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AMC Brings Sights—and Smells—of 'Mad Men,' 'Breaking Bad,' and More to Upfront

By Jim Shi April 26, 2013, 3:21 PM EDT

Photo: Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images for AMC

Forget the stage show. Having unveiled a new look, logo, and “AMC: Something More” tagline earlier this month, the 29-year-old cable and satellite TV channel took advantage of its upswing momentum to stage its first-ever upfront on April 17 at the 69th Regiment Armory that was anything but standard issue. Rather than, as other TV networks typically do, showcase its programming lineup to media buyers and ad agencies via a formal theater-style presentation, AMC hosted an immersive event that put guests on the sets of its shows.

“We've had a great deal of success in the last few years, and we're reaching critical mass, so with the brand relaunch the timing was perfect for us to go to market and celebrate all of that,” said Melissa Wasserman, vice president of ad sales and marketing at AMC. “We had done a successful, but small, party around Mad Men that coincided around upfronts and really wanted to take that [premise] larger and give everyone a broader experience. It's about a celebration.”

To achieve an authentic, immersive, and experiential affair beyond the typical cocktail party, Wasserman, along with Jennifer Inkles, manager of public relations and special events at AMC, tapped J.B. Miller, president and C.E.O. of Empire Entertainment, to create a series of experiences representing six of its top programming, including Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and The Walking Dead. The event marked the first time the two companies worked together.

“We weren't just trying to create some kind of theme-party manifestation,” Miller said. “AMC facilitated with show productions themselves to make sure we had the right support.” Planned in a short four months, build out took 24 hours, followed by rehearsals with the 40-plus actors hired to engage guests in six vignettes—which ranged in size from 600 square feet for Breaking Bad to 1,800 square feet for The Walking Dead—that surrounded the main party space. “People really get a visceral experience out of watching our shows, so we wanted to parlay that into an event,” Wasserman said. “Tapping into that connection and passion that people have for our shows and brands was critical.”

The event boiled down to a highly choreographed dance that involved moving attendees through a series of specific vignettes. The venue's raw flexibility allowed a series of experiences based on the programming to sit in the same space as a central party and presentation point. “We knew that most of the traditional venues either wouldn't have the square footage or would come with such a pre-programmed architectural style that they would, in effect, overwrite what we were trying to create,” Miller said. As Wasserman added, it was important that the vignettes stayed open, that action took place, and that the plot changed throughout the evening so people could go back multiple times. “We wanted to do an upfront that was something more, and this really fulfilled that,” she said.

That “something more” translated into custom tent structures for each area—at The Walking Dead, a black scrim was lit from above to create the aesthetic of a forest canopy—as well as custom lighting plans for a transportive adventure, custom soundtracks for immersion, and even highly curated olfactory cues in each space. “One of the nuances we used to direct traffic flow was the moonlight,” said Sierra Nixon, a senior producer at Empire Entertainment. “It would actually shift every couple of minutes within the space and direct guests to go right or left to keep the flow even as they were coming in.”

Although the thought of recreating six different programs under one roof was daunting enough, there was also the need for it to be authentic. Across the event, Miller estimates his team, over a period of several months, procured props and decor elements from more than 60 different sources. “I don't think we've ever done anything as extensive as this in terms of outreach and identifying,” he said.

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