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AMC's Charlie Collier on 'Killing' Backlash, Relationship With Matt Weiner (Q&A)

This story originally appeared in the April 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter.

AMC, home to some of the biggest ratings and critical hits on cable, seems to endure as much drama off-camera as on. A protracted 2010 contract renegotiation with Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner led to a 17-month hiatus before the March 25 premiere of season five, which debuted to a series-high 3.5 million viewers. The abrupt firing of original The Walking Dead showrunner Frank Darabont during season two was followed by record ratings for the zombie drama. And outrage over the inconclusive ending for the crime serial The Killing left many fans vowing to boycott the show (the new season starts April 1). Meanwhile, parent AMC Networks' fourth-quarter earnings report -- the third since being spun off from Cablevision Systems in 2011 -- revealed an $18 million write-down for canceled series Rubicon, though revenue rose nearly 14 percent to $339 million, exceeding Wall Street estimates.

If AMC president Charlie Collier is any worse for the wear, he's not showing it. Quick to laugh and unfailingly gracious, Collier, 42, says the lesson of last year is, "Stagger your challenges." The married father of four (twin 13-year-old boys and two daughters, 9 and 7) grew up in Westchester County, N.Y., with British expat parents; they moved to the States the year before Collier was born and took him and his older brother back to England while Collier was in high school. Collier started on the ad-sales side at A&E and History before heading to ad sales at Court TV, where he stayed until he joined AMC as its president in 2006.

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With the final 16 episodes of Breaking Bad set to begin this summer, Collier and his team are looking ahead. Hell on Wheels, the network's second-highest-rated series behind Walking Dead, returns later this year. And AMC is developing a scripted drama based on Sally Jenkins' book The Real All-Americans, about the Carlisle Indian Industrial School that produced Olympian Jim Thorpe, with Tommy Lee Jones in talks to direct the pilot. Collier talked to THR on a recent March afternoon in New York.

The Hollywood Reporter: Mad Men delivered its most-watched premiere March 25. Do the ratings validate the decision to hold the series until 2012?

Charlie Collier: Yes, and the numbers are just part of the story. Mad Men is so much more than the overnight ratings. It's really a lifestyle brand.

THR: After the contentious negotiation, how is your relationship with Matthew Weiner?

Collier: Our relationship has never been better. I've spent a good amount of time with him over the last couple weeks. The show is in great shape. What comes out in the press is bits and pieces but never the full story. We get along very well.

THR: Sons of Anarchy's Kurt Sutter accused AMC of squeezing Breaking Bad and Walking Dead to bankroll Weiner's $30 million contract, writing on Twitter that "the greed of Mad Men is killing the other two best shows on TV." 

Collier: Kurt's a talented guy. But in my entire career at AMC, we've never borrowed from Peter to pay Paul. AMC has never been in better shape, which is evidenced by the fact that this year we'll have five scripted series on. We've never been in a situation he describes. It's not accurate.

THR: The Walking Dead got off to a rocky start with the exit of showrunner Frank Darabont. But the March 18 finale made cable history. Do you feel vindicated? 

Collier: Well, I wasn't looking for vindication. We have a mission to put on programming that appeals to the passionate audience -- in that case, fans of this genre. And it worked.

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THR: The Walking Dead was criticized for its slow pace at the outset, but the back half of this season was action-packed. Is that because of Darabont's exit?

Collier: Obviously, showrunner Glen Mazarra and creator Robert Kirkman were there for the majority of the season, and it really built to its conclusion. They just did a phenomenal job. I actually didn't think it was slow.

THR: Did you ever think a zombie drama would be the highest-rated show in basic cable history?

Collier: I'd love you to say it's not a zombie drama. It's a survivalist drama; and that's what I think its appeal is. If you were torn from your family, would you lead or follow? Would you trust or not trust? The Walking Dead has passionate fans -- we call them fans, others call them "fanboys." We're serving them zombies, but we're serving everyone else a great character drama that happens to be set in the post-zombie apocalypse. And I think that's why the connection works.

THR: Were you surprised by The Killing fan outcry?

Collier: We didn't intend to mislead. It's interesting. We were and are remaining quite loyal to the arc of the original series [which revealed the killer after 20 episodes]. I'm confident that we'll be able to get people back into the story and have them see [showrunner] Veena Sud's great work.

THR: You did a market study to measure viewers' appetite for season two of The Killing. What did it tell you?

Collier: Intent to view is very high from the core fans. So we hope that people come back and get into the story the way they did in the first season. It remains one of the most engaging shows on television and a genre piece done differently.

 

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THR: Has the social media-enabled fan become an irritant?

Collier: Social media has allowed that relationship to be very personal. We try to listen to our audience. But you can't take every comment to heart. And by the way, by no means was it all negative.

THR: During heated Breaking Bad negotiations with creator Vince Gilligan last summer, Sony shopped it elsewhere. Were you concerned?

Collier: There are moments in every one of these projects where, as passionate as you are about them, you're reminded that it's a business. So I will say that Sony has been a phenomenal partner. They were doing what they had to do.

PHOTO: 'The Killing' Reveals 'Moody' and 'Unsettling' Season 2 Key Art

THR: Could comedy work on AMC?

Collier: We look at genres that have passionate fan bases. Would we look at comedy in the right context? Yeah, we would. We like complex, developed characters that can drive you through a narrative. Strategically, we want the genres to be well-supported by our feature films, but on the other hand, there's almost nothing we wouldn't read if it was well-developed and character-driven. We haven't hung out a comedy shingle.

THR: The Prisoner did not do exceptionally well. Are you out of the miniseries business?

Collier: We took an interesting shot at it. The mini business is a challenge. What's so great about a TV series is if you develop a series and get it to air and get good feedback, there's season two. With a mini, it's a moment in time. We're not developing minis right now actively. It's not a priority. 

THR: Would you consider a late-night topical show?

Collier: We haven't developed late night as a stand-alone daypart. I think viewing patterns have changed so much that late night to some is prime to others. But no, we haven't looked for our Bill Maher or our Chelsea Lately or our Conan.

THR: AMC looked at House of Cards. It went to Netflix with a $100 million budget, and now there are rumors of problems. Does that say something about Netflix's ability to be in the series business?

Collier: I fundamentally believe great scripted drama should have a lot of homes across media. Five years ago, I wouldn't have included the likes of Netflix.  So they're in the game -- and that's good for the creative community. The more outlets, the more opportunity. I want to clearly message to the creative community what it's like to develop at AMC and to be part of a smaller group of projects where if we make the pilot, we really intend to bring it to series.

THR: Your parents took you back to England when you were 15, but you returned to attend college at Bucknell. What made you return?

Collier: America was home for me. All my friends were here. The educational and sports opportunities were better. I taught tennis during college, to pay for college. I was the pro at [Willowbrook Swim and Tennis] club in Chappaqua, N.Y., for four years. That opportunity wasn't given to someone my age in England at the time.

THR: Do you let your sons watch The Walking Dead?

Collier: We watch it together. They've met the cast. They think Chandler [Riggs, the 12-year-old actor who plays Carl Grimes] is amazing.

THR: But your daughters don't watch it?

Collier: Not yet. They're much more Breaking Bad fans. (Laughs.)

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THE NUMBERS BEHIND AMC: The network has transformed itself from a sleepy movie channel to a scripted drama powerhouse

Breaking Bad

  • 1.9 million: Average viewers per episode
  • 19: Takes for the standoff  between Walter and Gus in the season-four finale

Mad Men

  • 2.3 million: Average viewers per episode
  • 53: Percentage of viewers with an annual household income of more than $100,000

The Killing

  • 2.2 million: Average viewers per episode
  • 20: Episodes of the Danish series before killer is revealed (U.S. version has aired 13 episodes)

The Walking Dead

  • 7 million: Average viewers per episode
  • 150: Extras who showed up to audition for roles as zombies