Inside the Drowning of ‘Crystal Lake’: How Unpaid Writers, Inexperienced Execs and Questionable Bookkeeping Undid the ‘Friday the 13th’ Series

It was late April and “Crystal Lake” was starting to attract A-list talent.

Charlize Theron was eyed to play Pam Voorhees in the A24 show based on the beloved “Friday the 13th” horror franchise, set in the immediate aftermath of the drowning of a young Jason Voorhees.

A $300,000 deposit on soundstages in Canada had already been placed. Directors like Vincenzo Natali and Kimberly Peirce were earmarked to direct episodes. Kevin Williamson, who wrote Wes Craven’s “Scream,” was set to write what was described as the show’s “Red Wedding” – referring to the infamous “Game of Thrones” episode – set entirely on a frozen Crystal Lake, with the summer camp’s cabins trapped under snow drifts. “I had packed for being away for seven months,” said one member of the “Crystal Lake” team.

Suddenly the hammer dropped on an $85 million show that A24 was producing for Universal’s direct-to-consumer streaming platform Peacock — the first piece of IP A24 has tackled in the studio’s pivot to more commercial projects, as TheWrap first reported last year.

Two days after a notes call with Peacock where one of the streamer’s executives said the pitch was “exactly what we want to hear,” A24’s head of television Sam French and A24 partner Ravi Nandan abruptly fired showrunners Bryan Fuller and Jim Danger Gray, according to an individual with knowledge of the conversation. Production on the show had been slated to begin in three months.

A24 had produced hit TV series before — including “The Curse” and “The Sympathizer,” along with “Euphoria,” “Beef” and “Ramy.”

And this decision— which effectively halted development on what was meant to be the first new piece of “Friday the 13th” visual media, aside from some video games, since New Line Cinema released the feature film remake in 2009 — shocked those close to the series.

So what the hell happened?

“Crystal Lake” was plagued by inexperienced production executives making questionable decisions, problems with the show’s writing staff and conflicts between showrunners and executives, according to several “Crystal Lake” team members who spoke to TheWrap. There are divergent accounts of how far the show was over budget. At the same time, studio insiders suggested to TheWrap that the show unraveled mostly because of Fuller and Gray.

Friday the 13th 1980
“Friday the 13th” 1980 (Paramount Pictures)

A24 declined to comment to TheWrap for this story. But a source close to A24 said the studio has “made television with complicated people, who we love. That’s the background of the company – people with strong visions.” About “Crystal Lake,” the source said the studio “didn’t feel confident” and “had to pull the plug.”

But one “Crystal Lake” insider put it differently: “It felt like everybody on the Bryan/Jim side were trying very hard to make the show. A24 felt like they were doing everything they could to not make the show.”

How much Peacock knew about the showrunners’ removal is also a source of contention. Several sources said the streamer hadn’t known about their removal ahead of time, while others suggest they were intimately involved with the decision, and still another claimed the order came from one of the top executives at Universal. One source close to the production maintains that NBC Universal and A24 were aligned in their decision to remove Fuller and Gray.

Origins of “Crystal Lake”

The original “Friday the 13th,” released in 1980 by Paramount Pictures and directed by Sean S. Cunningham, a friend and colleague of Wes Craven’s, followed counselors getting ready to reopen a cursed summer camp, who are murdered one by one. At the end of the movie, it’s revealed that the killer was Pam Voorhees, the mother of Jason Voorhees, a young boy who drowned at Camp Crystal Lake years earlier.

The movie was a surprise smash, earning almost $60 million on a budget of $550,000, jumpstarting a bona-fide franchise for Paramount. The studio produced seven more sequels before selling the rights to New Line Cinema.

Those rights have been notoriously difficult to untangle, with original screenwriter Victor Miller and Cunningham battling it out in court for years and both Paramount and Warner Bros. claiming ownership at different times. Finally, in 2021, Miller won the domestic rights to “Friday the 13th,” while another entity (known as Horror Inc.) retained elements of the franchise, and Paramount held onto others.

Paramount Pictures

A24 was instrumental in untangling the rights to the project, and helped secure a deal that would include the parts of the rights controlled by Miller, powerful IP attorney Marc Toberoff and another producer, according to a knowledgeable insider.

While the studio has clout for releasing critical darlings and scored a Best Picture Oscar (among others) for 2022’s “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” A24 — with a $2.5 billion valuation — has been expanding its strategy to include more commercial projects.

In the grand ambition of “Crystal Lake,” each season would be a “deconstruction” of the first four Paramount movies. The series would incorporate lore from several sequels but remix that material in a way similar to Fuller’s “Hannibal,” which interpolated the Thomas Harris novels for three seasons.

“We had the mask, we had the sequels, we could do whatever we wanted. He had a good path forward, which I did really like,” said a source close to the A24 side, of Fuller’s vision.

Toberoff initiated a “long, elaborate dance” with A24, which agreed to all of the terms he and Miller wanted. The studio was looking for a globally recognized property to move them into more mainstream territory and aimed to maintain the “A24-ness” of “Crystal Lake” by installing an auteur like Fuller behind the scenes.

A24 offered Fuller the show in December 2021, before the studio had even secured the rights. And on Halloween 2022, “Crystal Lake” got a straight-to-series order.

Written in blood

By January of 2023, a development room had been established, with Fuller, Gray and several writers working on deepening the world of “Crystal Lake.” What was initially a six-week stint was extended to May 2. That’s when the Writers Guild of America went on strike.

By Thanksgiving, both the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes had been resolved, and by the beginning of 2024, “Crystal Lake” was back on track. Except there was one problem: Despite being the first studio to sign the WGA’s Minimum Basic Agreement, A24 refused to convert the writers who had worked on that initial development phase into actual, paid writers, according to several sources.

The writers had gone on strike in part over this practice of merely keeping a development room instead of converting that room into a paid writer’s room, and it was now verboten according to the WGA’s new deal with the studios. A24 assured Fuller and Gray that there would be a paid writer’s room but later backtracked, according to several “Crystal Lake” sources.

The lack of paid writers created an unfortunate logjam. Fuller couldn’t deliver polished scripts because the writers who wrote the initial versions needed to do another draft but were prohibited by guild guidelines, because they weren’t staffed writers. According to those with knowledge of the situation, the four writers are owed roughly $100,000 each for already completed work.

When approached by TheWrap, the guild said it had no comment on the matter. A source close to A24 denies any violations.

“Most of the time when we make shows, we have most of the season written” said a source close to A24. “You figure out how to get there. We just weren’t getting there.”

Those close to the project on the A24 side said “Crystal Lake” fell behind on producing scripts, which impacted the entire production.

Several other sources rebutted that claim and said not only was the production moving ahead as promised, it was actually ahead of schedule.

A24 also argued with Fuller and Gray over the scripts. “A24 would say ‘the writer’s room is Jim and Bryan’s living rooms.’ Their thinking was, ‘Well, we’ve gotten as far without them,’” said one member of the “Crystal Lake” team.

One person on a call between Nandan and Gray described Gray as “adamant and obstinate” and “a puppet for Bryan; he knew we were right and he was powerless.” (Several others deny this depiction of Gray.)

An individual close to A24 said Fuller was too busy working on his upcoming movie “Dust Bunny” to pay attention to “Crystal Lake.” This has happened to him before, on “Star Trek: Discovery” and “American Gods” — two shows Fuller exited over budget concerns. “Crystal Lake” producers said that the production was unaffected by Fuller’s feature duties and that he wrote two “Crystal Lake” scripts while in post-production on the movie.

A source close to A24 maintains it was Fuller who didn’t want an actual writer’s room and that they would have hired the writers on if the show wasn’t so over-budget. “It was never like it was never happening,” said one source close to the production on the A24 side. “It was purely how does it look – are people coming for the whole production or part of the production?  We still had a budget that was wildly over.”

“Crystal Lake” producers maintain they consistently requested additional weeks for the writers room and were told by A24 executives that Peacock had mandated they get no more than six weeks, when the WGA was mandating 12-week minimums. A source close to Peacock denies making these mandates.

Budget disputes

Bryan Fuller
Bryan Fuller (Credit: Amanda Edwards/Getty Images)

Each episode of “Crystal Lake,” which was intended to have eight per season, was budgeted at around $9.6 million, but according to sources, A24 wanted to cut that in half.

One source told TheWrap: “It was all set at that camp. It was all very feasible.”

In a meeting held prior to the shutdown and attended by several sources close to the production, Inman Young, A24’s production head whose previous credits include projects like “The Whale” (budget: $3 million) and “Waves” (budget: $6 million), claimed the show wasn’t just slightly over budget, it was 100% over budget. Several members of the “Crystal Lake” production team refuted that assertion.

A24 declined to make Young available for comment.

TheWrap viewed a budget compiled roughly a month before “Crystal Lake” was shut down that shows the series was roughly over budget by about $4-$6 million for the entire season. As the show progressed through prep and pre-production, several “Crystal Lake” insiders felt sure that the budget could be corralled to the satisfaction of both A24 and the “Crystal Lake” team. As one “Crystal Lake” team member said, depending on the strength of the American dollar, the budget could have been reduced by $2 million just by the conversion.

According to several “Crystal Lake” team members, the A24 executives were unaware of exactly how a television show operated. One often-repeated story involves Young. When the plan was introduced to shoot the show in multiple units — with a main unit, a second unit and a splinter unit — Young asked if A24 would have to hire two of every department head. (TV normally works with single department heads whose work filters into every unit, with one art director providing the art direction for the entire show, etc.)

“If you’re the production executive on ‘Red Rocket’ and you’re suddenly on this, you’re flabbergasted,” said one “Crystal Lake” member, referring to A24’s 2021 film with a budget of just $1.1 million. A source close to the project refuted this, suggesting that A24 had just come off of “The Sympathizer,” an HBO series that had “1.5 times the budget of ‘Crystal Lake.’”

Further confusion ensued when A24 put a deposit down on stages in Canada to aim for a summer shoot (on the budget TheWrap viewed, the proposed start date was July 22). It wasn’t clear to the “Crystal Lake” team if A24 knew that they had already rented the soundstages. “Some executives in A24 didn’t know that other executives at A24 had leased the offices,” said one “Crystal Lake” team member.

According to one “Crystal Lake” source, A24 was trying to make the show for dramatically less than the $85 million Peacock was giving them to make it. A source close to A24 vehemently denied that and maintained that the show was over-budget in a way that crippled the production.

A more likely scenario, according to another member of the “Crystal Lake” team, is that A24’s perceived inexperience led to confusion, disarray and questionable bookkeeping. “Their grasp on the process of how a show is done didn’t really seem to be comprehensive,” said one source close to the project. “From a budgeting point of view, we got a budget that didn’t really correspond to anything.”

What’s next?

New Line Cinema

According to one source close to the project, A24 is still committed to making the show, although it’s unclear if the studio will use the original Fuller scripts and outlines or start from scratch with new creative leadership. One suitor, according to several sources, is Nick Antosca, who worked with Fuller on “Hannibal” and wrote an unproduced “Friday the 13th” feature script back in 2015. Should Antosca get the job, he would jettison the work that had come before.

Agents have labeled the “Crystal Lake” project as “radioactive,” according to another source with knowledge, even though it is one of the most important shows to Peacock, several other sources said.

Some in the “Crystal Lake” orbit place the blame at the foot of NBCUniversal, who feared that the submitted scripts were “too dark.” But most of those TheWrap talked to believe A24 was, at best, ill-equipped to handle a project like “Crystal Lake.” “With A24, they panicked because they didn’t feel they could manage the situation,” said one “Crystal Lake” team member. “It’s the most honest explanation.”

To a degree, a source close to A24 agrees with this assessment. “We kept believing we could make it work. Some of that is our fault…But we believed in Bryan and his reassurances with us,” the source said. “We just didn’t have another option.”

Much like Jason rising from his watery grave in the closing moments of “Friday the 13th,” there are still others who feel like “Crystal Lake” isn’t quite dead yet.

“We believe in the show,” said a source close to A24. “We’re going to make it.”

Toberoff, for his part, told TheWrap that “the show is not in jeopardy,” and that “it’s unfortunate that it didn’t work out” thus far. A source close to NBCUniversal also maintains that the show is moving forward.

In addition to the writers who are allegedly owed money, countless crew members were also impacted by the show’s abrupt shutdown. “It was a big show coming to town, offering eight months of employment,” said one “Crystal Lake” team member. “And then two weeks into it – nothing.”

The post Inside the Drowning of ‘Crystal Lake’: How Unpaid Writers, Inexperienced Execs and Questionable Bookkeeping Undid the ‘Friday the 13th’ Series appeared first on TheWrap.