How AMC Became HBO's Nightmare
The cable upstart took a page from pay network's playbook to create shows that are threatening HBO's Emmy supremacy.
For the first time since its landmark series The Sopranos ended an illustrious eight-year run in 2007, HBO is officially back in the drama game with not one but two fierce Emmy contenders: the lavish Boardwalk Empire and fantastical Game of Thrones.
Too bad there's a bloodthirsty competitor named AMC close behind.
The secret to AMC's recent domination of the Emmys is a well-studied formula whose data has been drawn directly from HBO's own stellar record: You win awards not with scads of cash but with character-based shows that aim high, fit the brand and attract talent. Veena Sud, showrunner of AMC's new Emmy hopeful The Killing, follows those practices. "Always assume that your audience is smarter than you are," says Sud.
Back in 1999, HBO was the smart upstart that gave the networks nightmares with The Sopranos, which won two Emmys for best drama, earned more than 100 nominations and helped drive networks ABC, NBC, Fox and CBS out of the winner's circle (save for Lost, 24 and The West Wing).
Now AMC is delivering that nightmare to just about everyone -- a trend that started in 2008 with the debut of three-time drama winner Mad Men.
"Mad Men came in under the radar," says former Sopranos executive producer Terence Winter, whose current HBO epic Boardwalk Empire is considered a front-runner for this year's drama Emmy. "It was on a network no one had ever heard of, aside from movies."
Then came AMC's Breaking Bad -- a gritty critical favorite and two-time nominee with a three-year lock on drama actor in Bryan Cranston -- though a production delay makes him and the series ineligible for the 2011 race.
And now, says Dan Weiss, co-creator of HBO's other Emmy hopeful, Game of Thrones, "The zombies are creeping up!"
He's referring, of course, to creator Frank Darabont's The Walking Dead, AMC's latest Emmy party-crasher, which debuted in the fall with 5.3 million viewers, making it the network's biggest hit yet.
And most recent to join the canon is AMC's Twin Peaks-like Killing, which stands to get a boost by its nomination for best drama by the Broadcast Television Journalists Association in its first-ever Critics' Choice awards ceremony June 20, four days before Emmy voting closes (see sidebar, p. 74).
"AMC has more nominations for our awards than any other network," says BTJA president Joey Berlin of its inaugural nomination ballot. "Our Critics' Choice movie awards have pretty similar tastes to that of Oscar voters. So I think our TV awards may be similar to that of the Television Academy."
AMC's early presence in this year's Emmy race is so formidable, it's already helping to chip away at the confidence of some of the very creative minds in whom HBO invested millions to help resurrect its place in the genre.
"I'm very skeptical that we'll be part of that grand contest," admits Thrones co-creator David Benioff, an accomplished screenwriter (Troy, The Kite Runner): "We don't consider ourselves to be a front-runner. We're a dark horse at the moment. I think the race will probably be between AMC and Boardwalk," he says.
How on Earth did it come to this -- that a network most known for airing old-movie marathons became Emmy juggernaut HBO's biggest threat?
Its first stab at an original drama, 1996's Remember WENN -- a radio station-set series created by Rupert Holmes, the guy who wrote the "Pina Colada Song" -- wasn't memorable at all after its four-season run. A decade and many Tarzan movie airings later, AMC made its name in 2007 by scooping up Sopranos vet Matthew Weiner's concept for Mad Men -- which, in a tasty twist of fate, HBO had passed on.
If AMC needed a model for its success, it needn't look any further than the network it stands to trounce this season, HBO. Here are the key lessons it learned:
Make TV dramas as good -- or better than -- movies
Like HBO, AMC courts the smartest audiences instead of the biggest, as old-school broadcasters must. It attracts awards and builds buzz. "We think of Game of Thrones as a movie that lasts 60 to 70 hours," says Weiss. "You envy features. They only have 120 pages of script -- we have over 600."
Also, as HBO taught AMC, it can pay to take risks on what Winter calls "something a little off-kilter."
The Sopranos was way off-kilter compared to network shows and other cable fare in 1999. "In a sense, it was the Mad Men of its era," says Winter. And AMC has made a killing with shows that are off-kilter compared to HBO. "AMC took some real gambles," says Breaking Bad executive producer Mark Johnson. "One of the things you get on AMC is the freedom to have the courage of your convictions. You can stay on scenes, let a shot really linger, instead of just snap, snap, snap to another."
Break all the old rules
AMC's motto is "Story Matters Here" -- and there's nothing showrunners love more than that edict. Whoever heard of meth cook as protagonist? Or a rain-soaked police procedural with a female lead who never takes her clothes off?
"The promise of [The Killing] is to be like the anti-cop show," says Sud. "AMC allows us to surprise ourselves and the audience. Like Walking Dead takes this horror genre and does something different with it. Brave, cool storytelling -- that's why they're being showered with Emmys."
Of course, you could say the same about most HBO producers, also bolder than their broadcast brethren. But AMC dares to outdo HBO in rule-breaking. Even HBO might balk at some of the vast pauses and digressions that Mad Men and now The Killing make fashionable. Sud calls it "slow-burn television."
Conventional execs would have done a slow burn when Sud veered from the plot and devoted an entire episode to developing the characters of the two sleuths (Emmy bait Mireille Enos and Joel Kinnaman). "It's a brave departure to take that big of a detour and say, 'OK, let's do it now, when it's not convenient, when it's not expected,' " says Sud. Would this ever have happened in Sud's network days? "No, I don't think so."
AMC also breaks one HBO rule: its penchant for bigness. For HBO, says Weiss, "There's a scale and a scope -- not just a massive storytelling exercise, but a massive world-building exercise." Since that costs more than AMC can afford, AMC breaks rules in a more minimalist direction. "We're just really trying to stay inside your own head, inside that world," says Sud. "We're taking a world that we know one way" -- the cop show, the zombie romp, the period ensemble drama -- "and carving out a tiny place in it that is new."
Be relentless about staying on brand and not afraid to crack the whip
While AMC gives creative freedom, it doesn't give showrunners a free hand. "They're not afraid to voice their opinions," says Breaking Bad's Johnson. "They had opinions about everything from music to storylines, and often you didn't agree with them, but they were smart and kept you on your toes." Sud says: "Their notes are about being true to character. They've been with you from the pitch to outlines to the set, so they're not going off the cuff. We're all making the same movie." The result: Emmy catnip.
Make an investment in art
Season budget estimates for HBO's Thrones and Boardwalk are $50 million to $60 million; for Treme, $40 million to $45 million; and for Walking Dead, $2 million to $2.5 million per episode. AMC's The Killing is also at the high end for cable. Mad Men probably costs less than $3 million, and creator Weiner famously battled AMC this spring over issues like adding two minutes of commercials. A source says AMC loses money on Mad Men. But AMC and Weiner haggled it out to save the show that made both of them famous, and it will be back in 2012.
"If The Killing had that size audience on network TV, they wouldn't show the second episode," says Berlin. Yet AMC just committed to a second season of Killing after the first murder case gets solved in the first season.
So what does AMC's rapid ascent mean for the Emmys? Will the bigger worlds of Boardwalk and Thrones be vanquished at the Emmys by AMC's tiny worlds? Is AMC the new HBO?
"No, it can't be," says a TV Academy member. "It has commercials and doesn't have the budgets that HBO has. It can't go as far as HBO with language and nudity, but it can be just as interesting with original content -- although HBO and PBS and Showtime seem to have the lock on English-type period drama. It can certainly experiment and make its own mark in style and content and is fast rivaling HBO on putting its own spin on contemporary series."
If AMC becomes the new HBO, rivals could use its smart strategy to become the Emmy-hogging new AMC. FX's Justified got a Critics' Choice nom, and Sons of Anarchy could follow. Netflix grabbed the series House of Cards after AMC passed. Even networks can sneak in cable-quality shows. "[CBS]' The Good Wife will be in the Emmy nominations, hands down," says Weiss.
If HBO has taught the business anything, it's that greatness can take time. It took The Sopranos four years to get Emmy's drama-series attention, three for its other high-concept drama True Blood. This means that even AMC's toughest new contenders aren't locks. "It can take a while for a genre show to build," says Thrones' Benioff. "I don't mean to make an arrogant comparison, but Lord of the Rings -- that was done amazingly well and wasn't recognized by its academy body out of the gate, either."
For Winter's part, speculating on Boardwalk's Emmy future is futile. "When I started on The Sopranos, [ABC's] The Practice won the Emmy that year," he says. "So I try not to even think about it. Your head hurts after a while."