Westworld started out as a bright new hope at HBO, a bold science fiction show that blew the minds of viewers watching its first season in 2016.
Unfortunately, that was to be the high point of the series. The first season ended with the robotic “hosts” at the titular theme park becoming self-aware and planning to take revenge on their cruel human tormenters. That sounded juicy, but while season 2 had some standout moments, it wasn’t as consistently terrific as the first season. Season 3 took the show in a different, much more boring direction, and while season 4 was an improvement, the damage had been done.
Ratings plummeted and never recovered. So while it was a shame to hear last week that HBO had cancelled Westworld ahead of a planned fifth and final season, I can’t say it came as a surprise, especially considering how intermittently new episodes were released and how expensive they were to produce. According to Deadline, season 3 ran HBO around $100 million. With so few people turning in, the risk-vs-reward calculation didn’t come close to adding up.
Evan Rachel Wood, Ed Harris and other Westworld stars will get paid well to do nothing
But even though HBO won’t produce a final season, it’s still costing them. The core cast members — Evan Rachel Wood, Thandiwe Newton, Jeffrey Wright, Ed Harris and Aaron Paul — will still be paid handsomely for a season they won’t have to work on. Deadline says that their salaries will run HBO somewhere in the range of $10-15 million.
This is done because these actors had pay-or-play deals, meaning that HBO to pay them exorbitant salaries whether they made new episodes or not. (And this is on top, by the way, of original series cast members like Wood and Harris making hundreds of millions of dollars an episode for seasons now.)
It’s not unusual for studios to make these kinds of deals with big-name actors. It is, however, inequitable, outrageous and generally batshit backwards. Just think about this: grips, electricians, camera operators, script supervisors, special effects technicians, makeup artists, caterers and other professionals who survive gig to gig in Hollywood are now out of a job. But actors who are already millionaires many times over get paid more money to do nothing. It is bafflingly stupid.
Expect fewer expensive series like Westworld going forward
The announcement that HBO was cancelling Westworld came after a difficult earnings call where new Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav got serious about his desire to cut costs at the studio. “The grand experiment of creating something at any cost is over,” he said.
Deadline’s sources say that Westworld’s cancellation had nothing to do with Zaslav’s new vision for the studio. It was just that HBO was spending a ton of money on a show very few people were watching; the return on investment simply wasn’t there.
That said, going forward I expect to see fewer hugely ambitious, expensive projects started up, at least at Warner Bros. Discovery. Shows like Westworld and The Rings of Power are showing people that throwing tons of money at a series (whether that money goes to spectacular effects, pricey actors, or both) doesn’t necessarily make it good. And if the quality isn’t there, people won’t watch. I think studio heads are noticing that.