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AMC Goes 'Mad’ — But Is Not

7/13/2007 8:05 PM Eastern

Like Don Draper, the creative genius at the center of Mad Men, AMC’s new series about the advertising industry in 1960, Charlie Collier has something to pitch.

The AMC executive vice president and general manager isn’t writing copy touting Lucky Strikes or Bethlehem Steel. Rather, Collier’s message is that the series debut this week marks a new day for the 91 million-subscriber network. It’s the first original drama series in the movie network’s history.

“In many ways, it all starts on July 19 [at 10 p.m.],” said Collier, who joined the Rainbow Entertainment Services network last September. “It’s an evolution of our network, a new beginning.”

AMC is also involved in a co-production basis with the BBC of a scam artist series, called Hustle. This push into original programming represents a new on-air direction for the network, plus the potential for strengthening ties with affiliates, making inroads with Hollywood producers and talent and creating sponsorship opportunities through the current crop of mad men (and women) on Madison Avenue.

While it holds a library encompassing some 4,000 films, AMC drew critical acclaim last June with original Western miniseries Broken Trail. Starring Robert Duvall, the four-hour show blew out the network’s ratings records as the top-rated movie on cable in a decade. Given that success, AMC decided to step up the original pace via Mad Men and other series, with an eye on becoming more than just a film curator.

“We have the best movie library on TV. Our goal is to make cinematic-quality scripted series that can stand side by side with these great movies,” Collier said. “It’s a strategy that worked very well for HBO.”

Mad Men was created by Matt Weiner, the executive producer and writer for HBO’s hit The Sopranos. Mad Men offers a highly stylized look at the go-go days of advertising on Madison Avenue, replete with healthy doses of smoking, drinking, sexism, sexual harassment and racism. This take on the period, as seen through the prism of the personal and professional lives of the men and women of fictional agency Sterling Cooper, was shot on film and converted to the high-definition format.

AMC is proffering episodes, interviews and outtakes with cast and crew on an on-demand basis to operators. The idea is to not only generate awareness, but to boost the advanced services of AMC distributors.

“The feedback from our affiliates is that we’re providing them with high-end content that makes their VOD offerings more valuable,” said Collier.

AMC is also gaining value in the eyes of the creative community.

“We’re very proud to be delivering a product from Matt Weiner and [director] Alan Taylor,” he said. Among Taylor’s credits: TV shows Lost, Sex and the City and The Sopranos, plus theatricals Palookaville and Kill the Poor.

Similarly, Breaking Bad, a nine-episode AMC series debuting in January, also features top-level talent. The show follows a desperate man who turns to a life of crime to secure his family’s finances and features such names as Emmy-nominated actor Bryan Cranston (Malcolm in the Middle, Little Miss Sunshine) in the lead role; Aaron Paul (Mission Impossible III); executive producer Mark Johnson (The Chronicles of Narnia, Donnie Brasco); and Oscar-winning cinematographer John Toll (Braveheart, Legends of the Fall) as director of photography.

Next year, Collier said, AMC will also venture into the science-fiction series realm for the first time with a remake of the 1960s skein The Prisoner, and will likely premiere one of several miniseries projects it has in various stages of production.

Despite the ramp-up, Collier said AMC will never stray too far from its theatrical roots, as originals, scripted or movie-related programs like the long-running Sunday Morning Shootout won’t exceed 10% of the schedule.

Under Collier’s watch, AMC has emphasized putting films and franchises into context under such banners as “Hollywood Icons,” in which Tinseltown’s biggest stars’ most meaningful performances are featured; “AMC Celebrates,” which commemorates anniversaries of significant films, like it did last month with the 40th anniversary The Dirty Dozen; and “AMC Complete Collection,” which showcases franchises such as The Godfather.

This approach has not only led to stronger ratings, but opened doors to new business opportunities. For instance, the network signed General Mills as sponsor for Jack Nicholson as AMC’s “Hollywood Icon” in July. The marketer’s Honey Nut Cheerios cereal will be tied to such Nicholson films as Easy Rider, Hoffa and a rare network airing of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Collier said with the push toward original programming, AMC is getting more traction on Madison Avenue: the network signed Brown-Forman’s Jack Daniels brand of bourbon to an integrated product deal for Mad Men. Similarly, pen maker A.T. Cross Co. is on board via a deal placing the writing instruments into scripts in exchange for sponsored vignettes, signage at 200 locations nationwide that sell the pens, and an online photo gallery for the show on AMCTV.com.

Given the talent and a multi-million dollar, multimedia campaign, the show’s going to produce big numbers for AMC, right? Collier declined to play Nielsen forecaster. “I’m not in the business of making predictions, but I will say Mad Men’s success will be measured on it’s overall value to AMC, from new opportunities at the network and how it works for our affiliates.”

September