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Interview: Joel Stillerman – The Key Is Finding A Dedicated Audience, Not A Large One

Wesley Emblidge ’17 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer

Photo Credit: Ken Gabrielsen/Getty Images.
Photo Credit: Ken Gabrielsen/Getty Images.

“We aren’t a niche network,” said Joel Stillerman, the Executive Vice President of Original Programming, Production and Digital Content at AMC. Stillerman, who graduated from Emerson College in 1984. He has overseen the production of hits like Breaking Bad, Mad Men and his most successful yet, The Walking Dead.

“I grew up on the George Romero movies,” he said. “[The comic which he adapted the show from] struck me as so radically different from the zombie movies I had seen and loved.” When he says the network isn’t a niche network, he’s wrong in one respect.

Although AMC caters to a wide audience-Stillerman compares them to how The Food Network is very focused-they’re really just catering to many different niches. Stillerman wants to “find the passionate audience.” He certainly found that in zombie fans, who made the show the most-watched drama series in cable TV history.

Stillerman joined AMC in April 2008, and the first show he gave the green light to was cancelled after one season. Jason Horwitch’s spy thriller Rubicon had all the makings of a hit, and was a show Stillerman really believed in. It hit his three main guiding principles for a show: it was unexpected, unconventional, and was for an underserved audience. Yet the show never caught on, and he thinks he’s figured out the key as to why.

“Shows that are dense and hard to follow are tailor made for alternative viewing,” he said, referring to the rise in digital platforms in recent years. He considers Rubicon “one of the last shows that had to work as a live show,” one that came about just as options like Netflix streaming and DVR programming became a really major part of the industry. He believes that today, the show would work, as these new technologies have helped save others. “In any other time in history [Breaking Bad] would’ve been cancelled,” said Stillerman.

Stillerman thinks with these new platforms it’s “extremely difficult to see what shows are working,” but can tell that they’re leading to new, dedicated audiences for shows, which is what he’s interested in.

“For me, as a programmer, I’m much more interested in finding a piece of television that’s going to be somebody’s favorite show-even if it’s just the four of you guys-I’m more interested in that than something that I have to describe as ‘well, it’s kind of for everyone’,” he said.

He loved his time at Emerson because it taught him simply that “making stuff is possible. You could actually make stuff you cared about.” In a television landscape where so much of the content feels manufactured and derivative, Stillerman is trying to create stories that stand out as new. So far, even his less successful shows have still managed that, and if they can find the kinds of small but passionate audiences that Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead have, Stillerman will be happy.

“You should be striving to evoke strong emotions, you should be looking for that visceral connection with your audience,” he said. “The truth is there’s a whole lot of people out there who would never watch [The Walking Dead], and that’s fine.”

Watch A Clip From The Interview:

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