Why HBO Canceled ‘Westworld’

Why HBO Canceled ‘Westworld’

Westworld’s days of re-animating have concluded as HBO on Friday opted to cancel the genre drama from creators Lisa Joy, Jonah Nolan and exec producer J.J. Abrams after a four-season run.

The move was met with surprise though the writing for the cancellation had been on the wall. Season four wrapped its run two and a half months ago as sources say HBO — in a first for Westworld — took its time with the renewal decision as it allowed the season to find a viewership on HBO Max. The move marked the first time that Westworld had not been renewed while it was on the air.

Since its start, Westworld was considered a major swing for HBO. “The production value of this thing is preposterous,” Abrams told THR days before the show premiered in October 2016. “But it’s HBO. That’s what they do. There was no way that this idea, which Jonah and Lisa from the beginning were doing as a AAA experience — that HBO would compromise. The expense is one thing, but the results are entirely onscreen. The cast is extraordinary, and the writers and directors wanted to maximize that sense of a cinematic experience. It’s not a cheap show to make, but it doesn’t hurt the eyes to look at.”

Season one of the series cost an estimated $100 million — high by 2016 standards. The expense was justified as Westworld opened strong out of the gate and was rewarded with a speedy second season renewal as the drama became one of an early batch of high-profile shows to be off the air for nearly two years between seasons. Season one, when factoring in delayed and multiplatform viewing (remember HBO Go?), clocked in at an estimated 12 million viewers. Season four of the quasi-anthology series tumbled to 4 million viewers when the dust settled. That’s hardly enough to justify the expense of the series considering HBO delivered a new installment of Game of Thrones for $125 million, with House of the Dragon earning about 29 million viewers per episode across all platforms over the course of its first season. Sources note that season four of Westworld, which again featured only eight episodes (compared with 10 each in its first two), cost at least $160 million.

“This is the reality of TV,” quips one agency insider.

Westworld, which changed settings every two seasons in a move straight out of the movie, was not a cheap show to produce or market. And with ratings (and reviews) diminishing for its past two seasons, and HBO committed to other high-profile shows that are perhaps more economical, it no longer made sense to return to Westworld.

To be sure, Joy and Nolan — and even HBO — had plotted a six-season journey for Westworld. Just ahead of its fourth season renewal, creators Joy and Nolan exited their deal with Westworld producers Warner Bros. Television for a nine-figure pact with Amazon. As part of the negotiations, Joy and Nolan had a carveout that allowed them to remain showrunners on Westworld through a potential sixth season. That’s a change from other top showrunners, like Shonda Rhimes and Kenya Barris, who departed Grey’s Anatomy and Black-ish after signing deals elsewhere. Joy and Nolan’s Amazon deal also included an upfront payment for showrunning services on Westworld for what sources said covered up to a sixth season.

Since signing with Amazon in early 2019, Joy and Nolan have been busy. Their first show for the streamer, The Peripheral, launched Oct. 21 and wraps its first season in December. It’s awaiting word on its future. The married writers and producers are also adapting popular video game Fallout as a series for Amazon under their overall deal.

That Westworld would not make it to its planned six seasons reflects the challenges of staying on top in the peak TV era. During its run, Westworld collected more than 50 Emmy nominations, with seasons one and two earning more than 20 each. Season three collected half that tally as ratings and reviews for its second setting tumbled.

From the moment HBO greenlit Westworld, the sci-fi drama based on Michael Crichton’s 1973 feature film faced huge expectations. Picked up to pilot in August 2013 and ordered to series in November 2014 under former HBO programming president Michael Lombardo, the futuristic Western originally was eyed for a 2015 debut. In 2014, Westworld became TV’s hottest project and attracted an A-list ensemble cast including Anthony Hopkins, Ed Harris, Jeffrey Wright, Thandiwe Newton, Evan Rachel Wood and James Marsden largely because their characters could be killed off and return with completely different personas. (Hopkins and Harris started out at $175,000 per episode each.)  

The ambitious series was the subject of swirling rumors about its messy production process for months in the years before its debut. The show ultimately was shut down from Dec. 1, 2015, to Feb. 1, 2016, to allow Nolan and Joy time to catch up on scripts, with the show rumored at one point to be pushed to 2017. Sources say it was Nolan who fought for the production to get up and running again so the series did not lose its California tax credit. It debuted to promising returns and critical response at a time when HBO was at a turning point in its history. Former head of originals Michael Lombardo, a 33-year veteran of the cabler who developed and greenlit the series, exited in May 2016 with former head of comedy Bloys taking over as programming president as the end of Game of Thrones was in sight and there was mounting pressure from the likes of Netflix and other streamers that would ultimately snap (albeit briefly) HBO’s streak atop the Emmy leaderboard. Westworld at the time was considered the heir apparent to Game of Thrones. In the six years since Westworld first debuted, that mantle now rests with House of the Dragon.

“I’m sure it’s among the more expensive ones but I can’t tell you that it is the most expensive one we’ve ever done; I would imagine it is [among them],” Bloys told THR just before Westworld premiered. “If it works, no one would be happier than me. The notion that it’s Westworld or nothing, I understand the comparisons to Game of Thrones because they’re both big genre pieces, but the fate of the network doesn’t rise or fall on this show. That being said, it would certainly be great if it connected with an audience.”

While sources say Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav’s efforts to deliver $3.5 billion in cost savings from the recently merged conglomerate did not play a role in HBO’s decision to cancel Westworld, the move still represents the latest example of the premium cable network’s fiscal accountability. HBO recently passed on the Abrams-produced original sci-fi drama Demimonde after the mega-producer sought a budget north of $200 million. Sources say HBO execs pushed back on that number, citing the scope of House of the Dragon and its $125 million budget. Other Abrams-produced DC Comics shows were also dropped at HBO Max as Zaslav told Wall Street analysts this week that he’s most interested in expanding WBD’s well-known franchises like Superman and Harry Potter.

“We’ve been privileged to tell these stories about the future of consciousness — both human and beyond — in the brief window of time before our AI overlords forbid us from doing so,” Joy and Nolan’s Kilter Films summed up Friday.  

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