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From Nirvana to Zombies

Talking about the decision to air The Walking Dead, Joel Stillerman, who has been senior VP of original programming, production and digital content at AMC for three years, responds with a bad pun. “It was truly a no-brainer,” he says with a cringe.

Stillerman knew enough about zombies to get his hands on The Walking Dead, which comes from a comic book that had been developed as a series by HBO. “I was a fan, but not a fanboy,” he says. “It was brought to us by Frank [Darabont] and Gale [Ann Hurd] and I distinctly remember thinking, this is a big idea.”

The series debuted on Halloween to a cablerecord 5.3 million viewers. “It’s definitely been a nice little surprise in terms of just how big it popped,” Stillerman says. The Walking Dead was quickly extended by AMC to a fullseason run.

The new series joined some distinguished company at the network. Two award-winning dramas were already running on AMC when Stillerman heard from his friend, actor/director/ writer Alex Winter, that the network was looking for somebody to run original programming. “I was like most people at that time, watching Mad Men and BreakingBad and wondering how some place was able to do such great stuff,” Stillerman says. “It was a time in my life where I thought I’d like to be back on the executive side of things and be at a network, especially one that had the kind of growth potential AMC does.”

For his part, Charlie Collier, president of AMC, says he was looking for a well-rounded executive to fill the post, and that Stillerman fit the bill. “We always talked about creating an environment,” Collier says. “[Stillerman] calls it ‘a first-class place to pitch.’ I’ve always phrased it as, we want a great environment where the best in the business bring their passion projects. You look at [Stillerman’s] career across both television success and film, and it really intrigued me.”

Despite many impressive credits, that background is the result of a series of happy accidents, at least according to Stillerman. The Chicago native says he began to focus on a career in showbiz after high school. He thought he’d be the next Phil Spector—minus the scandal—when he entered Columbia College, a small school that has produced a number of filmmakers. A friend there asked him to work on a student film. “I did it and I remember thinking, what a miserable experience,” he says. “But six month later he invited me to screen the film, and I was kind of amazed. That frigid day in Grant Park turned into a nice short film, and I was hooked.”

He transferred to Emerson College in Boston, and after graduating got his first job as an office manager at Broadcast Arts, a production company known for producing channel IDs for MTV and Pee Wee’s Playhouse. The job gave Stillerman his first taste of producing—a Raisin Nut Bran commercial— and he then struck out to direct music videos. When that didn’t go as well as he hoped, through his music video connections he wound up in the office of MTV CEO Judy McGrath. He eventually earned the job of running the network’s studio-based programming. Among the highlights of his six years at MTV were executive producing the Nirvana episode of Unplugged and producing an inaugural ball for President Clinton.

Stillerman then partnered with his friend, the director Ted Demme, to form Spanky Pictures. “We had a nice run and made a bunch of movies I’m incredibly proud of,” Stillerman says, ticking off the films Rounders and Blow and the Emmy-winning TV movie A Lesson Before Dying. After Demme’s death in 2002, Stillerman ran production and development for Walden Media, were he helped land the rights to the Narnia films from the estate of C.S. Lewis. After Walden, he produced the HBO movie Sometimes in April, about the genocide in Rwanda, and a number of unscripted series for MTV.

Since joining AMC, “Joel has been a good partner, not only on the original programming side, but on the strategy of elevating AMC’s game in all sorts of different areas, including short-form programming,” says Collier.

Stillerman acknowledges that AMC’s string of hits raises expectations about the shows he adds to the network’s schedule. “We’ll be fine,” he says. “Good storytelling wins the day, and then you have to figure out the business around it.”

Speaking of that storytelling, Stillerman is looking forward to several new projects. “I’m personally very excited about The Killing,” he says of the crime drama adapted from a TV series in Denmark. “It’s not that nobody’s ever told a crime story before. In fact, it’s been done a number of times and continues to be. But this is something really special, and I think we’ll reinvent the genre.”

Then there’s The Fighter, a non-fiction boxing project in development featuring Freddy Roach, who has trained some of the top fighters in the world. “I think boxing continues to be a place where there is a limitless amount of drama that can be mined,” Stillerman says.

When not reading scripts, Stillerman says he likes spending time with his family. But he also enjoys spending time in alleys. In what he calls the first public acknowledgement of his habit, Stillerman says he’s an avid bowler in an old-school men’s league in Montclair, N.J. There are no showbiz types there—it’s about “cheap beer and whatever the game of the night is on TV,” he says. His average is about a 159, he says, but “work has really messed it up.”

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Jon Lafayette
Jon Lafayette

Jon has been business editor of Broadcasting+Cable since 2010. He focuses on revenue-generating activities, including advertising and distribution, as well as executive intrigue and merger and acquisition activity. Just about any story is fair game, if a dollar sign can make its way into the article. Before B+C, Jon covered the industry for TVWeek, Cable World, Electronic Media, Advertising Age and The New York Post. A native New Yorker, Jon is hiding in plain sight in the suburbs of Chicago.