FoCC Recap: AMC Summit – An Exploration of Fandom (Part I)

By DRWHO42

Over the years, AMC has transformed itself from a network that focused on the classics of yesteryear — under the name of American Movie Classics—to become a leader of groundbreaking and original programming. They have gone one to produce several critically acclaimed series, such as The Walking Dead (TWD), Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, Into the Badlands, Dietland, as well as Preacher. On paper, these popular series may have garnered double-takes from prospective viewers initially; however, after a few tune in for the experience, they then tell their friends which builds organically into an avid viewing base.

Because of the variety series available, the network has broader appeal to viewers to enjoy their mini-escape from everyday life. In my case, the quality of storytelling anchored by engaging actors are the main elements that will always draw me in as a viewer, whether the story is about surviving a zombie apocalypse, a teacher turned meth manufacturer, or even a lawyer who must navigate the grey areas of the law to be successful.  

AMC has created huge fan bases across the globe and and has pursued it further with programming such as the Talking’ series and online fan engagement campaigns geared toward engagement in their fandom referred to as the Fan Rewards Program.

I attended AMC’s Inaugural Summit, titled “An Exploration of Fandom”, recently in New York City and the network showcased not only what they have done to recognize the passion of the viewers but also bring together the talent in front of and behind the camera of its programming. Charlie Collier (President/GM of AMC, Sundance TV, and AMC Studios), kicked off the event which was followed by a presentation from Susan Kresnicka, a cultural anthropologist, who led us through a presentation on her research into ‘Fandom’. This was an insightful look into the definition of Fandom and how people define it for themselves. The presentation included the results of her study into fandom and the main takeaway was that everyone is a fan of something.

At the very end, Collier summed up the presentation to point out how AMC sees and their objective to engage with its viewers. This point resonated with me personally and was validated through my experience in watching Breaking Bad, because I did not know about the series until I attended my first San Diego Comic-Con in 2012. The attendees I met recommended giving Breaking Bad a shot, and once I followed their suggestion,  I was immediately drawn in, due to how great the series was. In my opinion, the acting and storytelling was amazing to watch, and still is today.

As for the summit itself, the agenda for the summit included many great panelists, which represented a blend of actresses and the creative minds who worked tirelessly behind the scenes of AMC most popular series as well as a few projects scheduled to air later in the year. The event was broken down into three insightful panels:

  • The Kick-Ass Women of AMC
  • From Book to Screen
  • Better Call Saul: Masterclass

The Kick-Ass Women of AMC
David Madden (President Original Programming for AMC, Sundance, and AMC Studios) was the master of ceremonies for the panels and provided the introduction for this impressive panel featuring the showrunners, as well as the many actors from AMC’s most popular series. The panel was moderated by Tameron Hall and comprised of the following panelists:

  • Melissa Bernstein (Executive Producer – Better Call Saul)
  • Angela Kang (Executive Producer, Showrunner, Writer – The Walking Dead)
  • Marti Noxon (Executive Producer, Showrunner, Writer, Director – Dietland)
  • Julianna Margulies (Kitty Montgomery – Dietland)
  • Lorraine Toussaint (Cressida – Into the Badlands)
  • Jenna Elfman (June – Fear the Walking Dead)
  • Rhea Seehorn (Kim Wexler – Better Call Saul)

*Ruth Negga and Melissa McBride were originally scheduled to attend, however due their busy schedules, they unable to attend.  

Considering all of the great panelists and content to cover, this panel was broken up into two segments of panelists. The first segment started off with Melissa Bernstein, Angela Kang, and Marti Noxon. Hall starting off the discussion by asking each panelist about their series; what motivated them to get in their careers.

Noxon, who directed the first three episodes of Dietland, went on to discuss how AMC was very supportive of her ideas, and loved that the network allowed her to stay stayed true to her initial vision when she was pitching the series to the network. Noxon, who directed the first three episodes of Dietland, discussed how AMC was supportive of the series, and stayed true to her initial vision from her pitch the network. She describes the first season as “an origin story of how to become the best version of oneself.”

Bernstein was asked what advice she has for young aspiring actors who might want to work in the Hollywood business. She suggested that everyone should vet any company before agreeing to anything, to make sure their goals and values align with yours. Overall, she sees it as being very important to know how a company will promote their work and who they promote it with. When asked for suggested advice she would have for young aspiring females who want follow in their footsteps and work in the industry, Bernstein suggested vetting the people you are working for,  and working with to make sure their goals and values align with yours. Overall, it is important to know how they will promote their work and who they promote it with.

When asked for her perspective on aspirational figures in the industry in her earlier years as a younger professional Kang, who has been on The Walking Dead since the seventh episode as a writer, described that were no female writers and showrunners to aspire to. She went on to say that as she looks at the landscape within the industry currently she believes there are less barriers to overcome for women, due to the increasing number of female showrunners, executive producers, and writers in the industry today.  

When discussing The Walking Dead, Kang stated that “the power of fiction is very powerful” and  the series plotlines focus on survivors helping each other during the apocalypse. Kang then discussed the long story arcs given to characters like Carol, who started off as a ‘weak’ person due to her abusive husband named Ed. Yet after a series of events,  she has evolved into being one of the strongest characters on the series. She went further to state that there are no ‘damsels in distress’ in the series and everyone, regardless of gender, fight to survive and help each other.

Kang also talked about how the series resonates with fans and how the the cast hear from the fans when they interact with them at many conventions,  such as discussing their own life experiences of empowerment.

The panel then focused on the character of Skyler from Breaking Bad and how the fans reacted to Anna Gunn’s portrayal. Bernstein (who was a non-writing producer on the series) discussed how Vince Gilligan, as well as  the series writers, were surprised by the fan reactions, which she described as “harshing Walt’s buzz”. She attributed the fans connection to Walt through Bryan Cranston’s performance, which they saw Skyler as a villain. Noxon mentioned how she recently re-watched season two of Breaking Bad with her son and discuss the character interactions and motivations with him.

Julianna Margulies, Lorraine Toussaint, Jenna Elfman, and Rhea Seehorn joined the panel midway, yet Hall directed the conversation to the characters they played on-screen; the view of strong female characters, and the inspirational figures in their lives. Each actress went on to describe how honored they were to participate in the panel, due to having a forum that allowed them to be true to themselves.

When asked about the character of Kitty in Dietland, Margulies said it was a pleasure to portray her because, unlike her past roles of likeable characters, it was a opportunity to play a character not everyone will like. She also talked about the journey of  Kitty and her intention “not make her a caricature”. She said that the viewers will learn more about Kitty over the course of the first season of Dietland, and how successful she will be in getting what she wants long-term. Margulies and Noxon then talked about how society view bosses of different genders and how they are perceived where the actions of males are tolerated while the actions of females are looked upon with a different lense.     

When asked about inspirational figures, Toussaint talked about her mother being such an inspiration for her, who was a midwife while emigrating to the United States. She studied computers while working toward her citizenship. She also talked about Diane Carol, Ruby Dee, and others alike she adored when she was growing up.  Toussaint now hopes that everyone will look at her body of work and be inspired to pursue their personal dreams. In a light-hearted moment Toussaint joked about the enjoyment of receiving offers of roles without the need to audition. This brought a bit of laughter from her follow panelists in agreement. When asked about what she looks for in a character Toussaint responded saying that she looks for characters who are complex and that she is particularly interested in portraying their “internal fight between light and dark”.

Elman shared that during her upbringing with her mother, she was not the only source of inspiration, and raised her to see no barriers with anyone. When it came to the world of entertainment, she was inspired by strong working class female characters, such as Norma Rae and Silkwood. Elman also talked about the support and ‘exchange’ she has with her husband of 27 years, which she deemed as a huge gift in their relationship.      

Seehorn is very proud of Kim Wexler, who is a female lawyer in a male-dominated office setting and it is a role not represented much on television. Seehorn described how other series at times goes too far and puts a particular female character into a ‘slot’ to fit the situation she is in. To that end she commended Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan for making Kim three dimensional without the need to explain why she is the person who she is.

As I reflect on what I heard and saw during this panel I was in awe being in the same room with such a talented group I had respected for their work over years.The discussions covering how each approached their careers and, more importantly, their career journeys was very insightful.

Stay tuned for my second article which will cover the remaining two panels, From Book to Screen & Better Call Saul: Masterclass.

DRWHO42

Kevin aka "DRWHO42" watches a lot of TV and avoids spoilers like the plague. He is an avid Whovian, Trekker, fanboy, gamer, traveler, planner, self-professed gym rat, and Starbucks espresso loyalist. When not plotting out his schedule for the next tent-pole movie or watching his favorite shows he is on the hunt for pop-culture TV & Movie media news. More importantly he is a frequent attendee of San Diego Comic Con (SDCC) and New York Comic Con (NYCC). Follow him on Twitter @kevinDW42 @FoCCBlog