Exclusive Interview: AMC’s Charlie Collier


PREMIUM: Charlie Collier, the president and general manager of AMC, discusses with World Screen the service’s transformation from a niche movie channel to a must-watch cable network.

WS: How did original programming transform AMC from a movie channel to the home of some of the best series on television?
COLLIER: It all came out of a desire to make programming that was distinctive and of prestige for our cable partners and obviously for the marketplaces that we served. That was always the goal, the thought being that we had the most widely distributed movie network in the country. And when we looked around [we decided we wanted to be] a premium television network on basic cable. Our very first original was actually a mini-series, Broken Trail with Robert Duvall. One of the things we were really good at was serving passionate fans of Westerns. The theory was to take an iconic movie star, Robert Duvall, and create an original program that really served that audience well. So that month we took some of the best films in the Western genre and curated them in a way that I thought was particularly AMC, and then served that audience a like-minded original that really superserved that specific passionate audience.

If you fast-forward to our original scripted programming and you look at Mad Men or Breaking Bad, we used the same strategy, which was to curate a group of movies that really served a passionate audience and then try to serve them the type of original programming that you would have seen paired with great movies on the premium networks.

WS: And today The Walking Dead is a top rated show in the 18-to-49 demographic.
COLLIER: That came out of the same thing. Fear Fest is a multi-week horror film festival and it’s been on AMC every October for the last 16 years. Just as we did with westerns, we served a passionate audience with Fear Fest. For years we were looking for an original programming opportunity that served that audience. When we saw Robert Kirkman’s great work in the graphic novel The Walking Dead, we thought it was the perfect opportunity to do just that. It was the biggest show of the fall season, not just cable but broadcast as well in the 18-to-49 demo. That speaks to the fact that we superserve that core audience and also made the show relatable to broader audiences.

WS: AMC’s tagline is “Story Matters Here”. How does that shape your decision-making process when you are greenlighting projects?
COLLIER: “Story Matters Here” came about at a moment in time when we wanted to say we are about the stories we tell. And, like I said, that was a certain type of premium storytelling that we were going to try to do on basic cable in a way no one else had. In terms of a filter that informs the stories that we select, we use three words: unexpected, unconventional and uncompromising. If you look at Mad Men, a period piece was pretty unexpected and unconventional for television. In fact, we had a lot of people who told us a period piece wouldn’t work in series television. Breaking Bad, here’s a show about a lead character who completely undergoes a metamorphosis around some very difficult and often reprehensible choices. And a show that is set in a zombie apocalypse like The Walking Dead, certainly all of those are unexpected, unconventional and uncompromising.

A lot of networks, once they do one show, they tend to do the next show that looks just like it. And we’ve gone the other way, a much more premium way, and in a lot of ways a more difficult way, which is to say, once you do a show the next one is almost unexpectedly not like it: so Mad Men to Breaking Bad to The Walking Dead to Hell on Wheels. The common theme is that we really want an AMC show to be giving you a little something more than you expect, and something more than you might get elsewhere on television.

WS: Do you most often produce pilots or do you also go straight to series? What is the ratio between pilots that you order and series that go to air?
COLLIER: We’ve always taken pilots very seriously. We are very deliberate in our development process and when we greenlight scripts to pilot, we really picture the pilot as the first episode of the series. And to date that has worked. When we make a pilot we try to go in thinking this could very well be the first episode of a series we plan to make. And I hope when people bring us their projects, they see that at AMC, because we are so thoughtful about the development process, by the time we are making a pilot we are really hoping to bring it to series. That said, we’ve gone straight to series. The Walking Dead was one that we went straight to six episodes, but it’s not a model that we are going to continue to roll out, it was just the right opportunity for such an epic story line that also had a built-in arc from the graphic novel [it was based on].

WS: What have you found to be the best ways to serve today’s superviewers, who will “binge watch” their favorite show online while waiting for the new season to premiere on the network?
COLLIER: I’m still a huge believer in water-cooler television. In February we premiered [the second half of the third season] of The Walking Dead and it had its largest audience ever. We had 12 million viewers on premiere night and then added another 2.5 to 3 million within the next three days [from DVR viewing]. And all of that to me is an example of serving the viewer with water-cooler events. By the way, our traditional scheduling methods on the channel of marathons and catch ups are time-proven devices that allow people to stay in tune with the content if they missed it and come back to the water-cooler event.

I have a real belief in the cable ecosystem and what’s been great is that over the years technology has changed and added ways catch up and keep people engaged. Binge viewing is another way that seems to be driving viewers back to the network and back to that water-cooler event. You’ve got a show like Mad Men that has grown five years in a row. Breaking Bad has done the same, it has grown each year it’s been on the air and now The Walking Dead is doing the same. I’m confident that, a) the television event is still an event, and b) all the ways that passionate viewers are staying engaged and not just catching up but also getting more deeply involved is helping to drive back to that water-cooler events.

WS: I marked my calendar early so I wouldn’t miss the premiere of Mad Men’s new season! That reminds me of the ’70s when we planned our week’s social activities around the shows we didn’t want to miss because we had no way to watch them if we missed the live broadcast. 
COLLIER: That’s a great point you make. We do a lot to send out the premiere date and let people know when the event is coming. February 10 for The Walking Dead or April 7 Mad Men, I think those dates still matter and people still like the notion of watching a show when it is an event, so they can drive social activity around it, and get more deeply involved with the product and with everything from the creators to the actors and the characters.