One acclaimed hit series was arguably a fluke. Two back-to-back was something else. “Every channel has its breakout moment,” says AMC’s senior vice-president of original programming, Joel Stillerman. “HBO had it with The Sopranos, USA had it with Monk. But you’d be hard-pressed to find it in the first two shows that the channel did.” AMC had found its niche. We’ve heard of director as auteur (Scorsese, Spike Lee, et al.), producer as auteur (Spielberg, Lucas), even studio as auteur (Pixar). In an even more specific way than HBO or Showtime, AMC was becoming TV channel as auteur.
The one original series AMC currently has on air is The Killing, a Seattle-set adaptation of a Danish hit dramatizing a two-week murder investigation over the course of a season. It’s a police procedural, with added matte sheen, ponderous pauses, realistic yet subtly stylized cinematography, and the distinct feeling of a luxury product. In other words, it’s an AMC show.
Four years after the debut of Mad Men, the essence of what makes an AMC show has been distilled into something of a formula. It’s a highly serialized (meaning long arcs, not “plot of the week”) drama that falls into an easily relatable genre while making a fair claim to transcending it. “One of our criteria,” explains Stillerman, “is things we can look at and see a rich cinematic history without doing much heavy lifting.” Viewed that way, AMC’s choices of original series make almost too much sense. The Walking Dead was a logical extension of the network’s annual Fearfest horror-movie marathon. The Killing opens up a trunkful of dour crime dramas (its premiere’s lead-in was Se7en). And the upcoming Hell on Wheels, set during the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad, will help dust off the Broken Trail–eraWesterns. Similarly, the shows in AMC’s development hopper include a space-travel epic and a car-racing show. Last year, it wanted a boxing project (imagine all the reruns of Rocky you could schedule around it).
The Killing’s showrunner, Veena Sud, calls AMC’s style “slow-burn television.” The entire pilot episode of The Killing, which ends with the discovery of the body, would be the stuff of two pre-title minutes on Law & Order. This is top-down policy. “They say during a pitch, ‘Slow it down,’ ” one agent says incredulously.
“The Walking Dead tripled ratings. If someone brought them Rubicon today, they wouldn’t greenlight it.”
Another AMC trademark is its near-total indifference to star power. “The conventional wisdom, when you rep movie stars or superstar filmmakers on the David Fincher–Aaron Sorkin level,” says one prominent Hollywood agent, “is take them to HBO. HBO pays off. If you walk in with Will Smith, they’ll buy the pitch. Anytime you walk in with anybody important, they’ll buy it.”
AMC, on the other hand, this year alone passed on Boss, starring Kelsey Grammer with Gus Van Sant attached to direct the pilot (the project went to Starz). It turned down a J. J. Abrams pitch for a noir show one insider compares to Sin City. A high-profile pass Stillerman won’t name (it was Kevin Spacey’s House of Cards) “was a very solid piece of material, needed a little work. But they wanted us to commit straight to series. And we were going to be deliberate developers. And a very good piece of talent walked out the door, because someone else was willing to order six or eight episodes right away.” That someone was, interestingly, Netflix, in its first foray into original programming. “It won’t make me happy if it becomes a piece of landmark TV,” notes Stillerman. “But that’s how it is.”
The network got its first official HBO scalp last year. The company that produced The Killing was shopping around another Danish adaptation, The Man With the Golden Ears, about a record executive with a complicated family life. HBO wanted it; AMC got it. “We wanted to honor the relationship we’ve established with The Killing,” says one of the deal’s architects. When I asked HBO co-president Richard Plepler to comment, he went out of his way to play down any competition. “We obviously think we have more than our fair share of first-rate programming,” he said. “But there’s plenty of room for others to do good work as well.”
In 2010, AMC received about 500 pitches and 500 submissions of already-written pilot scripts. That doesn’t count the kind of spontaneous buttonholing that still goes on in lobbies and elevators. “Everyone has a reality-show pitch now,” Collier says. “I live in Connecticut, where it’s mostly finance, and I’m the TV guy, so I get noticed. They get me on the train platform.” Recently, a stranger shoved a DVD into Collier’s hands as he was walking down an AMC hallway. It was for a reality show about a radio station in Alaska, vaguely reminiscent of Remember WENN. “We didn’t go with it,” Collier deadpans.