NEW YORK — On a recent morning, Joel Stillerman, an executive with the cable network AMC, was
sitting in his 15th-floor office and getting excited. But the subject of his enthusiasm wasn’t 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. “
You need to see it. It’s all about one of my favorite themes — second chances.”
In just four years, Stillerman has ascended from the obscurity of midlevel jobs in cable
television and independent film to a position of 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 such as
The Walking Dead.
But in carving out this influence, the 50-year-old executive 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, although 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 people approved two pilots (the first
new shows in almost two years) that will take place in more familiar confines: the legal and police
“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?’ ”
Even in the unruly world of cable television, AMC’s development approach is singular.
After Stillerman and his team pick a group of scripts, they invite creators to a southern
California hotel room to make their case that a pilot should be produced. The creators 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 system has angered some creators, who resent being asked for so much work on something that
probably will never see the light of day.
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 the Trayvon Martin case from
Oscar-nominated screenwriter Richard LaGravenese (The Fisher King,
Water for Elephants), as well as
Low Winter Sun, an adaptation of a British miniseries about dirty cops that comes from
Chris Mundy, a longtime veteran of
Criminal Minds and
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 has turned every pilot it ever made into a series.