Lunch at Michael’s with AMC and Sundance TV President Charlie Collier

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What better way to re-launch the popular MediaVillage column Lunch at Michael’s than by interviewing AMC and Sundance TV President and General Manager Charlie Collier just three days before the finale of “Mad Men,” arguably the most talked about series of the last ten years, especially among advertising executives and other members of the media? MyersBizNet Chairman and Media Village publisher Jack Myers, who joined me in interviewing Collier, takes the praise for this iconic program even further. “I believe,” he told Collier over lunch, “that ‘Mad Men’ will become known as the most important television series in history.”

Collier (pictured at top with Myers) had in the months leading up to this interview been approached on a steady basis by countless people inside and outside the business seeking spoilers about the “Mad Men” series finale. “How will it end?” they wanted to know, with some degree of urgency. Collier wouldn’t speak a word about it to anyone, including Myers and myself.

That didn’t stop us from trying. “I won’t crack,” Collier advised, cheerfully demonstrating the poker face he had perfected in recent months. “I have been well trained to believe that secrecy is a wonderful thing. [‘Mad Men’ creator] Matt Weiner has said it from the start and I’m a proud convert. He doesn’t have an ounce of cynicism for the audience at all. He tells the story he wants to tell and he believes viewers should watch it without spoilers. There is something wonderfully pure about that.”

This particular lunch at Michael’s represented something of a full circle moment for Collier, because the very first party for “Mad Men” happened to have taken place in 2007 in the same restaurant. “We held our first ‘Mad Men’ event in there, before the premiere,” he recalled, pointing to the sun-splashed room in the back. “It was (Huffington Post editor) Arianna Huffington, (advertising legend) Jerry Della Femina and (businessman and investor) Jared Kushner talking about who the ‘mad men’ of today were. Jared talked about hedge fund guys and their ability to run free. Arianna moderated and talked about the differences then and now. Jerry basically said, “As crazy as you make it you can’t make it as crazy as it was. It was a great moment.”

Although Collier was excited about the programming the lies ahead on AMC (including the premiere of “Fear the Walking Dead” later this summer, the second seasons of “Halt and Catch Fire” and “Better Call Saul” and, in the fall, season six of “The Walking Dead”) and at sibling network Sundance TV, which he has also overseen since April, he was nothing if not wistful about the passing of the series that galvanized popular culture and brought AMC unprecedented attention in the media and Hollywood.

Agreeing with Myers that the impact of “Mad Men” will be timeless, Collier spoke about the eventual joy he will have in watching it with his children. (He has four: Twin sons Ben and Will and daughters Kate and Ellie.) He compared it to the recent experience of sharing “The Godfather,” his all-time favorite movie, with one of his sons. “I’ve watched ‘The Godfather’ 50 times in my life, start to finish,” he said. “I most recently watched it with my son, who’s taking a film class. To watch it through his eyes and tell him what I love about it, hear what he loves about it, was a wonderful thing. I hope that someday he’s watching ‘Mad Men’ with his kids and talking about it.”

Just a short while before this interview Collier had the opportunity to meet with Francis Ford Coppola, the director of his favorite film. “He said something very funny,” Collier recalled. “I’m paraphrasing … he said, ‘The things you get fired for when you’re young are the things you get lifetime achievements for when you’re my age.’ It was brilliant.”

Coppola’s comment got him to thinking about his own past. “I think what you would have seen from me in my youth was a lot of dreaming, a lot of entrepreneurial spirit,” Collier mused. “I had a lot of businesses growing up. I ran a tennis stringing business at 16.”

Collier, whose parents were British (making him the first in his family born in America), was an avid tennis player during his childhood and teen years in Millwood, New York, and “head pro” for most of his college summers at a country club in nearby Chappaqua. He received his undergraduate degree from Bucknell University and intended to pursue law; in particular, he wanted to be a media attorney, in part because of his great love of movies and television. But something happened the summer after graduation that set him on the path to where he is today.

“I drove across country after college with a dear friend, a fraternity brother named John Elliott,” Collier recalled. “We left after graduation. We bought an old VW van with a pop top and two double beds and we drove across country going to every Major League ballpark. We actually went to every National League ballpark and many American league parks. We’re both Mets fans so we tried to watch the Mets as much as we could. (Collier’s interest in baseball has expanded over time. He is now part owner of the San Jose Giants.)

“I brought my first year law books,” he continued. “I thought my pro-bono work could be social inequality and gender inequality. [His independent studies at Bucknell were about gender inequality.] I thought, ‘Great, I can be a lawyer, I’ll get into media, and that’s what I’ll do.’ So I brought my books on this trip. I read torts and contracts … anything I could get my hands on.”

One day Collier’s traveling companion said to him, “My dad always said you should be in sales.” When Collier asked what his father did, John replied, “You see how at every stadium we’re in great seats, we’re in skyboxes? And all the general managers are saying, ‘Hey, you’re Mike Elliott’s kid?’ [My dad is] a media buyer!’ I remember this so vividly. I leaned down from the top bunk in the van in some trailer park in the middle of nowhere and I said to John, ‘I’m not going to law school.’” Then Collier made it official: He called his parents to inform them of his change in plans.

“Mike [Elliott] sent me a bunch of articles about rep firms,” Collier recalled. “I set interviews from the road between the time we got back and the time I was supposed to start law school.” One of the interviews was with Telerep, where he landed his first job in the business.

In the years that followed he married his wife Kristin, whom he describes as his “college sweetheart.” And while working at Telerep he realized that media sales wasn’t necessarily the right area for him. “I wanted to get close to the product,” he explained. “The thing about being a rep is you’re always a middle man.” Arlene Manos, the current President of National Ad Sales at AMC Networks, was at A&E at the time and gave Collier his first job in cable when he was 24. “I think we hit it off because she and I just clicked and she saw I wanted to do more than just sell spots. I wanted to get where the content was.”

He earned his MBA at Columbia while working at A&E and also at History during its launch. Along with work and education his personal life was keeping him busy. “My wife had the twins during [my] fifth term [at Columbia],” he recalled. “It was a big juggle.”

His career would then take him to Oxygen, Court TV and AMC.

Asked to identify the people who have been most influential in his career, the first name that came to mind was Arlene Manos. “[She] took a chance on me,” Collier said. “You need people to take risks on you to be successful no matter who you are. Also [Oxygen co-founder] Gerry Laybourne. I learned a lot from that experience. [Former Comedy Central President] Larry Divney and [former Lifetime President] Doug McCormick [both of whom he turned to for advice when making the transition from sales to programming].”

Collier also cited “[AMC Networks Chief Operating Officer] Ed Carroll and [AMC Networks President and Chief Executive Officer] Josh Sapan, who gave a salesman the chance to run a network at a time when they needed the business to grow with the creative.”

In more general terms, Collier is inspired and influenced by “everyone who has ever written a story that made me wish I could write that well. The ability to have an idea, write it down, sell it, have someone invest in it, get hundreds of people to produce it and be flexible enough to let them tweak your image along the way and play with your baby and have it result in something.”

For Collier it always comes back to movies, which is what made AMC such a great fit for him.  Produced before he arrived at the network, the hit 2006 miniseries “Broken Trail” – conceived largely in response to the outsize success of classic westerns on the channel -- started AMC on the road to “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad,” “The Walking Dead” and the rest. Before the debut of “Broken Trail” the network’s programmers “spent a month curating the best westerns of all time,” Collier said. It was all part of the big build up to the “Broken Trail” premiere.

He joined AMC immediately after. “We were the largest, most widely distributed movie network in the country at a time when movies were starting to become commoditized,” he explained. “We looked around when I got there and said, ‘We have an opportunity to do what HBO is doing best, taking movies and building series that could stand side by side with them in a really meaningful way.’ One of the first things we looked for was a western series and it became ‘Hell on Wheels.’ It’s still a juggernaut for us. It’s at the end of our western lineup on Saturdays. It has the longest lead in on television, 14 hours of a genre ending with a high end drama.

“We changed [the long-running pre-Halloween movie franchise] MonsterFest to FearFest. We were looking for a horror series. It became ‘The Walking Dead.’ We had a month of horror movies pointing toward the premiere of ‘Walking Dead’ on Halloween night.”

At the time of its premiere “Mad Men” benefitted from a similar approach to programming and scheduling. “We launched ‘Mad Men’ behind ‘Goodfellas,’” Collier recalled. “We said, very loosely speaking, ‘We have a Scorsese epic, with smoke filled rooms, about a group of men who think they are beyond the rules and we’re going to tee it up with [a show featuring] a lot of smoked filled rooms with men who think the rules don’t apply to them. We have a series coming up called ‘Making the Mob’ and the lead-in is going to be Mob Week, and then Mob Mondays. I still think we’re a movie network at our core, and even with Netflix and even with technology I’m proud of that.”

Collier is not the first member of his family to be involved with movies. “My grandfather was one of the original executive producers of ‘Doctor Who’ on the movie side,” he revealed. “I take great pride in that.” (BBC America, home in the United States of the current “Doctor Who” series, is a sibling network of AMC and Sundance TV.) I have one of the original ‘Doctor Who’ movie posters from the BBC with his name in the credits. ‘Dr. Who and the Daleks.’ (Note the difference in spelling.)

“His name was Joe Vegoda,” Collier concluded. “There’s nobody else in my family who’s in media at all. But everyone says I remind them of Grandpa Joe.”

The opinions and points of view expressed in this commentary are exclusively the views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Media Village management or associated bloggers.


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