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AMC's Joel Stillerman is meticulous in looking for next 'Mad Men'

The cable executive puts show runners aspiring and present through their paces, sometimes to their displeasure. It's all to continue the network's success.

May 06, 2012|By Steven Zeitchik, Los Angeles Times
  • AMC executive Joel Stillerman is chief of programming.
AMC executive Joel Stillerman is chief of programming. (Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles…)

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. Last week, 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."

A thorough vetting

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.

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