Yellowstone, Inc: the big business behind Kevin Costner’s cowboy drama

Kevin Costner in Yellowstone
Kevin Costner in Yellowstone

Kevin Costner is not famous for his humility. When he quit the neo-western TV drama Yellowstone in 2023 over creative issues and “arduous” salary negotiations to focus on his own two-part cowboy movie Horizon: An American Saga, industry tip sheet Puck revealed he’d negotiated an unusual clause in his contract that forbid producers from killing him off in a way that would “cause shame or embarrassment to the character”.

Showing no shame or embarrassment himself, Costner seems to have reversed his position and is reportedly lobbying to appear in the final fifth season. Filming starts on season five part two this spring and the scripts don’t currently involve his character John Dutton. You’d think it’s a no brainer. Costner is a big-name star, Yellowstone is on the small US cable station Paramount and its tiny streaming service Paramount +.

But Yellowstone is no ordinary show. In the multi-fragmented streaming era it is a monumental hit, growing from its 2018 launch to become the most watched TV show in America. Season four pulled in over 12 million viewers and season five’s premier attracted 16 million. Amazon and Netflix have already commissioned copycat neo-Westerns and studio bosses are so keen to keep the saga going with or without Costner that his British co-star Kelly Reilly is on the verge of signing a new contract for a forthcoming spin-off worth $1.2 million per episode, making her one of the best paid actors in the US.

All of this has conspired to make Yellowstone’s creator Taylor Sheridan one of the most powerful showrunners in Hollywood. The bad news for Costner is, he hasn’t made up his mind if he wants Kevin back.

It’s a spectacular switch in status. Twelve years ago, Costner was filming Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit at Pinewood Studios while Sheridan, 54, was a struggling actor down to his last $800 after quitting crime drama Sons of Anarchy. Having realised he would never be a star, he started shopping around his first screenplay.

“I was a fair actor, but that’s all I was ever going to be,” Sheridan told the Hollywood Reporter last year. “Hollywood will tell you what you’re supposed to do if you listen. If you’re banging your head against the wall for 20 years trying to be an actor, maybe you shouldn’t be an actor. But the first thing I ever wrote, the pilot for Mayor of Kingstown in 2011, got me meetings at every major network, at every agency. I had multiple people trying to buy it.”

Kelly Reilly in Yellowstone
Kelly Reilly in Yellowstone

He penned movies – 2015’s Sicario, 2016’s Hell or High Water and 2017’s Wind River – but he’d been working on Yellowstone, described as “the Godfather on the largest ranch in Montana” since 2013. The series follows Costner’s gruff sixth generation rancher John Dutton, owner of the Yellowstone Dutton Ranch. He is regularly besieged by forces threatening to break up his ranch – from neighbouring Native Americans through resort developers Market Equities to animal rights activists – and regularly resorts to murder to keep his land.

Sheridan pitched the script around film and TV studios without much interest. Westerns weren’t getting made. Yellowstone was turned down by HBO, which leant into Succession instead. It was finally picked up by Paramount – at that point a cable channel only, and a poor performing one at that. For the critics and Hollywood, the resulting success was a shock.

“HBO shows get all the press, but they don’t get that big an audience,” says Alan Wolk, co-founder of New York media analyst firm TVREV. “Yellowstone just didn’t get critical attention when it launched, then they looked up and thought ‘holy heck!’ It’s a very mainstream hit. The New York Times ran an article calling it a red state show which got them pushback. Trying to attribute conservative values when it’s basically good guy wins, and the family is important doesn’t work. It’s not a Trumpian thing, it’s just what people like.”

Harrison Ford and Helen Mirren in the Yellowstone prequel 1923
Harrison Ford and Helen Mirren in the Yellowstone prequel 1923 - James Minchin III/Paramount+

Indeed, Sheridan’s overt environmentalism, sympathy for animal rights characters and criticism of the treatment of Native Americans has already suffered a right-wing backlash declaring his shows “too woke.” One thing he’s not is anti-capitalist.

“Paramount has devoted most of its scripted content budget to Taylor Sheridan after signing a multi-year deal with him in 2021 and his output has been astonishing,” says Tom Harrington, analyst at Enders Analysis. “His phenomenal speed – nine shows in three years – is at another level when it comes to creating franchises. There are others who have commanded similar control over the output of individual networks, like Law & Order’s Dick Wolf at NBC but he took years to expand his universe. The Sheridanverse feels like it has materialised in months.”

Paramount has gone all in on Sheridan, who has spun off prequel after interconnected prequel including 1883 set in the old West, 1923 starring Harrison Ford and Helen Mirren as Depression-era ranchers, Lawmen: Bass Reeves, starring David Oyelowo as the real life first black deputy US Marshall as well as forthcoming shows 1944, Yellowstone sequel 2024 expected to star Matthew McConaughey and 6666, set on the Four Sixes Ranch in Texas.

Sheridan has also written the unrelated dramas Mayor of Kingstown, Special Ops: Lioness with Nicole Kidman, Sylvester Stallone’s mob drama Tulsa King and the forthcoming Landman starring Billy Bob Thornton, Demi Moore and Jon Hamm, all for Paramount.

This in itself is quite the business. By one estimate, Paramount is spending $500 million a year making Sheridan’s shows, which tend to cost at least $10 million to $15 million per episode. 1923 cost around $200 million overall and Costner’s salary dispute was over his $1.3 million per episode fee. Paramount+ credits these shows with driving subscriptions – the company has 67.5 million subscribers worldwide, far below Netflix’s 260 million but far ahead of Apple’s 25 million. Paramount Global President and CEO Bob Bakish credits Sheridan as “critical” to that growth.

“Sheridan’s hit rate right now might be the best in Hollywood,” says industry insider blogger the Entertainment Strategy Guy. “Showrunners fall into two groups – average and elite. 90 per cent are average. They make a hit one in every ten tries, and two other shows are solid. Shonda Rimes is above that, though not as strong as folks think. Yellowstone and Sheridan’s spin off series 1899, and 1923 were all clearly hits. None of his shows have flopped. Yes, Paramount+ leans into these shows which helps, but when they come to linear TV in the US they do well too. He’s elite.”

On the back of this success, Sheridan – who likes to wear a white cowboy hat and battered blue jeans in photo shoots and on the red carpet – has built a network of commercial projects. These include actor-training cowboy camps at one of his ranches, and renting his ranches, horses, cattle and other holdings to the shows he’s making.

A Wall Street Journal investigation found Sheridan’s favourite locations are his own Texas ranches, which he rents to Paramount for as much as $50,000 a week, charging the company $214,000 for his cowboy camps. And at the centre of this empire is the Four Sixes Ranch in Texas, a vast 225 square mile operation with around 4,000 cows, 200 bulls and 1,000 horses. Sheridan persuaded his production company 101 Studios and a New York private equity firm Yucaipa Companies to jointly purchase with him for $341 million in 2021.

He’s already launched a Four Sixes-brand clothing line and a pickup truck as well as Four Sixes beer and home delivery beef, both of which feature prominently in Yellowstone’s season five – Dutton’s daughter Beth is stunned to find that Four Sixes beef  “sells out?!” in the season finale. But he’s not selfish about product placement. Coors is the show’s Official Beer Partner, Lucky Brand has a denim tie-in and the Yellowstone Product Placement Database lists 376 individual paid-for placements from an Apple MacBook Pro through a Bentley Continental GT to Carhartt jeans.

In November 2022 Yellowstone’s production company 101 Studios launched ShopTheScene, which lets viewers scan a QR code displayed on screen to buy items featured in the show. The premiere of season five part one allowed viewers to buy everything from cowboy hats ($20) to Dutton’s office chair ($3,200). The site had over 10,000 visitors per minute at times, with fans spending over six minutes engaged with the site.

Whilst product placement is a production company business, Paramount does pretty well in the branded products line – offering Yellowstone-branded clothing, jewellery, cologne, furniture, food and drink across nearly 2,500 stores as well as an 1883 wine brand and club.

This has not gone unnoticed in Hollywood, where the search for the magic money tree continues in bleak fiscal times. Netflix is preparing to drop the old school old West dramas American Primeval and The Abandons, both set in the 1800s. Primeval is a hyper-violent wagon train drama starring Taylor Kitsch as a gun-toting settler facing Native American warriors while The Abandons stars Gillian Anderson and Lena Headey as Oregon matriarchs battling corrupt wealthy interests trying to take their family’s land. Amazon, meanwhile, has fast tracked an as yet unnamed Western from True Detective creator Nic Pizzolatto. We are living in Taylor’s world, in other words, and Kevin Costner is going to have to learn to live in it too.