As fans of The Walking Dead wait to learn the fate of Rick Grimes in a planned movie trilogy, attendees at Comic-Con International were treated Friday to a teaser featuring the mysterious helicopter that whisked away Andrew Lincoln's character last season. However, the most interesting takeaway from the 30-second promo doesn't have anything to do with the plot, but instead with where the movie will be released. The teaser ends with the words, "Rick Grimes Returns ... Only in Theaters."
It's a real-life version of The Walking Dead's many twists, turns and fake-outs, leaving fans with more questions than answers -- among them, is this worth the investment of time, money, and energy on the part of the audience?
The most immediate comparison isn't a flattering one. Marvel Television and ABC partnered with IMAX in 2017 to premiere the first two episodes of the Inhumans series in theaters. What was originally billed as an "innovative agreement," and a first for a live-action television series was, mere months later, acknowledged by IMAX's CEO to have been a mistake, in no small part because audiences went into theaters expecting an experience akin to a Marvel Studios feature, not a television pilot. The limited release grossed just $3 million.
Will these Rick Grimes movies fare any better? The Walking Dead audience has fallen significantly since its high in Season 5 of 14 million average viewers. However, the series still remains a ratings giant, with Season 9 averaging 5 million per episode. With nearly a decade of viewer commitment, it’s definitely possible that mainstream audiences will be willing to make at least one trek to the theaters to see how Rick's story ends. But the failure of Inhumans tells us that audiences expect a theatrical experience from a theatrical release. If they feel they could have the same experience from the comfort of their homes, they may balk.
By bringing closure to Rick's story over three theatrical releases, AMC and Skybound are asking for a commitment of six hours and an unknown amount of money from audiences who already invested years in the television series. That's in addition to what viewers pour into whatever remains of The Walking Dead. But there will be, in effect, two endings: one for Rick, and another for the remaining survivors. Unless, of course, we're delivered another swerve, and Rick returns to the series for its eventual finale.
The Walking Dead also has another unfortunate point of comparison: the recent conclusion of creator Robert Kirkman’s comic that inspired AMC's ratings juggernaut. There, Rick was killed off in Issue 192, much to the surprise of fans, only for Kirkman and artist Charlie Adlard to deliver an even bigger shock the following month: the end of the long-running series. The finale was largely lauded by critics and readers alike, and made the entire comic feel deliberate, artful and satisfying -- something that seems unlikely in the meandering journey the television drama.
Lincoln may be household name (depending upon the household), but he’s not yet bona fide movie star -- although Love Actually devotees might argue otherwise. Whether Rick Grimes can make the leap to the big screen, or whether the Walking Dead theatrical release is destined to be a short-term gimmick that fizzles, several legacies are riding on this gambit.