AMC and SundanceTV's president of original programming and development, Joel Stillerman, spoke to wide-eyed independent television producers at the keynote presentation of the New York Television Festival, an event that gathers network executives and indie producers for a showcase of pilots and sizzle reels for prospective series. The longtime executive had a wealth of wisdom to impart to the crowd Monday at the Helen Mills Theater, explaining how shows like "Breaking Bad" and "True Detective" changed the TV landscape and revealing the most important factor in finding the next great show: good characters.
"The most basic common thread [in all AMC shows] is a fundamental belief that character dictates story, not the other way around," said Stillerman. "What separates 'M*A*S*H' from every other doctor show? Good characters."
Stillerman explained that when producers walk out the door after a pitch meeting at AMC, the thing executives most ardently discuss is how well the writers or producers know their characters and their world. Stillerman cited "Breaking Bad" creator Vince Gilligan's now-famous pitch explanation for his show as "Mr. Chips turns into Scarface" as an example of how to single out the character-driven potential of a show.
"If [Gilligan] had said it's a chemistry teacher that turns into a meth kingpin, you would automatically be in a much more structural and plot-driven place," said Stillerman. "It's a utilitarian way of describing the show and it would have gotten our attention, but 'Mr. Chips turns into Scarface' is a completely character-driven explanation and you immediately see there is an archetype on this side and archetype on that side and it's not obsessed with the mechanics of how Mr. Chips turns into Scarface."
Stillerman said AMC's reliance on character over plot has allowed the network to take a new approach to programming.
"For decades in ad-supported television, the conventional wisdom was you figure out who your audience is, you hyper-focus on them and then you super serve them," said Stillerman. "At AMC, we decided that was the old way."
The executive said AMC looked to HBO and realized they could identify multiple passionate audiences -- the network targeted horror audiences with "The Walking Dead," for example -- and serve all of them, instead of doubling down on one specific audience or taking a mainstream, something-for-everyone approach with each show.
"I also say if I can't picture the person who hates the show, I'm in a potentially dangerous place," said Stillerman.
Later, Stillerman was asked a question about the effect on the industry of shows being pitched with A-list talent attached, like HBO's "True Detective," which was famously pitched with stars Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson already signed on.
Stillerman, who revealed that he and AMC heard the "True Detective" pitch -- he says "the fix was in for HBO," though -- said the show "rewrote the rules for who might be interested in television."
"The minute that barrier was broken, an exponentially larger number of shows started coming in with talent attached," said Stillerman.
However, the exec says the phenomenon is a "double-edged sword" for networks.
"When [someone like Matthew McConaughey] walks in your door, you are in a very different box at that point. You are pretty much expected to shut up, write a check and work with what is there," said Stillerman. "When you have talent attached that usually means a director is attached as well that has a specific window for when he can direct the pilot or the first season. It's changed the game dramatically and it's an open-ended question as to whether it is better or worse."
Stillerman's parting advice was to be perseverant, as well as mindful, of the business side of the TV industry.
"To say you are a creative person is to limit your potential. Be creative, but also understand the business."
From "The Walking Dead" to "Better Call Saul," both massive ratings hits for AMC, it would be safe to say that Stillerman, a former music video director, has a pretty good understanding of the business.
Follow @Ja9GarofaloTV on Twitter for more coverage of the 2015 New York Television Festival.