The magic is over for “Once Upon a Time.”
Although ABC entertainment president Channing Dungey said she was “cautiously optimistic” about bringing the show back for an eighth season, when asked about the show’s fate at the Television Critics Assn. press tour last month, the network ultimately decided to pull the plug on the franchise. The show returns for the second half of its final season on March 2, and the finale will air in May, after well over 150 episodes.
The seventh season was a creative reboot for the show, which lost most of its core cast members when their contracts ended after the sixth season. “Once” also shifted from its longtime perch on Sunday nights to a Friday timeslot, where it suffered a ratings decline from previous highs: It’s currently averaging a 0.6 rating in adults 18-49 and 2.5 million viewers per episode, down just over 40 percent in the demo and 20 percent in total viewers from last season.
While “Once” co-creators and executive producers Eddy Kitsis and Adam Horowitz admit there’s “a bit of disappointment,” they’re grateful for the 7-season run, and especially that they get to end the show on their terms. “We were just trying not to be the first show canceled,” jokes Horowitz.
Here, they open up to Variety about their reaction to the decision, whether they’ll ever revisit the world, and what’s in store for the series finale.
Back in January, Dungey said she hoped the show would be back. What changed?
Kitsis: That’s a good question; I don’t know. I mean, perhaps she was answering the question about “SHIELD.” (Laughs.) I think that after seven years and 156 episodes, I think they felt that it was time to bring the show to an end.
And how did you two feel about it?
Kitsis: When we premiered, we premiered against the World Series and football and we were literally every critic’s first pick to be canceled. So the fact that we are now 156 episodes later, I feel like we have nothing to complain about. We have had a great run. We have had so much fun doing this, and the success of the show was bigger than we even dreamt of. We can’t do anything but say awesome.
Horowitz: Look, we didn’t think we’d go seven episodes, so let alone seven years. So it’s been amazing. The whole time we’ve had incredible support from the studio, the network but even more importantly, we’ve had incredible fans. This show has created like a universe of fandom that is amazing. It’s been so supportive through all the years and that’s something we never really could have dreamed of. So in every way it exceeded our hopes and expectations.
Kitsis: I don’t think we ever dreamt of a “Once” convention. We were just trying to not be the first show cancelled.
It is something of an accomplishment to even reach seven seasons, especially in this competitive climate.
Horowitz: We’ve seen the television industry has gone through massive changes in the last seven years. The world of doing 22 or 23 episodes a year of a genre, serialized show is becoming increasingly rare on broadcast especially, so we feel really lucky that we had a network like ABC that really supported this idea and this kind of scale and level of support for this kind of ambitious stuff that we were trying to do.
When did that decision come down? Did it happen in time enough for you to write to a series finale?
Kitsis: We went into the season knowing this was a possibility. There was no guarantee; we were taking a big risk, and so we had two different scenarios for the finale. And so we’re going to go with plan B.
Horowitz: It’s not like this was like a shock . We knew this was a distinct possibility from the moment the season started. So it has always sort of been in the back of our minds designing things to wrap up the end of this year if need be. So we’re prepared and we’re well into our end game plan .
You’ve obviously had experience with series finales before, working on “Lost.” What did you learn from that experience of bringing to this one.
Kitsis: For us, I think in a lot of ways last year was kind of a series finale. This year we wanted it to be a new story, a new book and a sequel or a “requel” as we were calling it. So in a lot of ways last year put, we felt, a nice bow on the first six seasons. So now we feel a different kind of pressure.
Horowitz: I think last season was a more traditional series finale in the sense of wrapping up the six season long story. For this year the approach is much more about like capturing the feeling of what the show is and giving the audience that taste one last time so that the show can go off into the sunset and people can walk away with their memories of what the show was as opposed to being a whole big thing about answering questions and settling big arcs. A lot of that’s been done and now it’s more about getting to the core of what “Once Upon a Time” is. and to us it’s always been a show about a hope, a show that is unabashedly optimistic and that goes against the grain of cynicism and bleakness in the world. We really want to keep that feeling alive and leave the audience with that as this season comes to an end.
What did you learn from the experience of doing this last season?
Kitsis: We knew last year that [several members of] the cast were leaving [stars Jennifer Morrison, Josh Dallas, Ginnifer Goodwin and others left after the sixth season]. So we were faced with a major creative choice knowing that the show would continue into season 7. And we felt like we wanted to end that series the way we wanted to, and I think this year we did we learn a lot. Of course, every time you launch something new you do. But for us we were happy to take the risk, because we felt like stretching the show out in a different configuration wasn’t as much fun as trying to start over and bring people on a new journey. And so I think us writers and the actors and the creative team involved really enjoyed getting to use the “Once” universe to tell new stories.
Horowitz: There’s been an incredible energy this year in both the cast and the crew, and everybody has been super excited and energized by taking new creative chances and going in new directions and I think that’s been rewarding for everyone. Ending a show is always bittersweet. It’s sad to say goodbye but at the same time I think everybody is really proud of what we’ve done and really excited about all 7 years and all for different reasons.
How much impact do you think the timeslot shift to Friday night had on the show?
Kitsis: Obviously when you go to Friday night the ratings go down. But I also think that if you just look at any show that is longer than five years that is what happens. It’s hard to ask people to watch 156 episodes, so the fact that to us we still have this core fan base is incredible in and of itself. So I don’t know how much was Friday night and how much was just the age of a show in a different market today.
Horowitz: We’re glass half full guys in the sense that we went to Friday and through all the airings the show has actually been remarkably stable. Yes at a lower level than it’s been, but the audience that’s been there has been there and there’s people on DVR watching it. It’s just not at a level that is sustainable anymore for the network. But the fans that are there have stayed there. And I think that’s been very gratifying.
Kitsis: I also think it allowed us to take more of a risk. We felt like Friday night was a safer night to take bigger risks than say if we were still on Sunday.
Horowitz: After seven years to still be given the chance to take those risks has been an amazing thing, and we’re grateful for all the audience that has come along and been there the whole time.
What is social media going to do without “Once”?
Kitsis: I know! They’re going to have to find someone new to yell at every day. (Laughs). The fans of “Once” have been inspiring and great and we’ve loved their fan art and their fan fiction that they write and the community that they’ve built from the conventions that they do. It’s amazing to see the social reaction because sometimes I’ll see things in countries I don’t even know we were airing in, and they’re all together uniting over the show. I think it’s great to write something that you didn’t even realize could create so much passion or debate.
Horowitz: I’m excited to be on social media with our fans and enjoying whatever they’re enjoying. And just kind of enjoying that there’s a community now of people who have come together over this show. That’s one of the most gratifying things of the whole experience .
Any chance any of the original cast members will be back for the finale?
Kitsis: There’s a chance that a few familiar faces from the original will be back, but we are very conscious of not wanting to take away the happy endings we gave last year. So there will be some familiar faces but it won’t be another redo of what we did last year.
Horowitz: But we do have some surprise that we’re hoping to unfurl in the last few [episodes].
Are you leaving the door open for any spinoffs or sequels still in this world?
Kitsis: The show is a giant spinoff sequel. Every year we felt like we rebooted it. Every year we would take it somewhere else. So there are always spin offs to be had. I wouldn’t close the door to any of it. Will Adam and I do it? I don’t know yet. I think for us right now we’ve really enjoyed the seven seasons and we’re feeling like we might need to take a break.
Horowitz: But its been wonderful and we hope that “Once Upon a Time” can live in some form whether it’s spinoffs or redos or comic books. We love our fans and we hope that they can continue to enjoy this world.
So what’s next for you two? Do you have other ideas you’re kicking around?
Horowitz: We’ve got a great big idea and it’s called a nap. (Laughs.)
Kitsis: Right now we are trying to not think about anything. We’re going to finish out the season and then we’ll worry about what’s next. And I think we might take a vacation in between that.
What was the reaction of the cast and crew to the news?
Kitsis: It’s kind of like when someone lives to 108. You’re sad they’re gone, but it was a good run. And that’s I think what “Once” was which is we never thought we’d get this far. We’ve had a great run and we really can’t complain about anything because we got to do everything we ever set out to do — twice.
Horowitz: On our part there is zero bitterness or unhappiness or disappointment even. It’s more a sense of accomplishment and pride in what we’ve done and we’ve worked with amazing people from the cast to crew to the network and the studio. This has been a really a dream run.
Kitsis: And in addition to the fabulous cast, there are the guest stars we’ve had the pleasure of working with from Barbara Hershey and Giancarlo Esposito and Jamie Dornan and Sebastian Stan and Millie Bobby Brown’s first role was our little Alice.
As you look back, what are you proudest of?
Kitsis: For me I think, the scene when the Evil Queen bursts through the door and Snow White steps in front of Prince Charming and grabs the sword — that was the very first time Snow White had a sword in Disney history. We were very proud of that moment because we didn’t even realize it. For us that symbolized what we wanted which was damsels were never in distress. In fact they saved the day.
Horowitz: A moment that stands out for me that I always think about is the end of Season 1 when we’d been working really hard all season and we’d done the finale where the curse breaks. We’d gather the cast and crew to watch it and I had been working so hard that I hadn’t stepped back to thinking about it much and saw everybody really get excited by it. It was one of the first giant risks we took creatively where we said we’re actually going to take what people assume is the premise of the show and boom it out and force ourselves to reinvent the show as we go along every year and it seemed to work. And when we saw the reaction to it, I remember thinking wow this could actually work. It’s going to be scary and hard but we might have something here.
Can you leave me with one word to describe the series finale?
Horowitz: I’d say hopeful.
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