With Cable and Digital Entering the Fray, Pilot Season Hits a Casting Crunch
John Goodman | Photo Credits: Michael Buckner/Getty Images
Imagine a world in which the NFL, the NBA and Major League Baseball all decided to move their seasons to the same time of year. It would be chaos, for fans and the professional sports business alike. And yet, in television, that's essentially what happens during pilot season.
The broadcast networks traditionally order pilots during the first few months of the year. From there, it's a race to find the best actors, hire a crew, build sets and produce a show before May, when the upcoming fall schedules are announced. The field has always been crowded, but this spring, several cable networks and online retailer-turned-programmer Amazon are also developing new shows that they hope will go to series (cable networks typically produce pilots throughout the year, usually avoiding the spring).
The result: a run on talent like never before, as more than 100 pilots all scout for A-list stars and directors at the exact same time. And as more production moves outside of Hollywood, in some cities there are only so many experienced crewmembers to go around.
"I think it is an unusually difficult pilot season for everybody," says 20th Century Fox TV chairman Dana Walden. "There are just so many different companies who are producing pilots at the same time against each other. The net result is, we're all scrambling."
Among the marquee names who signed on for cable or digital series rather than broadcast shows: John Goodman, who's starring in Amazon's comedy pilot Alpha House; Kyle Chandler in Showtime's The Vatican; Amanda Peet in the HBO comedy Togetherness; and Alicia Silverstone in Lifetime's human resources drama HR. As for directors, FX landed Oscar winner Ang Lee to shoot the drama Tyrant.
Even Discovery Channel, which is casting its first scripted project, the miniseries Klondike, scored big names out of the gate, including Tim Roth. Dolores Gavin, Discovery's executive vice president of development and production, says Klondike had to shoot in the summer, giving the network little choice but to enter the pilot season crunch.
"We got to the point where we said, 'We're going to hold hands and jump into this," she says. "Ultimately you have competition every day of the week, and so you fight with the army you have." Gavin credits the Klondike script and its producing auspices (Ridley Scott's production company) for landing top talent. "We had some people coming forward that were surprising. We would think, boy, these people must really be chased to do this pilot or that pilot. The fact that they would come to Discovery and Klondike, well, holy smokes, that's huge."
AMC's Joel Stillerman, executive vice president of original programming, was also hesitant to jump into the broadcast network pilot season, but AMC now wants to pick up new shows twice a year, so he had no choice. "We went there cautiously, because we all know what the downside is," he says.
But Stillerman has been pleasantly surprised with the actors he has been able to land on AMC's two drama pilots, Turn and Halt & Catch Fire. "The fact that we're even in the mix during pilot season has given us access to some actors that I don't think we would have normally been able to talk to," Stillerman says. Halt's Lee Pace (Pushing Daisies), for example, "conceivably would have ended up on network pilots" had AMC not been casting at the same time. Stillerman says agents have been a bit more aggressive this season, "and you have to be a little more resistant to that stuff," but that ultimately "we've ended up where we would have ended up normally. People understand the economics of what we do."