NEW YORK — On a recent morning, Joel Stillerman, an executive with the cable network AMC, was sitting in his 15th-floor office opposite Madison Square Garden and getting excited. He wasn’t enthused about the usual matters, like the restored popularity of the network’s signature series, “Mad Men,” or the shiny ratings for the recently concluded season of the zombie hit “The Walking Dead.”
“You’ve never seen ‘Ace in the Hole?’” Stillerman said to a reporter, referring to the 1951 Billy Wilder film about a cynical newsman. He gestured to a billboard-sized poster on the office wall opposite him and tossed out a few memorable lines. “You need to see it. It’s all about one of my favorite themes — second chances.”
In just four short years, Stillerman has had his own unlikely opportunities. He’s ascended from the obscurity of midlevel jobs in cable TV and independent film to a position of enormous influence. As head of original programming and production at AMC, Stillerman is the most important creative figure at a network that is, as of this moment, probably the country’s foremost home for serial drama. He inherited some of the network’s current success — his predecessor developed “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” — but he shepherded those shows to the prestige hits they are today while developing new ones like “The Walking Dead.”
To achieve this, Stillerman, 50, hasn’t so much hoisted an antenna to gauge consumer interest as he has drawn on his own deep cultural appetite. In a conversation about his business, he is more likely to cite the work of Carl Sagan or the novelist Kazuo Ishiguro (or classic films) than, say, Nielsen figures or the effects of DVR playback.
But in carving out this influence, Stillerman has also become embroiled in battles that would make Don Draper blush — including two tense public standoffs with the creators of his biggest hits (Matthew Weiner of “Mad Men” and Frank Darabont of “The Walking Dead”). And Stillerman has become the subject of whispered criticism from other collaborators that, though his taste is sharp, his ability to finesse Hollywood’s delicate relationships leaves something to be desired.
As AMC keeps an ever-firmer eye on the bottom line, Stillerman also, coincidentally or not, is taking the network in a direction that looks a lot more like other parts of the prestige cable dial — and less like the iconoclastic network that set series in a midcentury ad agency and a homegrown meth lab. Recently, Stillerman and his small team of about 10 staffers greenlighted two pilots (the first new shows in nearly two years) that will take place in more familiar confines: the legal and police worlds.
“We easily could have set the shows in places you’ve never seen before, but that’s not the sum total of our filter and mandate,” he said. “The specific criteria are: ‘Which projects are going to make the best television?’” But then he acknowledged that police and lawyer shows had their advantages. “I do like shows in familiar (settings), because starting from scratch is hard,” he said. “It’s really, really, really hard.”
Even in the unruly world of cable television, AMC’s development approach is singular, as evidenced by a look at the recently concluded annual process that gets the network from some words on a page to, it hopes, a show that makes TV fans buzz.
After Stillerman and his team handpick a group of scripts, they invite creators to a Southern California hotel room to make their case that a pilot should be produced. (Stillerman and the heads of the network are based in New York; Stillerman’s staffers are largely in Los Angeles.) Show runners are then asked to lay out their hypothetical series in exquisite detail — how future seasons will unfold, how much episodes will cost, how camera angles will look.
The executives sit at a large table while some of Hollywood’s brightest talents humbly step in front of them, like a solicitor general making an argument to the Supreme Court. One person who went through the AMC process described the questions as so rigorous that it was almost as though the show had already been on the air for years.
The system has angered some creators, who resent being asked for so much work on something that probably won’t ever see the light of day. (Last year, the network was so unimpressed with the finalists that it didn’t pick up a single project.)
Still, the big names come, bringing their most ambitious ideas. This is AMC, after all, sanctuary for the ambitious.
This year, the network chose six projects to consider from a stack of dozens. The finalists included proposals that are audacious even by AMC standards: “Sacred Games,” a 19th century detective story set in India based on the 900-page novel of the same name; “Turn,” a spy story set amid the patriots and loyalists of the Revolutionary War; “Crystal Pines,” a series about a journalist who volunteers for a cloning experiment; and “Mean Tide,” a moody drama set in the world of a declining New England fishing town.
But two of the more traditional candidates spoke to Stillerman more directly. There was an untitled, race-themed legal series that resonates in the wake of Trayvon Martin from Oscar-nominated screenwriter Richard LaGravenese (“The Fisher King,” “Water for Elephants”) and director Tony Goldwyn (“Conviction”), as well as “Low Winter Sun,” an adaptation of a British miniseries about dirty cops reset in Detroit that comes from Chris Mundy, a longtime veteran of “Criminal Minds” and “Cold Case.”
Stillerman liked the Mundy project because it is a show “about second chances, (for) both the people and the city it’s set in.” He was drawn to the other proposal because it deals with race — there is a group of whites accused of killing a black family — but also, he said, because it contains some big themes. Stillerman calls it “Crime and Punishment” that becomes “Heat,” though whether AMC’s originality-seeking viewers will find the show, and the network’s larger direction, too similar to what it and other channels have already done remains to be seen.
After the arguments, Stillerman and his team spend months debating what they’ve heard — concepts, casting, character nuance, the possibilities for epic storytelling. The stakes are high: AMC takes such extreme care because it makes few pilots; in fact, in contrast to accepted Hollywood practice, it’s turned every pilot it ever made into a series.
More than you’d expect in the high-dollar game of ad-supported television, the network makes ambition its own virtue — these shows, after all, have to carry the mantle when the current hits go off the air. “Trying to re-create ‘Mad Men’ on any level, well, you can drive yourself crazy,” Stillerman said. “What we do want is to find a show that reinforces our reputation for originality. It’s the big creative swing we’re after.”
When he has finally settled on his choices, he presents them to his bosses, AMC President and General Manager Charlie Collier and the president and chief executive of AMC Networks, Josh Sapan, who will at times lean in a different direction. The three then hash out the ideas further.
Ideally, said Collier, the shows are actively different from anything else on AMC’s airwaves, a departure from conventional network thinking about pairings and lead-ins. “The best thing I can hear about a show,” Collier said, “is that it doesn’t look like AMC.”
When they finally settle on a series, they notify the winning creative teams, as they did with the people behind “Sun” and the LaGravenese-Goldwyn show. A couple of additional shows are sometimes given a last-ditch chance — producers can go back to the drawing board to try again next year. The others go home empty-handed.
A communications and television major at Emerson College in Boston, Stillerman got his start nearly 25 years ago at MTV, where he had a hand in the network’s “Unplugged.” He eventually pingponged to Walden Media, the family-entertainment outfit, before moving to an independent film company in New York called Spanky, where he served as Ted Demme’s producing partner.
Things changed in 2008, when Stillerman, on the recommendation of some producers who had worked with him, came out of nowhere to replace AMC’s programming chief Rob Sorcher. (Sorcher was decamping for the Cartoon Network.) Having served at AMC when it was a forgotten corner of the Cablevision empire that re-aired old movies, Sorcher helped usher in a new era with “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad.”
“We were so new on ‘Mad Men,’ we didn’t even know the rules of cable drama,” said the network’s Ben Davis, who worked under Sorcher and now serves on Stillerman’s team. “I think if we did, we probably never would have made that show.”
Stillerman had the tough act of following that one-two series punch, forced to steer shows he didn’t develop.
As he developed his own shows, he misfired with the now-canceled conspiracy thriller “Rubicon” and had a modest performer in last year’s railroad drama “Hell on Wheels.” He had a bigger hit in the noirish “The Killing” — at least until a backlash over last season’s unresolved finale. (Stillerman later conceded the network should have marketed the show differently.)
But he really hit it big with the network’s ratings crown jewel, “Walking Dead,” a story of a man trying to protect a small band of humans from zombies in postapocalyptic America. Stillerman bought it from “Shawshank Redemption” director Darabont, among others, and retained the original comics writer Robert Kirkman. Kirkman speaks fondly of Stillerman’s team. “They allow creative people to create,” he said.
Sapan says that Stillerman’s eclectic streak makes him a natural. “If it’s been published, Joel has probably read it; if it’s been on a stage he’s probably seen it,” Sapan said. “One of the first times we spoke he told me about (1950s bowling commentator) ‘Whispering’ Joe Wilson. Do you know anyone who can tell you about ‘Whispering’ Joe Wilson?”
But knowledge and taste don’t always translate into good bedside manner. Stillerman has a number of detractors in Hollywood, who find deficiencies in his ability to handle creative egos.
“There are ways you need to parent people in Hollywood. And Joel doesn’t know how to do that. When there’s good news he can be silent, and when there’s bad news he doesn’t know how to deliver it tactfully,” said a high-ranking veteran of one AMC show, requesting anonymity because the person did not want to jeopardize future relationships. “I don’t think it’s an accident that there were those blowups with Weiner and Darabont.”
Those blowups — depending on whom you believe, over creative control, personality or money — don’t always resolve themselves easily. Weiner settled his differences and came back to “Mad Men.” “Dead” didn’t end as neatly — Darabont left the show in the summer. Neither creator commented for this story.
For his part, Stillerman said that “we have not had a perfect track record with respect to show runners, but I think this is just part of the process. Overall we still have a pretty good track record, and that speaks to our intentions. None of us feel show runners are an expendable entity.”
However, even AMC’s supporters say relationships with the network can take a direct tone. “AMC isn’t afraid of its filmmakers. If something doesn’t feel right, even small choices, they’ll ask some pretty hard questions,” said Mark Johnson, executive producer of “Breaking Bad.” “It’s a pretty big difference from a place like HBO, where if you’re a big name and you make your deal, they’ll leave you pretty much alone.”
There are other differences, particularly in the scope of the operation. A walk through AMC’s offices reveals narrow hallways and modestly decorated offices, a contrast with the gleaming modernism of HBO’s glass-and-steel headquarters farther uptown. The staff is a fraction of the size of several cable giants. Sapan sometimes carries a two-strap knapsack on his back, a practice that’s hard to imagine for CEOs of other high-end networks.
Stillerman also faces pressures on the financial side that might explain why some of his new shows will come in more conventional packaging. In June, AMC Networks was spun off by parent Cablevision, meaning it now has shareholders to answer to. Though digital revenue from Netflix and others is growing, AMC still relies heavily on advertising. In the most recent quarter, earnings came in below analysts’ expectations, thanks to an $18-million write-down from “Rubicon” — a reminder of what can happen when chancy programming fails.
Perhaps as a result, the network has made small forays into more commercially safe territory. It recently began airing repeats of “CSI: Miami.” And AMC is starting to dabble in competition reality TV. Viewers of “Mad Men” and “The Killing” in recent weeks have seen spots for “The Pitch,” an “Apprentice”-like show in which brands like Subway are “partners” — that is, they pay money to get name-checked.
Don Draper would be proud. But it remains to be seen whether his fans will feel the same way.
Stillerman said he doesn’t see a conflict in this. “We want to bring the best version of a big idea, and that can happen in unscripted as well as scripted,” he said.
The ultimate goal, he said, is to be curatorial without dragging any feet, which is something he knows too well from two years of greenlight inactivity.
“Sometimes I look out my window and I think, ‘The Empire State Building was built in 13 months, and we can’t get a TV show on the air in that time?’” He paused. “But I guess they didn’t have to deal with as many agents.”