5 Myths of Pilot Season Exposed

5 Myths of Pilot Season Exposed

By Secret Agent Man
5 Myths of Pilot Season Exposed
To wrap up this epic trilogy, I’d like to address some of the myths that still surround pilot season. I’ve scanned the message boards and I keep seeing the same ones over and over. So here, in no particular order, are the top five misconceptions about pilot season.

Unrepresented actors have a chance.
A lot of actors believe that pilot season is a magical time when the castle gates swing open, allowing actors with no experience a chance to audition for the most important roles in television. It’s a nice image, but nothing could be further from the truth. If anything, getting in the room becomes much harder because the competition is so fierce. And if you don’t have a decent agent to speak on your behalf, then the odds of getting a shot at those high-paying, series regular roles just went from bad to nonexistent.
Back in the day, actors used to “go to L.A. for pilot season.” That concept would be laughable if it weren’t so sad. It amazes me that unrepresented actors with no casting contacts show up in L.A. every year for a pilot season they’re never going to experience. It’s like going to the hottest club in town when your name isn’t on the list so you end up spending the whole night outside, watching the cool people.

You shouldn’t submit to agents.
This is a busy time of year for us, so submissions are the last thing on our minds. But the truth is, we always have holes in our list and if your submission can help us fill that gap, then you might get extra attention, even during pilot season.
It’s all a crapshoot. You never know when the odds might be in your favor so go ahead, submit away. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

The networks only want stars.
Is that right? I would argue that if you watch a few TV shows at random, you’ll find plenty of series regular roles that weren’t filled by name actors. Sure, the leads will always be stars because that’s how the shows get promoted, but there are plenty of other parts that are open and available to actors who don’t get recognized when they’re walking down the street.

Booking doesn’t mean anything if the pilot isn’t picked up.
This is what actors do. They turn a positive into a negative. I’ve never understood that kind of thinking.
Look, no one’s going to argue that it’s better if your pilot goes to series, but booking the pilot in and of itself is a major accomplishment that everyone will take seriously. The credit on your résumé will help your agent sell you on the next project. It will also make you more attractive to casting directors. And the truth is, if you booked one pilot, you can book another.

There is no more real pilot season. It’s year-round now.
Yes and no. Pilots appear on breakdowns all times of year but the majority of network shows still get cast during the traditional pilot season, which runs between January and April.
In closing, I want you to remember one fact: Your career isn’t about pilot season. It’s about all the opportunities that exist in this industry, and there are plenty that have nothing to do with booking a series regular role. So please don’t allow this crazy time of year to define your career. It’s about the big picture, and that’s what you need to focus on. The rest will come.

The Mechanics of Pilot Season

Pilot season is a lot like Christmas: It seems to arrive earlier and earlier every year. I remember seeing the first holiday decorations right after Halloween. The same is true with pilots.

Granted, the volume is much lower in the fall. That’s because most network pilots are still cast during the traditional season, which is between January and March. The early start became fashionable a few years back because it gives the studios and networks a chance to grab some name talent before they’re swamped with offers in the new year.

The reason most of pilot season begins in January is because network television is mired in the past. They still believe in the concept of a fall premiere. That’s one of the reasons they’re losing so many viewers to cable and Netflix.

Here’s how their prehistoric way of thinking works. Pilots are produced between January and March. They get screened and tested in April. The networks announce their choices in May. Then, after a short break, production gears up in June, just in time for the traditional fall premiere.

And most of the shows get canceled after a few weeks.

That’s because networks treat their shows like kamikaze pilots. They launch them at the same time, hoping a few will find their targets. The rest crash and burn. This is an absurd way to do business. You can’t expect so much new content to attract an audience during such a short period of time.

The ironic part is that some shows actually premiere during pilot season. It’s called a midseason start and it gives a new series the chance to connect in a slightly less crowded marketplace. You’ll see these programs rolling out right about now, like desperate singles in a bar that just announced last call.

The networks have a low batting average when they try to pull off a midseason start. Maybe it has something to do with the quality of the material. We all know they push their best stuff during the fall.

The one exception seems to be Fox. Executives there are really good at choosing their midseason starts. Last year, Fox made a killing when it premiered “The Following” right after the holidays. (And the degrees by which we all connect to Kevin Bacon became a little bit closer.)

From an agent’s perspective, there are several pros and cons to a traditional pilot season.

On the plus side, more shows equal more opportunities. Every pilot has anywhere from five to eight series regulars, and they can’t all be star names. That represents a lot of chances for actors to book roles that will pay off in a major way if the pilot goes to series.

On the negative side, I am going to blow my brains out if I have to endure another three-month period of begging casting directors to see my clients. In their defense, they are overwhelmed. Some of them are working on multiple pilots. Some are even casting a series at the same time.

That’s why forcing so much new content into the casting pipeline doesn’t make sense. No one has time to focus. For casting directors it’s all about grabbing the best actor before a competing pilot beats you to the punch. And for agents it’s all about getting as many clients in the door, even if they’re not right for the part.

The bottom line is that pilot season doesn’t make sense. But that’s the way it’s always been done, so we beat on, boats against the current, or something like that.

Pilot season has begun and you’re starting to get auditions. Now what?

The first thing you have to understand is that no one’s going to hand you a series regular role after just one audition. I only wish life was that easy. Getting to the point where you’re actually working on set involves multiple auditions and an extended negotiation between your agent and the studio.

So let’s start with day one. Your first audition will be for casting—unless the casting director is overwhelmed because she’s working on two pilots and a series. Then you might have to pre-read for her associate, who will hopefully bring you back to meet the real casting director. And if that goes well, you’ll get a callback to read for the writers and producers. If they respond, you’ll get another callback just because they’ll want to see you do it twice. They might even have you read with actors who are up for other parts on the show.

Why so many auditions? Putting together a winning ensemble is a tricky balancing act that could determine the future of a pilot, so the producers need to be 100 percent certain every actor is right for the part. And when they get to that point, your agent will be notified that you’re testing.

But hey, surprise! You’re not testing alone. They usually bring in three to five actors for every series regular role on every single pilot. (Are you starting to understand why everyone is so stressed this time of year?)

The actual test is just two more auditions, one for the studio executives and one for the network executives. But here’s the catch: Your contract has to be negotiated before you test. That contract is called a Test Deal Agreement, and there are several types depending on the studio and network.

The basic financial structure for network shows has been the same for years. As a newcomer, you’re looking at about $20,000 in compensation for the pilot. If it goes to series, you’ll make that much per episode in the first season with 3–5 percent bumps for every year the show stays on the air.

Most network shows get annual orders of 22 episodes. Cable varies, but a typical order is about 13. Beyond that, there are a lot of alternatives out there that most actors have never encountered.

For example, the Disney Channel pays much less than the networks but orders more episodes. So there’s a tradeoff there that can work to your advantage, especially if the show stays on the air for several seasons.

Now there’s a new deal structure that’s becoming popular for half-hour comedies on cable. It’s called a 10/90 deal. This all started on Tyler Perry’s first sitcom, but the agreement became mainstream when FX used it for “Anger Management.”

On a 10/90 deal, there is no pilot. The show gets a 10-episode order from the start. Once the shows are done, the network puts them on the air, and if they hit a certain number in the ratings, the show will get picked up for another 90 episodes.

Yes, you heard me right. That’s a total of 100 episodes! Last year, the 10/90 was used for new shows starring actors such as George Lopez, Kelsey Grammer, and Martin Lawrence.

There are also brand-new agreements for pilots being produced by companies like Netflix and Amazon.

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