Joel Stillerman has a knack for knowing cool before it’s cool.
He knew MTV was going to be cool back in the days of 24-hour music video programming. He joined their staff and went on to be the executive producer of MTV Unplugged and the Rock ‘n’ Roll Inaugural Ball.
He knew actor Idris Elba was going to be cool, in his words, “way before he was on the cover of Vanity Fair with Jessica Alba in his lap.” He cast Matt Damon in Rounders back when “no one knew this kid from a hole in the wall.” A month into filming, Good Will Hunting came out, and Damon was so assuredly cool they needed extra security on set.
Stillerman’s “cool” skills were put to the test in 2009, on an airplane ride, with a copy of a relatively small, independently published comic book in his lap. The title read The Walking Dead #1, and it didn’t even take the whole issue for Stillerman to decide it was cool.
“Before the actual comic, there’s an author’s note outlining how different this was from your standard zombie franchise,” said Stillerman. “That note was all it took. I wanted to make it a show.”
It wasn’t a popular idea at the AMC, the network where Stillerman has worked as executive vice president of original programming since 2009.
“I had people telling me this wasn’t even going to be a niche show, this was a niche of a niche show,” said Stillerman. “I didn’t even know what that meant.”
Four years later, on October 13, 2013, the premiere episode of The Walking Dead’s fourth season attracted 20.2 million viewers total, according to a report from TVWeek.com. It was the most-watched non-sports telecast in cable TV history.
This success inspired the title of Stillerman’s presentation at Emerson’s Semel Theater on April 11. He called it “How To Have a Hit TV Show.”
Stillerman graduated from Emerson College with a degree in Mass Communications in 1984. His address to a crowd of students and alumni was his first return to campus in nearly 30 years.
For two hours Stillerman discussed his TV hits — he also built Breaking Bad and Mad Men from their low-rated early seasons to their hall-of-fame success — his career, his history, advice, and business strategies. The formula for successful TV, according to him, is a simple three-step process.
“Be unexpected. Be unconventional,” said Stillerman, counting off on his fingers. “And find the passionate audience. Especially the underserved passionate audience.”
Passion seems to be the backbone of Stillerman’s career. He said he feels it’s why a show like The Walking Dead works, and a show like Low Winter Sun — where “finding the passionate audience fell by the wayside” — didn’t.
“I would take 10 people who would walk over broken glass to watch my show,” said Stillerman. “Than 1,000 people who think ‘Oh yeah, that sounds okay, maybe I’ll check it out.’”
The relationship between passion and creative success inspired some members of Stillerman’s audience.
“I want to work in cable TV because I think that’s where the most groundbreaking and innovative shows are,” said freshman visual and media arts major Caroline Sullivan. “[Stillerman]’s belief in the passionate audience was really inspiring.”
Though Stillerman is a self-described “bad alumni,” who had to be corrected after mistakenly stating in his speech that Emerson College was named for poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, he said he believes it was here that he learned the importance of passion and risk-taking.
“When I first came to Emerson the energy was palpable,” said Stillerman. “It still is. This is the place that reinvented my definition of work. At Emerson, work is joy.”
He often refers to “using his Emerson training,” a term that he doesn’t define, but waves impatiently away.
“You all know what’s so special about this place,” Stillerman exclaimed. “You go here!”
Stillerman’s “Emerson training” seems an umbrella term for his other guiding principles: “Number one: planning is a joke. Number two: work your ass off. Number three: be passionate.” It seems to mean pursuing the unlikely — “I took the most circuitous route possible to get where I am today, because I always chased what I cared about.” — as much as it means being true to yourself —“I left the only decent-paying job I’d ever had, while my wife was pregnant, to make movies. Know what I knew about making movies? Nothing!”
Most of all, “Emerson training” seems to mean being part of a creative collective; a guiding community to which, three decades later, Stillerman has returned.
“To quote Ralph Waldo Emerson — who apparently never had a college named after him — life is a journey, not a destination,” said Stillerman. “It’s about connecting to great talented people. Nobody does it alone.”