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July 24, 2014

AMC President Charlie Collier Addresses the 'Breaking Bad' & 'Walking Dead' Controversies

by Maureen Ryan, posted Aug 4th 2011 1:50PM
The Walking Dead The AMC network has followed a trajectory not unlike that of Don Draper, the ad man at the center of 'Mad Men.'

AMC's first two dramas, 'Mad Men' and 'Breaking Bad,' have been showered with acclaim, and the network had a huge hit last fall with the zombie chronicle 'The Walking Dead.' But just as Don Draper's image took a hit in the fourth season of 'Mad Men,' AMC has been enduring its own share of troubles during the past year. A timeline of AMC's ups and downs is here, but suffice to say, controversies over of 'Breaking Bad,' 'Mad Men,' 'The Walking Dead' and 'The Killing' make for a change from a few years of glowing coverage of the network's rapid ascent.

Charlie Collier, AMC's president, has a theory on why some of these things are happening this year. In a Thursday interview, he said it's partly due to the fact that the network has "a higher profile" these days. As he noted, AMC has "been in the business a relatively finite amount of time."

Having a higher profile sometimes makes you a bigger target, a fact that Don Draper and 'Breaking Bad's' Walt White know well. AMC is learning that too. As Collier said. "It's very difficult to live at a time where soundbites are perceived to be facts."

In the interest of not just providing soundbites, I asked Collier an array of questions about challenges facing the network -- and some of those big-picture challenges preceded its recent troubles. In the interview below, Collier addressed the ongoing negotiations over 'Breaking Bad's' final season or seasons, talked about 'The Walking Dead' situation and discussed what the network's goals are in the long term.

Can you talk about whether there was a proposition on the table to cut 'Breaking Bad's' fifth season order down to six or eight episodes?
I would never comment on the specifics of open negotiations, first of all because it's just not a classy thing to do to our partners, but also because negotiations change hourly. We write out a list of goals heading into every negotiation. For 'Mad Men,' the goal was to get Matt Weiner back and to make sure that this project we feel we put our hearts and souls into and invested so dearly in would conclude on our air.

Fast forward to 'Breaking Bad,' and the same goal applies, which is, we are really focused on seeing Vince Gilligan, who is one of the truly good people in the business, on seeing [creator and executive producer] Vince's vision conclude on our air and in style. There have been a lot of productive conversations and we're very hopeful we'll have an announcement soon. We've had lots of productive conversations with Sony [which produces the show] about how to do that, and that included all sorts of ways to do it in a way that Sony wins, AMC benefits and obviously the fans get the conclusion of this truly unique drama.

Breaking BadAre we seeing the endgame of 'Breaking Bad' approaching?
Vince has talked about his vision for the show and from Day 1, his pitch was, "We're going to take Mr. Chips, a mild-mannered chemistry teacher, and we're going to turn him into Scarface." What's so compelling about this story is the metamorphosis of Walt and several other characters, Jesse as well. Vince wants to end the show the way he's envisioned and not overstay his welcome -- I think I'm quoting him on that. We want to make sure that we do the same.

So many people have fallen in love with the very same thing we're so passionate about, which is this very character-driven drama. What we'd like to do is nurture the way we have so that Vince's vision is realized in the proper amount of time. Exactly what that is all part of the collaboration we're having right now with the creative team.

'The Walking Dead' has been in the news a lot, and I think my next question is not a business or industry question -- just a lay-person question. Was Frank fired? And if so or if not, why can't you say that?
First of all, nothing you ask is a lay-person question, you've been in this business a long time. [Laughs] Truly, out of respect for Frank and all the people involved, I'm not going to add to the comment that we put out [i.e., the press release that confirmed Darabont's departure and announced executive producer Glen Mazzara as the new showrunner]. We wanted to put out the release because we wanted everyone to know that we're so appreciative of Frank, and [we wanted to tell people we are retaining] Robert Kirkman's vision from the original graphic novel and Glen [Mazzara's] incredible vision, and Glen taking on the role of showrunner is all in place.

Beyond that, I'm not going to comment on specific personnel decisions.

I'm assuming you're not going to want to comment on why the timing was right after Comic-Con?
Right.

Again, trying to boil it down for people who don't deal with this kind of thing every day -- 'The Walking Dead' is your biggest hit. Why would the budget go down?
The way TV often works is, an idea is pitched, everyone looks at and develops the material, and then the network, if they so choose, produces a pilot and then decides whether to greenlight it to series after the pilot is delivered. Then, often much later, a series gets made. There's almost always a pilot before a scripted series. We were so enamored of Robert Kirkman's work in the graphic novels and the team we were assembling on both sides of the camera, and zombies were suddenly seeming so relevant to us in a way that we knew AMC's horrorfest, Fearfest, could really nurture, so we dove in and hit the ground running. For example, the first draft of 'The Walking Dead' script did not hit my desk until December of '09. So it was not in any plans for 2010, but we loved it so much that we changed our plans and moved mountains to get six episodes straight to air by October 2010 and our Fearfest event ending with 'The Walking Dead' launch on Halloween. It was 10 months from idea to premiere.

The Walking Dead
AMC made a huge investment and a big leap of faith in doing so with the goal, if it was successful, to quickly set up and launch the series on Halloween 2010 and, in success, settle into a normal pattern budget in the second year. The analogy would be, if you wanted to build a house without taking the time to lay out the entire floor plan, you'd obviously be assuming higher costs along the way as a trade-off for the speed of the project. We'd never sacrifice quality for speed, and, as such, invested heavily. But then the next time you build a house like that, with the proper time to plan, now knowing much more clearly what you're building, you would also have a better idea of what costs are heading in to the project.

The 13-episode pattern budget that all cable shows settle into is something we've worked into with the full professional buy-in of our producers of 'The Walking Dead'. They have proportionally more money to work with in aggregate this year. And really, if you view the first six episodes, as we do, in many ways view that as almost a pilot season -- we've had some obvious changes to the cost structure. Rather than amortizing fixed costs, for example, over six episodes, we're now able to amortize costs over 13 episodes. It's typical TV budgeting.

We're proud of our investment this year and last, and they're working with much more money this year against 13 episodes than they had with just six last year, appropriately, given the quality of the work. 'The Walking Dead' budget remains one of the most expensive hours of television on cable television, and, I would bet, one of the most expensive basic cable hours ever just six episodes into our hopefully long, long run.

So should I disregard anyone who says the budget for the show has been cut?
There will be no less quality on the screen at all. In fact, we've been blown away of the professionalism of every person working on this show. Our goal and our job and our track record on all of our series that we bring quality to the screen every week that is not evident in most other scripted dramas.

You have had a controversy of some kind of a bruising public negotiation with all four of your current shows. Can you tell me why you think that is happening now?
Are you talking about staffing changes or public negotiations?

Matt WeinerWell, there were public negotiations with ['Mad Men' creator] Matt Weiner that became heated, or so it seemed. There are these issues regarding 'Breaking Bad' and how that endgame will play out and even where it will play out. There was obviously the controversy over 'The Killing' and then of course the 'Walking Dead' was dominating the headlines for a couple of weeks there. Four of your series have endured situations that have become big deals in the media.
I think the things we're dealing with there are things that happen on every show. What I mean by that is, with every single scripted drama that I know of, there are always negotiations [and you try to] maintain the balance between the business and the creative. There are always challenges in regard to good reviews and bad. What we're experiencing happens behind the scenes on every drama I can think of. I don't think we're experiencing anything that unique.

It's a double-edged sword. We really built a series of projects that are first and foremost passion projects, and we're working with some of the best people in the business on both sides of the camera. Because of that, I think there is a visibility to these issues that comes along with the fact that we've had a little bit of success.

It's interesting to watch things that shouldn't play out in the press end up there. Case in point -- the 'Mad Men' negotiations. We had two steadfast goals going into those negotiations: We wanted Matt back and we wanted to see the show we had loved and nurtured so well conclude on our air. Unfortunately the negotiation got public but the net is that we achieved our goals. And the sad part of these relatively typical problems is that people get blamed for things for which they are not responsible.

There are a lot of soundbites now in the 'Breaking Bad' negotiations which I would classify as very positive negotiations. But as soundbites and leaks come out in the press, and there are certainly reasons [leaks] happens today, people get parts of the story but they rarely get the real story. Matt was blamed unfairly for the scheduling of our shows and for decisions that are squarely network decisions that, again, wouldn't turn anyone's head if they were happening in normal day to day business but are becoming topics of conversations, just because we're slightly in the public eye right now.

[One of the 'Breaking Bad' stories had] seven-day old information without context. One of the scenarios that's been reported -- they reported the number of episodes proposed, but they didn't explain nor have the context for why that would be a benefit for the show or the creative execution and the viewer. Often, it sounds like you've got squabbling where there wasn't squabbling at all. It was a conversation on how best to honor Vince's vision and Sony and AMC's continued ability to nurture the show. It's very difficult to live at a time where soundbites are perceived to be facts.

I understand what you're saying about the network's higher profile, but FX, Showtime, HBO -- they all have high profiles, but I can't remember one of those networks having a run of so many controversies in such a short time. This is a very high-profile series of things happening to several of your shows within six or eight months.
Five years ago, we had no scripted originals on our air. In the summer of 2007, we launched 'Mad Men' and we followed that up with 'Breaking Bad.' At the time, you had people saying, "Is AMC in this for the long haul?" We maintained, not only are we, but we are trying to do the kind of diverse projects that were really seen only on premium television. Our stated goal then, and it's still on my board now, is to produce premium television for basic cable.

It's not surprising because this is the history of television, especially when you're working with studios -- every few years with contract negotiations, many of them roll up [at once]. I think the reason you're seeing a confluence of events within a relatively finite period of time is simply because we've been in the business a relatively finite amount of time. And we've been able to maintain shows that are now hitting their fifth and fourth seasons and all of those renewals are [coming up] at the same time.

But truly, I don't court any of the controversy. In fact, we'd love people to look at the product we're putting out there and see that we're committed to our original goal, which is to make quality television and take risks that perhaps others wouldn't take. The fact that we're hitting bumps in the road and they've been public and within a finite amount of time has to do with the fact that now, we're managing five-plus projects at a time as opposed to one at a time and the fact that we've rolled them out so closely together.

Do you think these controversies could affect the perception of the AMC brand with the public and the affect the network's ability to attract talent?
We are building an environment where the best in the business are bringing us their passion projects. The fact that 'Mad Men' has found a home where it has been nurtured and grown every year and Matt Weiner is so beautifully running the show with his vision at the fore, and 'Breaking Bad,' a different kind of show but so nuanced in its own way, is being given the breadth of freedom it has... I know you had comments on 'The Killing' but the type of story we're trying to nurture in 'The Killing' and [the upcoming drama] 'Hell on Wheels' -- we're creating an opportunity on basic cable to bring passion projects that have been reserved for the premium environment. I hope those who do their passion projects take the time to talk to Vince and Matt and ['The Killing's'] Veena [Sud] and find that we're a place that's committed to the very thing that we were four or five years ago -- an environment where the best in the business can bring their big ideas and have them thrive.

The Walking DeadEven before any of this blew up, I think there was a big question for AMC, which is: You have this crowd-pleasing, mainstream hit in 'The Walking Dead' and also these boutique dramas that may have a smaller audience than 'The Walking Dead' but have the acclaim and quality you're looking for. What do you want to do more of going forward?
There's not one answer to that question. I want to be the network that can easily house Matt's brilliant period piece 'Mad Men' and a high-rated drama about the zombie apocalypse. We believe in telling the story and letting the story breathe in a way that is extremely unique to our air.

I also think our foundation as a network sets us up well to house that diversity. This week we're doing an event called Mob Week. We are curating some of the best mob films ever made and it really is a commitment to showcasing that genre of film. Rudy Guiliani is hosting and we have some interstitial moments that showcase the stories behind those mob dramas. And this fall we'll be doing our Fearfest again [AMC's annaul showcase of horror movies], and I think we do that better than anyone else.

So there's no one answer to your question of "What one thing are we trying to do?" I think what we do really well, and when AMC is at its best, it's super-serving a specific target audience and delivers to them not just some of the best films in a genre, but also like-minded series that can stand side-by-side with those films. So if a creator were to bring us a big idea that we thought could be a suitable part of audience-favorite programming, that's the kind of show I want to continue to build.

Follow @MoRyan on Twitter.

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jaystiles

These are the idiots that cancelled Rubicon.

August 05 2011 at 12:33 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
TAUSIF

TV Executive Roundtable: AMC Chief Defends 'Drama' Around Matthew Weiner, 'Mad Men' Negotiations (Video): http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/amc-chief-sets-record-straight-218830

http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/gallery/emmy-roundtable-tv-executives-219411#4

August 04 2011 at 5:30 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
TAUSIF

I hope AMC president Charlie Collier understand that Veena Sud is not making the same quality of show as Matthew Weiner/Vince Gilligan.

Veena Sud's writing hampered the acting of the actors on the show and limited them to chess pieces. They became stock characters. Furthermore Sud was more focused on creating twists in the mystery rather than developing rich lives for her characters. All of this added up to a boring and terrible show that is definitely no better than a CBS crime procedural.

Mo you have said time and again that television executives know what they are doing. Please keep on interviewing more television executives so that we can see this is true for ourselves.

August 04 2011 at 5:28 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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