From Ad Man to 'Mad Men'AMC's Collier has moved smoothly from sales to programming hit series 7/18/2008 08:00:00 PM Eastern
Since Charlie Collier took the reins at AMC in 2006, the network has become a contender, upping its cache considerably in a cable arena where original content is king.
Collier and his development team knew a good thing when it walked through the door—in the form of erstwhile Sopranos writer Matthew Weiner, who for five years had been nursing a script about 1960s-era Madison Avenue ad executives.
HBO passed. Showtime passed.
Collier, AMC's executive VP and general manager, thought Weiner's script deserved a chance and financed a pilot.
Mad Men, a treatise on post-McCarthy, pre-Cultural Revolution America, catapulted to a phenomenon in one short season, winning a Peabody, the Golden Globe for best drama and 16 Emmy nominations, including best drama, the most of any drama series this season. The anticipated second season, with its closely guarded plot twists, begins July 27.
“They completely trusted me,” Weiner says. “With the exception of three lines, the pilot was the script that I had written five years before that.”
Mad Men came on the heels of the success of Broken Trail, Robert Duvall's elegiac Western miniseries, which is still the most-watched original program in the network's history.
In January, AMC bowed its second original drama: Vince Gilligan's Breaking Bad, starring Bryan Cranston as a high school chemistry teacher who takes to cooking and selling crystal meth to provide for his family after a diagnosis of terminal cancer. An update of the '60s cult classic The Prisoner, with James Caviezel and Sir Ian McKellen, is on tap for early next year. And the network recently commissioned two more original series: Ice, about New York City diamond dealers, and Carter Beats the Devil, about the death of President Warren G. Harding.
“Success breeds success,” Collier says. “So when the creative community sees a Mad Men or a Breaking Bad, they know that we're willing to take risks. And these are clearly passion projects for their creators. I hope they'd tell you that AMC is a place that supports creators in a way that allows them to be the driving force.”
There is ample evidence that creative freedom yields better television. But Hollywood continues to be a famously meddlesome place. Thankfully Collier and AMC, Weiner says, are “very non-Hollywood.”
“I work with people who are fans of [Mad Men], who are fans of mine, who love the actors, who love the milieu and who often share their personal lives with me based on things that come up in the show,” he says. “And that's not what you expect. You expect [to] get memos. It's a very eccentric company.”
“I want us to be known as a place that is creator-friendly,” Collier adds. “The last thing I would do is pretend that I can do what they do better than they do it.”
FROM SELLER TO BUYER
That Collier is presiding over a network in the throes of a programming renaissance is an interesting twist for someone who rose through the ranks in the advertising suite.
“If you look around the industry, you'll see a lot of channel heads that came up from programming. So their first question is what shows can I produce,” says Ed Carroll, president of Rainbow Entertainment Services. Carroll hired Collier away from Court TV, where Collier was executive VP and general manager of ad sales until August 2006.
“He is a great listener,” Carroll adds. “He believes there's more than one solution to any problem. A network head is equal parts buyer and seller. The selling part of the job was natural to him. But the programming piece was new, and he knew what he didn't know yet. He asked tons of questions, and I think he's mastered the programming piece in a remarkably short period of time.”
Prior to his tenure at Court TV, Collier spent two years in ad sales at Oxygen. His foray into the cable ad world came in 1994 when he landed a job as an account executive at A&E. By 1998, he was VP of ad sales. He was 30 years old. At the same time, he was working on his M.B.A. at Columbia.
“I got my M.B.A. not because you need an M.B.A. in sales,” he says, “but because I thought it would help me ask better questions. The whole thought was there's so much more than what is immediately in front of you.”
His time at A&E was formative. He was part of the team that launched the sales division at AETN's History Channel. And he sought out AETN president/CEO Abbe Raven for regular conversations on the nuances and challenges of programming.
“Charlie understands both sides of the business brilliantly,” Raven says. “He knows you build a strong brand around great storytelling. He has done an outstanding job of putting AMC on the map with Mad Men.”
Collier's worldly perspective could be ascribed to his upbringing in an expat household with British parents. In 1968, a year before Collier was born, they decided to immigrate to America. An obstetrician/gynecologist, his father found work in Montana. Collier's older brother was born in England and all of his relatives are, of course, British, although Collier was born in the States. He and his brother were raised in Millwood, N.Y., a leafy Westchester enclave in the shadow of moneyed Chappaqua.
The family went back to England when Collier was 15. He finished high school there and took his O-level college entrance exams. But he missed his friends in America, and so decided to return to the States for college. He attended Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, where he majored in sociology and political science. (His parents returned to America a few years later, and are now retired and living in Florida.)
Collier still has college friends from Pennsylvania, and recently spent a weekend visiting some of them in Latrobe, Pa., a working-class town on the cusp of the Rust Belt and the former home of the Rolling Rock brewery.
Cultural references are enduring. And Collier has the bearing of someone who has lived in divergent worlds.
“I never have to explain anything to Charlie,” Weiner says. “He just gets it.”
“There's a lot of Don in Charlie,” he adds, referring to Don Draper, the charismatic account executive whose mysterious past infused the first season of Mad Men with palpable intrigue.
“He's a great persuader. He's got a very complex persona, and it's not fake. I find him to be a very inspiring person.”
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