Casualties of the Costner-Yellowstone Crossfire

When rumors leaked earlier this month that Yellowstone may end after its current fifth season because Kevin Costner is locked in a standoff over his shooting dates, few associated with the show were surprised.
When rumors leaked earlier this month that ’Yellowstone‘ may end after its current fifth season because Kevin Costner is locked in a standoff over his shooting dates, few associated with the show were surprised. Photo: Richard Bord/Getty Images for Cannes Lions
Matthew Belloni
February 20, 2023

Here’s a sign that the relationship between Kevin Costner and Taylor Sheridan isn’t going great: On Instagram a couple months ago, Costner’s longtime assistant/associate Glenn Kleczkowski posted the following review of Sheridan’s Sylvester Stallone mobster show, Tulsa King: “Stick to westerns, bro. You don’t know SHIT about THIS life. Stay in your lane, country boy. I’m actually embarrassed for you as a writer and creator.”

Nice. The missive about the hit series—which, I’m told, made its way to Sheridan, Paramount Media Networks president and C.E.O. Chris McCarthy, and others on the Yellowstone team before it was deleted—only exacerbated what has become a frayed and possibly severed relationship between Paramount’s cash-cow Sheridan machine and Costner, the star of the biggest show on television. So when rumors leaked earlier this month that Yellowstone may end after its current fifth season because Costner is locked in a standoff over his shooting dates, few associated with the show were surprised. The battle lines had been drawn.

So, what’s actually happening here? After looking into this for the past couple weeks, I learned many of Costner’s Yellowstone cast, crew, and executives have been frustrated by his ego and his unavailability for a few years now. I know, get in line. Aging Movie Star Doing Television Has Inflated Sense of Self sounds like an Onion headline. And besides, this is a larger trend: as more bigger names work on TV series, they often don’t want to make series commitments, forcing the shows to contort their schedules to shoot their stars in and out. It’s an industry-wide problem.

But this is bigger. There’s a reason Costner is known in town as either exacting to a fault or an unjustified pain in the ass, going all the way back to his heyday in the ’90s. Leveraging his star power and the cachet of the Oscars he won for Dances With Wolves, Costner famously tortured filmmakers like Sam Raimi on 1999’s For Love of the Game. “Kevin’s not the director and it’s not fair for him to hijack a $50 million asset,” Universal’s film chief Stacey Snider said publicly at the time, amid a fight over MPAA edits. Kevin Reynolds either bailed or got fired from directing both Costner vehicles, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Waterworld, depending on who you believe. As a director, Costner refused to trim The Postman from three hours despite a pair of awful test screenings, and it lost tens of millions of dollars for Warner Bros. And on Message in a Bottle, Costner threatened to pull out of publicity until he got his way on the edit. Big-time diva stuff.  

Costner tried noting Sheridan during the first couple seasons of Yellowstone, which I’m told didn’t go over well. And once the show became a smash hit, Costner is said to have begun squeezing. He demanded to be compensated for promotion days, say two sources, despite a contract that pays him $1.2 million per episode for the 16 episodes of this fifth season, rising to $1.5 million per episode if there is a Season 6, plus an overall deal with MTV Entertainment Studios that runs through 2025. A couple seasons ago, Costner’s WME team closed a major renegotiation, then he went back to his lead agent of ten years, Brad Slater, who had put Costner in Yellowstone in the first place, and demanded that Slater re-open the deal for additional asks. 

This was right as Covid hit and Paramount was laying off employees, so Slater declined. A heated exchange occurred, and Costner removed Slater from his team. (WME declined to comment. The usual disclosure: WME represents Puck but not me personally.) Now Costner’s team includes WME; a scorched-earth lawyer, Howard Kaplan; and another screamer, his longtime manager and producing partner Rod Lake. They’ve been in the driver’s seat on the current impasse.

Costner’s Side

For Season 5—initially planned as 10 episodes, but expanded to 16 episodes that were to be shot in two tranches, 5A and 5B—Costner had negotiated short shooting windows. According to three sources close to the production, the first window was complicated when he contracted Covid after a promotional trip to the Calgary Stampede rodeo. Yet instead of extending his shoot days to accommodate the Covid delay, Costner declared his window elapsed and took off, forcing everyone to reassemble months later to shoot his scenes—at enormous cost to the production and great annoyance to key co-stars. That and other issues pushed 5B to 2023. And, according to these three sources, Kaplan, the lawyer, has been offering only a week of dates in the summer for the necessary shooting on 5B, followed by two days of pick-ups in October or November. On a show like Yellowstone, with outdoor and horse-riding sequences, it’s almost impossible to shoot on that timeline and deliver a meaningful character arc.   

Costner sees it differently, according to another source close to the production. Season 5 was supposed to finish shooting in its entirety in 2022. But Sheridan—busy with tons of other projects—failed to deliver scripts on time and constantly moved the schedule around, this source counters. When the Covid delay hit, Costner did charge those days to his window of availability, but he performed exactly as his contract required. “The idea that Kevin was only willing to work one week on the second half of Season 5 of Yellowstone is an absolute lie,” Costner’s litigator, my buddy Marty Singer, told me on Friday. “It’s ridiculous—and anyone suggesting it shouldn’t be believed for one second. As everyone who knows anything about Kevin is well aware, he is incredibly passionate about the show and has always gone way above and beyond to ensure its success.” In response to Singer, a Paramount rep told me today, “As we previously stated, Kevin has been a key component of the success of our Yellowstone series, and we hope that continues from here on out.” Who’s right here? It’s complicated by semantics because the 5B episodes, thanks to the delays, are now on track to shoot in summer and fall, and air in November, essentially on the timeline of what was supposed to be Season 6 way back when. 

It’s true that Costner wasn’t bailing on Yellowstone to lounge in Montecito. His contract carved out the time last year to focus on Horizon, the first of a planned series of independently-financed Civil War-era Western films that Costner is co-writing, producing, directing, and starring in. The first movie, budgeted at more than $100 million, and shot last year, is still awaiting a release date from Warner Bros., which invested a small amount of money in exchange for domestic distribution rights. I’m told that Costner recently showed about 30 or 40 minutes of footage to Warner Bros. Discovery C.E.O. David Zaslav (Costner is buds with Zaz and attended his recent birthday dinner at Mr. Chow) and Warners film chiefs Mike De Luca and Pam Abdy, and he’s been pushing for a late 2023 release. But Warners already has a packed Q4. Dune: Part Two, Timothée Chalamet’s Wonka prequel, and Aquaman and the Last Kingdom are already scheduled, so the studio hasn’t been willing—or even able, given its financial issues—to add Horizon to the ’23 slate.

That situation actually contributed to the Yellowstone intrigue. In December, amid the Costner availability standoff, his lawyer Kaplan began pressing Paramount to possibly take over domestic distribution from Warners, going directly to Keyes Hill-Edgar, C.O.O. of Paramount Media Networks and MTV Entertainment Studios, and Dan Cohen, chief content licencing officer for Paramount Global. It wasn’t an express quid-pro-quo situation, but the Paramount people certainly felt Costner might suddenly become more available for Yellowstone if the company agreed to board Horizon and give it a late ’23 release, as Costner desired. Alas, Paramount declined to do so and the impasse continued. (Warner Bros. declined to comment.) Now, despite not yet having a release date for the first Horizon, Costner has begun casting the second film, per a Breakdown notice I saw last week that included a late April or early May start date. He has told Paramount he’s busy with Horizon 2 from March through October. 

The Stakes for Paramount

Perhaps not surprisingly, on last week’s earnings call, Paramount Global C.E.O. Bob Bakish showered praise on Sheridan but didn’t mention Costner. Paramount has picked a side here, and it’s the guy whose shows they have bet their streaming service on. Which makes perfect sense. Paramount owner Shari Redstone is in a tough spot these days, as my partner Bill Cohan explained yesterday. Paramount is too small, with a market value of just $15 billion; cable is dying faster than expected, and streaming is a money bonfire, burning $575 million just this quarter, though Bakish says profitability is around the corner.

Figuring out the premium content mix has fallen to McCarthy, a Hollywood outsider and longtime reality TV executive who signed and nurtured Sheridan before super-sizing him. For better and worse (a lot of L.A. people still look down on him creatively), McCarthy is a franchise guy who leveraged the success of the Sheridan widget into oversight of Showtime and the other networks. In turn, he put deputy Nina Diaz, a former MTV and VH1 executive, over Showtime, along with scripted chief Keith Cox. That means Amy Israel, the executive VP for Showtime original scripted shows, will now report to the woman behind Love and Hip Hop, RuPaul’s Drag Race, and, my favorite, The Challenge. Showtime may be over as a real premium network, but that’s just where these companies are these days, and when it comes to McCarthy, success is success. He’s delivered for Shari and Bob.

Amid that backdrop, as Redstone and Bakish are trying to figure out Paramount’s future—consolidating Showtime into Paramount+, raising prices, and firing 120 people last week amid an advertising slowdown that led to a revenue decline of about 7 percent—they have one seriously great thing going for them: Sheridan.  

The guy’s no picnic either—one source described the Sheridan-Costner dynamic as “Brady and Belichick,” and another said “Silverbacks wrestling”—but he’s truly a unicorn, seemingly able to simultaneously write and produce Yellowstone, its direct prequels 1883 and 1923, new shows like Tulsa King, Mayor of Kingstown, the upcoming Lioness, Land Man, and Bass Reeves, and further planned Yellowstone prequels, all while drawing movie stars like Harrison Ford, Nicole Kidman, Jeremy Renner, Stallone, Zoë Saldana, and David Oyelowo into the fold. This quarter, Paramount+ added nearly 10 million subscribers—more new subs than any other service—and hit 56 million worldwide. While Top Gun: Maverick, the NFL and a deal with Wal-Mart certainly helped, nearly one in four Paramount+ viewers only watch Sheridan projects on the service, according to SambaTV. One in four. And remember, this service also carries nearly the entirety of the CBS lineup.

That said, I don’t want to minimize Costner’s value here. He’s a real star, certainly the reason that I (and millions of others) checked out Yellowstone in the first place, and he continues to be an anchor of credibility and gravitas on what is essentially a silly soap opera. Plus, Paramount has successfully leveraged the O.G. Yellowstone and its franchise-leading 17 million weekly linear viewers to tease and relentlessly plug the other “Sheridan-verse” entries on Paramount+. 

That’s sort of been McCarthy’s whole M.O., the one that got Bakish to give him Showtime, where he’s trying to replicate the strategy with Dexter and Billions. I don’t think that will work, but I wouldn’t have guessed “Taylor Sheridan Universe” would be a thing, either. Still, if that first Yellowstone ends, there’s no guarantee that whatever replaces it—even if it stars Matthew McConaughey, even if it features several current cast members—will deliver that same audience or serve as the same promo platform. Without its foundation, the House of Sheridan could even begin to crumble.     

But at this point, I seriously doubt it. Yellowstone as a franchise has outgrown its star. And in fact, there are benefits to Yellowstone ending, namely the notorious Peacock deal, wherein Paramount’s rival streamer has been dining out in the U.S. on Paramount’s biggest hit. I’m told the digital rights don’t revert until at least four years after the last episode airs on linear, which is a lifetime in the current streaming environment—Paramount could even be acquired by Peacock’s owner Comcast before then. But the sooner Yellowstone is replaced by McConaughey’s Yellowstone: Texas or Yellowstone: Alright Alright, or whatever they call it, the sooner that clock starts ticking.

So sure, this could all be a big, noisy negotiation. Perhaps Costner’s blustery team will calm down and work out a deal that lets him shoot his movies and still remain involved in the show in some way. Before Horizon, Costner hadn’t directed a film since Open Range in 2003; Yellowstone no doubt returned to him the cachet he needed to raise financing. Fans love the character, he’s relevant culturally again, he’s toured with his rock band using the Yellowstone branding, and he’s probably never going to find another $20 million-a-season payday.   

But more likely, this is a relationship that has run its course. Sheridan is certainly furious, I’m told; he can’t finish writing the 5B episodes until the Costner drama is resolved and his star is either in or out. McCarthy, Sheridan and lead producer David Glasser are said to have been planning for Costner’s eventual exit for a while. And Sheridan has considered killing off John Dutton before, but this time, as they say, it’s personal.  

If Costner does indeed leave and the show ends, Sheridan could write a window for him to return someday—or he could go Full McDreamy and blow him to smithereens. At this point, I’m guessing Sheridan and the rest of the Yellowstone cast would opt for the latter.