AMC has been through multiple phases, from its origins as American Movie Classics to its iconic anti-hero years of “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men.” Now, the flagship property of AMC Networks is entering its next era, as it says goodbye to “The Walking Dead” and “Better Call Saul” in a few months, and hello to its Anne Rice franchise, increased viewership on AMC+ and its biggest year of original programming yet.
The way Dan McDermott, president of entertainment and AMC Studios at AMC Networks, puts it to Variety, the company is experiencing “a real creative renaissance and resurgence.” “In the wake of these classic, great tentpole series ending, we’re successfully launching the next generation of classic, great tentpole series,” McDermott says.
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Behind-the-scenes, McDermott — who joined the company right before the pandemic hit — has been leading a great deal of that charge, following a shakeup in leadership that saw the exits of longtime CEO Josh Sapan (who became executive vice chairman), COO Ed Carroll, president of AMC Networks Entertainment Group and AMC Studios Sarah Barnett; the addition of interim CEO Matt Blank and marketing chief Len Fogge; and the handing over of the reins from AMC Networks chairman Charles Dolan to his son James Dolan.
“In that time, the company changed dramatically its ambitions and its mission directives,” McDermott says. “I joined the company when we were primarily focused on our linear cable services. But it was a moment in time where, shortly after I got here, we were in a bunch of meetings and it was determined very quickly by our board and CEO Josh that we need to pivot and really launch AMC+ as a meaningful streaming service, as an alternative to the big players, the ‘something for everybody’ players.”
It was McDermott who remained one of AMC Networks’ constants, along with CFO/new COO Christina Spade, during the launch of AMC+ via Apple, Amazon and Roku channels in 2020. And last October, not long after AMC+ rolled out its direct-to-consumer offering, McDermott was rewarded for his steadfastness and elevated from president of original programming to a role that gave him the oversight Carroll had over business affairs, acquisitions and scheduling, as well as consumer PR.
“For a company that’s stayed pretty consistent for a long time, there’s been a lot of change and new blood, which has frankly been a real breath of fresh air as we pivot to being a streamer-centric company with a vibrant and meaningful continuation of our linear product,” McDermott says.
AMC Networks made the importance of its streaming product clear back in February, when the company purchased its first-ever Super Bowl ad and used it to shine a light not just on the final seasons of “The Walking Dead,” “Better Call Saul” and “Killing Eve” — but the fact you could stream them on AMC+.
While still small in comparison to mega streamers like Netflix, Disney+ and HBO Max, AMC Networks boasted 9.5 million subscribers across its SVOD services at the end of Q1, which includes not just AMC+, but also targeted platforms Acorn TV, Shudder, Sundance Now, ALLBLK and HIDIVE, newly acquired with the purchase of anime content distributor Sentai. Some of those platforms are offered together for $8.99 a month as part of the AMC+ bundle, which includes Shudder, Sundance Now and IFC Films Unlimited, as well as live linear ad-supported feeds of cable channels AMC, BBC America, IFC and SundanceTV.
McDermott has no update on that total subscriber tally (or breakout of AMC+ customers, specifically) ahead of the company’s Q2 earnings report in August, but Spade previously said AMC Networks expects to hit the halfway point of its goal of 20 million to 25 million streaming subs in 2025 by the end of this year.
But with subscriber growth slowing across the industry, the new focus is on retention. And according to a study conducted by Hub Entertainment Research, AMC+ is the leader in that department. Per the recent third-party report that evaluated streamers Netflix, Discovery+, Amazon’s Prime Video, Apple TV+, Disney+, Hulu, HBO Max, Peacock, Showtime, Paramount+ and AMC+, viewers who sign-up for a streaming service to watch a specific show are much more likely to keep AMC+ after that show ends than every other platform included in the study.
“We’ve been growing at a pretty aggressive clip,” McDermott says, noting that AMC’s slow but steady streaming success and low-churn rate is due to AMC Networks’ “value proposition” compared to “big streamers”: “We don’t do kids’ programing, sports, comedy, YA. We have one lane that we swim in, and that’s premium marquee content for adults.”
Unlike streamers that utilize algorithms or ID-driven technology, AMC+’s user interface and content recommendations are populated by human beings that are creating lists heavily informed by user data and usage.
“Coming from a retail perspective, there’s stores out there like Walmart and Costco and Target, and they’re amazing businesses where you can walk in and get a lawnmower, you can get pajamas, you can get a steak to cook for dinner that night, all in one stop,” McDermott says. “And there are other retail stores that are more boutique. If you’re going to go mountaineering, you go to REI. If you’re going to an important black-tie event, you’re go to Gucci or Tom Ford. You’re not going to be able to get everything there — but what you can get is beautifully crafted, lovingly attended to, bespoke and just of superior quality. We aspire to be that in the streaming and content-creation business. People come to us because that’s what we stand for.”
With the upcoming ends of the original “Walking Dead” series and “Better Call Saul,” and the recent conclusion of “Killing Eve,” AMC Networks is getting ready to prove what they stand for — which includes mining some of that IP.
“Strategically we’re investing in several universes,” McDermott says. “We have a dedicated and embedded, enthusiastic fanbase in our ‘Walking Dead’ universe. Our mothership show, ‘The Walking Dead,’ is ending this November and next year, we’re going to have a ‘Walking Dead’ Daryl Dixon show and our ‘Walking Dead: Isle of the Dead’ show with Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Lauren Cohan, two expressions of that universe, which we think are going to riff on themes that are inherent in the mothership show and also be unique expressions and deliver something totally original.”
While AMC is going hard on “TWD,” there are currently no plans to dabble more in Vince Gilligan’s “Breaking Bad” world once “Better Call Saul” ends this summer — unless he and “Better Call Saul” boss Peter Gould are up for it.
“I can tell you that if I could do anything to encourage Vince and Peter to continue on in this universe, I would do it,” McDermott says. “I think you’d have to ask them, but the door is always open and I long for the day my phone rings and Vince, Peter or our friends at Sony call to say, ‘Hey, I think we have another show set in this universe.'”
But AMC has already locked down new projects with “Better Call Saul” stars Bob Odenkirk (who is starring in “Straight Man”) and Giancarlo Esposito (leading “The Driver”), and is diving back into BBC America’s critically acclaimed “Orphan Black” with new show “Echoes.” There’s also the newly debuted “Dark Winds” adaptation and “This Is Going to Hurt,” and upcoming series “Moonhaven,” “Invitation to a Bonfire,” “Monsieur Spade,” and, of course, the biggest stakes in AMC’s new game: “Interview with the Vampire” and “Mayfair Witches.”
As Variety first reported in 2020, AMC Networks acquired 18 books in the Anne Rice “Vampire Chronicles” canon. “That’s everything from all the ‘Interview With the Vampire’ and ‘Queen of the Damned’ and the ‘Lestat’ trilogy to the ‘Mayfair Witches’ books and also incorporating the Talamasca Caste characters,” McDermott says. For now, AMC is promoting the premieres of “Interview With the Vampire,” starring Sam Reid and Jacob Anderson, and “Mayfair Witches,” led by Alexandra Daddario, later this year, but McDermott assures there is more coming from Rice’s world — much more.
“We have other projects that are in development. They’re sort of unofficial right now, but we really plan to have five or six series in that universe over the next five or six years,” McDermott says. “And there will be an opportunity to pull characters from different shows and do what we refer to as our ‘all-star’ original series, taking supporting characters and maybe a lead character from one or two shows and doing original series that will be based in the Anne Rice universe.”
McDermott compares AMC Networks’ plans for its Rice adaptations to the Marvel Cinematic Universe: “The best model would be an ‘Avengers’-style series, where you take characters from different shows and bring them together and you tell an original story using all of them and their backstory and the mythology. The objective is to honor everything about the source material and the characters’ backstories and mythologies as well. But I think that’s a really exciting proposition.”
But in making these large scale projects, AMC has to work with what its got — and that’s less money than its biggest streaming competition.
“We don’t have the big checkbooks that some of the other folks have. There’s no way we are ever going to spend $17 billion on content or even $8 or $6 billion on content,” McDermott says. “So we have to be very targeted, very selective. We are investing more than we ever have in our slate of content, just because we have more shows than ever, but per episode, we continue to be a very value-proposition driven company. Our targeted services like Shudder, Acorn TV, Sundance Now, ALLBLK, they are really beautiful platforms that super-serve those those fanbases with content that typically is less than $1 million per episode. We are definitely spending very competitively on our tentpole shows like our ‘Walking Dead’ shows or ‘Interview With the Vampire.’ But ‘Dark Winds,’ which we have 100% on Rotten Tomatoes right now and is getting really positive reviews, that’s a show that is very economically driven and is cost effective and we believe is going to deliver beyond its weight class.”
Greg Lewis/AMC/Sony Pictures Television
AMC Networks is also using some of those funds to make strategic investments in anime, which McDermott (a self-proclaimed “Attack on Titan” superfan) calls an “under-exploited market.” This will happen through its acquisition of Sentai and HIDIVE and experimenting with exclusive film releases on AMC+ as part of a newly launched year-long Friday movie drop plan with sister brand IFC Films, which has already delivered AMC+ its top 2 most-watched movies of the year in “Clean” and “Dual.” AMC+ is also now the only place where you can stream AMC’s iconic series “Mad Men” commercial free, following a deal that saw Amazon’s Freevee (formerly IMDbTV) take the ad-supported rights.
“We are always on the lookout for great opportunities in any and all spaces, but certainly in the target SVOD spaces,” McDermott says. “We think it’s one of our value propositions. We’re nimble, we’re quick, we can make these kind of acquisitions and grow these target SVOD services. And they individually and collectively will be really meaningful to us, whereas some of the bigger services, they’re not looking for something like that. That’s our advantage and our opportunity.”
With all of these new plans comes the topic of how to release content, and where, while AMC Networks balances its growing streaming business with its commitment to its iconic cable channels.
“We have the windowing conversation around every show. At this point, we’re trying a number of different routes,” McDermott says. “There are shows like ‘Gangs of London,’ which premiered exclusively on AMC+ in October of 2020 and then got an AMC linear airing in spring of 2021. What was fascinating was the show was very successful on the streaming platform, and then we put it on linear and it did great on linear and it resurrected and created more interest in the show on AMC+ and viewership on AMC+ spiked. And then there are shows that we we will have exclusively on AMC+ for either indefinitely or maybe for nine months or a year, and then we can launch on linear as we’re getting ready to launch a second season on AMC+. We don’t have a definitive one-size-fits-all strategy. We’re really looking at each show individually and determining what’s best for it and and the various services we have.”
McDermott emphasizes that while the streaming pivot is very real, the cable business is one AMC is still very much in, as it has customers who are loyal to that option.
“There’s a significant percentage of consumers that do want to watch their content for free [via basic cable subscription]. And we want to provide that for them,” McDermott says. “We’re unique in that we have both a vibrant linear platform, as well as a vibrant streaming platform. There is real enthusiasm for people who want to tune in on Monday nights and watch ‘Better Call Saul,’ or Sunday nights and watch ‘The Walking Dead.’ And that there’s a big percentage of people that think, you know what, I want to be able to have this available to me whenever and wherever I am… That’s the great value of SVOD services, it’s your own personal curated library of the content that you love the most and can pull down those episodes whenever you want and watch them whenever you want.”
Of course, the examples given here by McDermott are “The Walking Dead” and “Better Call Saul.” Why wouldn’t they be, when the respective penultimate volumes — “The Walking Dead” Season 11B and “Better Call Saul” Season 6A — broke viewership records and became the No. 1 most-watched seasons of all time on AMC+ and are the top acquisition drivers in the streamer’s history? But McDermott is touting their importance while acknowledging the reality of AMC’s need to move on.
“I’d love them to continue on, but that’s not realistic,” McDermott says. “Every show comes to an end eventually, so these shows have run their course. I think in the world we live in, there will continue to be enthusiasm and excitement about them long after in the next three or four or five, 10 years. And the opportunity to revisit them in different ways will be an interesting prospect, should they arise, but we’re also in the business of creating new hit franchises and new shows. With the conclusion of these shows, it opens up the opportunity and the pressure — which is good, I like pressure. I like feeling like, these shows have got to work. ‘Interview With the Vampire’ has got to be great. ‘Mayfair Witches’ has got to be great. ‘Orphan Black: Echoes,’ ‘Dark Winds,’ ‘Moonhaven,’ have got to be great. I thrive under that kind of pressure and feeling like we have to sweat every detail.”
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