Unrest on the Ranch: What’s Going on With ‘Yellowstone’

How streaming headaches and a busy star could transform the franchise forever

Kevin Costner Yellowstone

The future of “Yellowstone,” one of the most popular shows on all of television, is up in the air.

In January, TheWrap spoke with Wes Bentley, one of the stars of “Yellowstone,” which since it premiered in the summer of 2018 on the Paramount Network has inspired several spinoff series, an endless stream of merchandise and countless think pieces. Pretty good for a series that was initially purchased by HBO only to have it abandoned during development.

Towards the end of the conversation with Bentley, he was asked what audiences should expect from the second half of the season. Season 5 had been split in half, airing a midseason finale on Jan. 1 with “new episodes premiering summer 2023 on Paramount Network” (according to an official announcement). “I can’t tease anything, because I don’t know anything yet,” Bentley told TheWrap.

They hadn’t started shooting yet, even with that looming (if vague) date fast approaching.

At the time it felt like another quirky element to the “Yellowstone” machine; series creator Taylor Sheridan famously writes and shoots quickly (often with as many as five cameras running simultaneously) but tinkers until the very last minute. But with news of a behind-the-scenes battle that could bring an end to the flagship series and mark a replacement of the series’ star Kevin Costner, the whole scenario now takes on a more menacing dimension.

Now the question of the back half of Season 5, as well as any episodes beyond, is very much up in the air. Could the most popular show on television really switch stars midstream, with Matthew McConaughey being eyed as a potential replacement? Or could “Yellowstone” actually come to a premature end?

How we even got here is as twisted as anything on “Yellowstone” and involves unrelated passion projects, complicated streaming rights issues and the continued maintenance of one of the most important franchises on television.

When the news of the potential impending collapse of “Yellowstone” first broke, it felt more like the kind of thing leaked to the press to advance a contract dispute rather than anything resembling the actual truth. Paramount’s rebuttal, courtesy of a spokesperson, read: “We have no news to report [editor’s note: this part was underlined]. Kevin Costner is a big part of ‘Yellowstone’ and we hope that’s the case for a long time to come. Thanks to the brilliant mind of Taylor Sheridan, we are always working on franchise expansions of this incredible world he has built. Matthew McConaughey is a phenomenal talent with whom we’d love to partner.”

We were told, in no uncertain terms, that “Yellowstone” would indeed continue. But what that looks like remains to be seen.

At the heart of the matter is Kevin Costner’s involvement with “Yellowstone.” The actor, best known for a streak of ‘90s hits that included “Dances with Wolves,” “JFK” and “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves,” commands a whopping $1.3 million per episode according to a report in Variety, a figure that Costner’s camp would not confirm. (This is for both acting and producing duties.)

Luke Grimes and Kevin Costner in “Yellowstone” (Paramount Network)

According to the initial report about the potential “Yellowstone” shutdown, Costner wanted his commitment for the upcoming second half of Season 5 to be around 10 days of filming. He’d already whittled down his commitment for the first half of the season from 65 days to 50; this was extremely noticeable in the first half of Season 5, as Costner was barely on screen and oftentimes when his character was a part of the story, it was in flashback (with the duties of young John Dutton being handled by Josh Lucas).

This mostly has to do with Costner’s commitment to “Horizon,” an epic western film that he is directing, co-writing and starring in, from Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema. The movie, envisioned as the first in a series of films and starring Sienna Miller, Sam Worthington, Luke Wilson, Thomas Hayden Church and Michael Rooker, began shooting in late August in Utah.

In order to shoot the new episodes of “Yellowstone” for the first half of Season 5, Costner had to leave the “Horizon” production, which he was reluctant to do, sources close to the production told TheWrap. The second film is meant to begin shooting in the spring of 2023. That would most likely put the start of production on both the second half of “Yellowstone” Season 5 and the “Horizon” sequel directly at odds.

If Costner were to depart “Yellowstone” and Paramount decided to move onto a different iteration of the show, it could prove hugely beneficial to Paramount, particularly in regards to its streaming operation.

When “Yellowstone” debuted in 2018, the two halves of the Viacom empire, CBS Corporation and Viacom, had yet to reconcile. There was a nascent streaming service, called CBS All Access, but given that the two entities were, at the time, separate, Paramount Network chose to license the exclusive streaming rights to Peacock, the direct-to-consumer service owned by NBCUniversal. A year later, in 2019, with CBS and Viacom a united front, the streaming service was rebranded Paramount+ and an aggressive campaign for original programs as well as licensing material from the linear networks, began … all without their flagship show and the most popular series on television, “Yellowstone,” which scored more than 12 million viewers for its Season 5 premiere.

To this day, “Yellowstone” can still only be streamed on Peacock.

Sheridan created the subsequent spinoffs, “1883” and “1923” (the latter of which was just renewed for a second season), which air on Paramount+. But the big enchilada remains out of reach for what is still a major corporate priority for Paramount’s streaming service. (How many people have signed up for Peacock just to watch “Yellowstone?”)

If Costner is out (and if McConaughey is being courted), with much of the cast and crew carried over to this new show, Paramount could call it something different and be completely free of their streaming obligation to Peacock. You’ll notice that neither of the spinoffs use the word “Yellowstone;” a more direct spinoff, set at the famous Texas ranch that Sheridan now owns, will also have a numeric title: “6666.” While losing its star, a new configuration of the series could be better off, at least in Paramount’s eyes.

And if it’s one thing that “Yellowstone” thrives on, it’s a good twist.