’re going to do stuff in the past, we’re going to see old characters, and we’re going to move into the future with new characters. Different stories, different formats. We’re going to want to bring brand new voices to ‘The Walking Dead’ as well.”
Gimple said he’s open to all ideas, although he didn’t think any of the brand extensions would include a pre-zombie apocalypse prequel, and he’s not a fan of diving deep into any sci-fi elements of explaining more about the outbreak, as the source graphic novels by Robert Kirkman don’t spend much time looking at how it happened.
AMC Networks president/general manager Charlie Collier had been overseeing the pitch to Hollywood, which, as Bloomberg reported in September, might collectively cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Collier, however, is now departing AMC to run the Fox network, and it’s unclear how that might impact AMC’s aggressive push to find a “Walking Dead” partner. Also, according to insiders, there remains a debate inside AMC on whether the company should share its most prized property with competitors.
But if it were to happen, now’s the time to exploit “The Walking Dead” as a multi-screen universe in the vein of Marvel, “Star Wars” or “Star Trek.” As the original series ages and its ratings erode, time might be running out to capitalize on the show’s success and create a universe that could generate major revenue for the company.
Jackson Lee Davis/AMC
After years of dominating the Nielsen ratings — “The Walking Dead” is easily the biggest basic cable series in history — the show has faced major ratings declines with its live, linear viewing on AMC. That could ultimately mean decreased ad revenue for “The Walking Dead” on AMC.
Gimple defends the show’s ratings, noting that it’s “remarkable” that “The Walking Dead” is still TV’s No. 2 drama (behind “This Is Us”) in adults 18-49, even in its ninth season. “That said, television ratings as a whole are incredibly down,” he said. That doesn’t mean people aren’t watching these shows, they’re just watching them differently. ‘The Walking Dead’ is a show that started in an entirely different era of television. And it’s still going well in a very different era. But I think people are still comparing those two eras as apples to apples.”
As linear ratings and primetime ad revenue drops, that’s a good reason to consider a future where AMC Studios monetizes its premier property in ways beyond its own screen. Another reason: In order to maintain programming balance on AMC, the cable network can’t run too many “Walking Dead” series at once. Sister networks BBC America and SundanceTV could perhaps harbor some, but if AMC Studios wants to give the franchise a wider exposure, that’s another case for partnering with a streamer.
“We believe this is a world and narrative with many possibilities and opportunities for character development and we’re excited to expand the series into a franchise that can live across multiple formats,” David Madden, president of original programming for AMC, SundanceTV and AMC Studios, said in a statement. “For many years, fans have talked about things in the apocalypse they want to see and now we have an opportunity to explore those stories, beginning with the character who started it all, Rick Grimes.”
The decision to pitch “The Walking Dead” projects beyond AMC puts it in company with other legacy media companies looking for new ways to monetize library content as audiences migrate to digital platforms.
Viacom’s MTV network, for example, recently announced that it would revive one of the biggest TV franchises in its history, “The Real World,” but produce it for Facebook Watch instead of its own air.
In a recent report, analyst Rich Greenfield also stressed that legacy companies without the capital to build a major streaming service would be better off monetizing their intellectual property by producing for others.
AMC has dipped its toes in the streaming waters via AMC Premiere, an add-on service that gives cable and satellite subscribers access to commercial-free versions of its TV series and film library, for $5 a month. But that’s not a stand-alone over-the-top play, and if AMC Studios is aiming to monetize its content on digital platforms, it will have to go to one of the big ones — Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, YouTube, Facebook Watch, or coming soon, Apple, Disney, and WarnerMedia.
“Legacy media companies cannot and simply will not be competitive in the new media world,” said Greenfield, reversing his earlier argument, two years ago, that companies needed to get into that business. “Instead of trying to compete, they should stick to what they know best – creating amazing content – and look to maximize their profits on that content and manage the secular decline of their legacy cable network infrastructure.”
The plan for a “Walking Dead” universe also gives AMC a way to keep monetizing the brand even after the original series goes off the air. Gimple said there has been no discussion about an end date for the mothership: “Are we going to go 30 seasons like ‘The Simpsons’? I really would love that. But television is changing too much. We’re figuring it out.”
More immediately, Gimple admitted he’s bracing for the usual fan outrage over a major plot point — this time it’s the decision to keep Rick Grimes alive, which he knows will divide fans between those who are relieved that a beloved character survived, and those who angrily consider it a cop-out. (Of course, those viewers should be reminded of what Lincoln said this summer at Comic-Con: “My relationship with Mr. Grimes is far from over. He’s a large part of me.”)
“There isn’t a lot of middle ground and the fans are very passionate. And I respect their passion,” he said. “Regardless of whether they’re elated that Rick lives to be at the center of more stories for us or whether they feel he should have died, we are going to be telling these new stories and I hope people dig them.”