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Stillerman ’84, of AMC, talks hit TV shows

Television executive Joel Stillerman ’84 visited campus April 11 to give students advice on how to create a hit TV show.

At cable network AMC, where he is senior vice president of original programming, Stillerman is involved in creating successful TV shows such as Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead. Previously, Stillerman worked for MTV’s Unplugged series and produced and directed the movie Blow.


Joel Stillerman '84, senior vice president of original programming at AMC, speaks with student journalists before his talk on developing hit TV shows April 11. (Photo by Michelle Kwong '15)

“You never know things are going to be a hit,” he said. “The [shows] were both just fantastic stories with a reason to exist, which is something that I think is pretty important.”

Stillerman recalled Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan’s pitch for the show, saying it was “Mr. Chips turns into Scarface.”

“[It was] the most brilliant boiled-down-to-its-essence, character-driven pitch maybe in television history,” Stillerman said.

Stillerman said AMC follows three simple steps when it comes to crafting hit shows.

“One is the idea of being unexpected. One is the idea of being unconventional. The third one is finding a passionate audience,” he said. “For me, as a programmer, I’m much more interested in finding a piece of television that’s going to be someone’s favorite show, than a show that I have to describe as, ‘It’s kind of for everybody.’”

Stillerman, Cook

Joel Stillerman '84 and Martie Cook, associate chair of the Visual and Media Arts Department, at the Semel Theater on April 11. (Photo by Michelle Kwong '15)

He says the industry has changed drastically since he graduated from Emerson, making it tougher and more competitive.

“When I started there were probably 20 to 30 dramas on television, period. Now there are probably well over a hundred. There are probably 40 channels and new medium platforms like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon, which are all doing original dramas. So it’s much more competitive. Good for the consumer, but tough for us,” he said.

Stillerman described the shift from broadcast TV to online services as a major driving factor for AMC. Consumers seek shows they can become deeply invested in and binge-watch on their own time, rather than putting their schedules aside to watch the TV.

Stillerman also gave his top five pieces of advice to students aspiring to work in the TV industry: expect the unexpected; work hard; show passion; connect to talented people; and have a point of view about everything, even if it means disliking one of AMC’s shows.

“If you’re making a show where you can’t imagine a person who hates it as much as a person who loves it, you’re not in a very interesting place,” Stillerman said.

Stillerman’s visit was organized by the Office of Development and Alumni Relations.

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