Slapdash adaptations made quickly and cheaply to retain the rights to a story or character are not unheard of. The A.V. Club’s Ignatiy Vishnevetsky wrote an Inventory about the phenomenon a couple of months back, and Sony’s desire to hang on to the character is part of the reason why Spider-Man has to go back to high school every few years.
The newest piece of intellectual property to receive this less-than-dignified treatment is the Wheel Of Time series, Robert Jordan’s 14-volume series of fantasy novels. Since the first book in the series, The Eye Of The World, was published in 1990, the the Wheel Of Time books have sold more than 44 million copies worldwide and spawned a video game, role-playing game, and several comic books. And now that Game Of Thrones has broken through to the mainstream, the cultural climate has never been friendlier to big-budget fantasy adaptations, as different as the series that inspired them may be.
So why did the Wheel Of Time TV pilot, Winter Dragon, air once this past Monday, with no advertising or fanfare, at 1:30 a.m. on FXX during a paid programming time slot? Probably because Red Dragon Entertainment would lose the rights to the Wheel Of Time series if it didn’t get something together by February 11:
Before his death in 2006, Jordan, née James O. Rigney, apparently made a deal optioning the film and TV rights to The Wheel Of Time to Red Eagle Entertainment. In 2008, Red Eagle then turned around and sold the rights to Universal, with the stipulation that the rights would revert to Jordan’s estate if a TV pilot were not produced by—you guessed it—February 11, 2015.
So with Red Eagle about to lose the rights to the series, a pilot starring Billy Zane was hastily assembled and even more hastily shot (22 script pages were apparently filmed in one day), going from preproduction to being ready to air between January 15 and February 4. By all accounts the pilot is cheap looking, simplistically shot, takes place mostly in one room, and covers only the prologue to the first book in the series. Director James Seda, who died in a car crash shortly after the production wrapped, expressed his relief that the rush job had been completed in what would end up being his last tweet:
So far, the Winter Dragon pilot has no IMDB page, and most of the Google results for the series are forums and blog posts expressing the basic sentiment, “WTF did I just see a Wheel Of Time TV show??” But in an interview with io9, Red Eagle Entertainment CEO and Winter Dragon executive producer Rick Selvage says that “a lot of pilots are put on the air at different times in different ways, and for different reasons,” and that the glorified infomercial that aired this week was merely the pilot for what would become “a high-budget production television series.”
So why the secrecy? This dumbfounded Facebook post from Jordan’s widow Harriet McDougal might help explain:
“This morning brought startling news. A “pilot” for a Wheel of Time series, the “pilot” being called Winter Dragon, had appeared at 1:30 in the morning, East Coast time, on FXX TV, a channel somewhere in the 700s (founded to concentrate on comedy, according to the Washington Post).
It was made without my knowledge or cooperation. I never saw the script. No one associated with Bandersnatch Group, the successor-in-interest to James O. Rigney, was aware of this.
Bandersnatch has an existing contract with Universal Pictures that grants television rights to them until this Wednesday, February 11 – at which point these rights revert to Bandersnatch.
I see no mention of Universal in the “pilot”. Nor, I repeat, was Bandersnatch, or Robert Jordan’s estate, informed of this in any way.
I am dumbfounded by this occurrence, and am taking steps to prevent its reoccurrence.”
Since McDougal released her statement, Red Eagle has filed a lawsuit claiming that McDougal did, in fact, know about the pilot, and was flown first class to a meeting about it.
So yeah, guys, this TV series is going to be really good.