"We knew that the story would continue on, just in different ways," franchise architect Scott Gimple tells TheWrap
"The Walking Dead" returns Sunday, along with its latest spinoff, "World Beyond," beginning a two-year march to the zombie hit's endgame. But even though AMC set an end date for the zombie apocalypse, the network is banking there is still tons of (undead) life left in "The Walking Dead" franchise.
"We knew that the story would continue on, just in different ways," Scott Gimple, chief content officer for "The Walking Dead" universe, told TheWrap. "Robert Kirkman pitched the original comic book as a zombie movie that never ends. We want to fulfill that on TV."
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The decision to end "The Walking Dead" came from the network's desire to prevent the series from growing stale. When it ends in 2022, it will have 180 episodes and 11 seasons, which is virtually unheard of in an era where most shows get three or four-season runs.
Ed Carroll, chief operating officer, said it was important to give its audience "a beginning, a middle and satisfying ending," and hinted the show's sprawling cast -- which features around 20 series regulars -- made it an expensive show to produce. One factor that did not play into AMC's thinking was Kirkman, who wrote the comic the series is based off and who surprisingly brought his series to end last year. Carroll argued that, though it may influence how Gimple and "Walking Dead" showrunner Angela Kang decide to end the series, it is not why they're ending it. "In terms of the network? It wasn't a major factor," he said.
Though the series still ranks as the top scripted drama on cable, it's numbers are a far cry from its earlier days, back when linear TV viewership across the board was much more robust. It first premiered in 2010 and averaged more than 5 million viewers in its abbreviated first season, becoming a major hit out of the gate. It would eventually set the record for the most-watched series episode in cable TV history with 17.3 million viewers for its fifth-season premiere, when it was beating all broadcast scripted series at the same time. However, as linear TV viewership has plummeted across the board, "Walking Dead" now draws a fraction of that; its 10th season debuted to just 4 million viewers last fall.
"The size of 'Walking Dead,' this is something you think about a lot. And you try to get out in front of, because you're always thinking that the fans deserve a satisfying ending to that chapter of the universe," Carroll continued.
Besides, it's not as if the zombies are going anywhere. AMC has spent the last few years trying to figure out how to give viewers even more of the undead. Scott Gimple, who took over as showrunner for Season 4 following a few bumpy years of behind-the-scenes turmoil, was moved to the role that made him the architect of the franchise, similar to "Star Trek's" Alex Kurtzman or Marvel's Kevin Feige. The first spinoff, "Fear the Walking Dead," which initially focused on the early days of the zombie outbreak, debuted in 2015 and is heading into its sixth season.
Matt Negrete, who showruns the franchise's third spinoff, "World Beyond" said early on his days with the flagship series they began discussing the global aspects of the series. He was a writer for seasons 4 through 9.
"We'd always talked about how the universe was global," he told TheWrap. "We would always be wondering in the writers room. Like, 'I wonder what's happening in Hawaii? What's happening in France? How did different countries deal with this?'"
After "Walking Dead" takes its last bite sometime in 2022, the network will roll out two new series starting in 2023. The first will star Norman Reedus and Melissa McBride as their characters, Daryl Dixon and Carol Peletier, who have been on the series since its debut.
The second is an anthology series from Gimple, "Tales of The Walking Dead," a "Black Mirror"-esque format that could see episodes take place prior to the zombie apocalypse or as far out as 100 years after the outbreak started.
Gimple sees "Tales" as a chance to really expand what "The Walking Dead" could look like, describing the series as "the height of variety."
For one thing, it won't always be horror. "Sometimes they're straight horror stories. And sometimes they're black comedy," Gimple says. "We've talked about animation; we've talked about a music-driven episode."
The episodes will feature both fan-favorite characters that long since perished, as well as new characters that could either be one-and-done or show up somewhere else in "The Walking Dead" universe.
Gimple was more tight-lipped about the spinoff with Reedus and McBride, who are the only two remaining "Walking Dead" cast members from the show's beginning. "It's going to be a very different show. It's going to have a very different drive," he says. "I don't want to get too ahead of these next two years of 'Walking Dead,' but we're going to have something at the end of that, that is just a very different show, a new beginning for those characters."
"World Beyond," which debuts Sunday following the Season 10 finale of "The Walking Dead," is the franchise's first limited series, lasting only two seasons. It takes place 10 years into the apocalypse and focuses on a group of teenagers who are the first to come of age in this world. Negrete likens "World Beyond" to "Stand By Me" with zombies.
"It was interesting to think about a coming of age story. It's centered on a quest. It's an adventure, in which we're seeing the apocalypse through this brand new set of eyes," he says, adding that, since the franchise is expanding -- there's also the three movies planned with Andrew Lincoln's Rick Grimes still on the horizon -- there's "definitely an opportunity" for "World Beyond" characters to appear in future installments.
Speaking of the movies, Carroll said that COVID-19 shutdowns have put the films, which are being released in theaters by Universal, off to the side for a bit. "We're working closely with Universal. We do not have a target release date," he said. "Frankly, the ones that we talked about, everything sort of slides back. But right now there's a predominant focus on making the story and the script as great as it can be." The goal for the movie is that someone who has never seen any of "The Walking Dead" will be able to follow the story, while for longtime "Dead" viewers," there should be little details and revelations" that would tie back to the show. "We think it's important to do both."
Though AMC has not been a major player in the burgeoning streaming space, it does have AMC+, a streaming bundle featuring ad-free content from AMC and its sister networks, as well as Shudder, Sundance Now and IFC Films Unlimited. Carroll plans to use "Walking Dead" as a way to build the service, starting with "World Beyond," which unlike "Fear" and the flagship "Walking Dead," will not be licensed to Netflix or any other streaming service.
A few years after "TWD" ends, Carroll says, those rights will revert back to them, where they intend to hoard for themselves. "We think that is an enduring asset, because there's always people aging into the demo," Carroll argues, pointing out that there are still people checking out shows like "The Sopranos" and "Game of Thrones" for the first time. "Even the successful streaming series, there's a bias towards three, maybe four seasons, now go to something new."
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Ahead of Netflix's new zombie-drama "Black Summer," we ranked zombie TV shows from worst to best
Netflix's new zombie apocalypse series, the "Z-Nation" prequel "Black Summer," is premiering Thursday, and what better way to welcome it than to rank other "undead" TV shows of the last few years from worst to best. We included the Rotten Tomatoes scores with each ranking for comparison. Share your thoughts in the comments section at the bottom.