How to Survive Pilot Season, as Told By Those Who Have

Bill Lawrence, Hart Hanson, Darryl Frank and mega-producer Aaron Kaplan, among others, share their trade secrets.
AP Images/Invision
Dan Goor, left, Bill Lawrence and Anthony Zuiker

To the 80-plus writers and producers who were lucky enough to have their script selected to move forward and score a coveted pilot order from the broadcast networks, congratulations. But don't spend too much time celebrating because you're already behind.

Welcome to pilot season, when what's meant to be a carefully plotted out story becomes an all-out race for actors, directors and more as the broadcast networks compete with their cable and streaming brethren. To hear many established showrunners tell it, it's a brutal time of year where a writer's vision can be made — and lost — within weeks.

"When a pilot gets picked up, you have just a moment to celebrate because you have to activate and you have to figure out, particularly during network pilot season, when the talent pool quickly becomes a talent puddle, the directors go quick, actors go quick, crew goes quick," says Aaron Kaplan, who has an impressive six pilots in contention at the broadcast networks this season. "You have to keep a dossier of people that have been people you've wanted to work with forever — from a script supervisor to a director. Immediate activation is crucial."

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Adds CSI mastermind Anthony Zuiker of the process: "Expect heartbreak — and if you get the right news, try to prepare for your life to change. Every creator who sets out to do a pilot gets emotionally invested with the dream of being on the air. If it happens, it's a wonderful ride. If it doesn't happen, it's bone crushing. But that's the business we've chosen. There's two types of people: those who are humble and those who are about to be. We try to take it from a position of always staying humble."

Here, multiple producers and showrunners talk with The Hollywood Reporter about their tips for surviving the grueling process of pilot season.

Stick to your guns

"The slog of it — second-guessers die," veteran producer Bill Lawrence (who has Rush Hour and a Tommy Johnagin vehicle vying for a series pickup at CBS) says of surviving the hell of pilot season. "The biggest secret, especially if you're running the show: make a decision with your gut, act like you're 1,000 percent positive that it's correct. Then if it turns out to be a horrible decision, flip-flop immediately and say your new decision is 100 percent correct. I'm the king of it."

With more than 80 pilots picked up within a two-week span in late January and early February, pilot season becomes a political mix of selecting the best person for the job — be it actors, directors and more — to finding who's available and, perhaps more importantly, gets the seal of approval from the network. Bones and Backstrom showrunner Hart Hanson equates the process to "walking upstream."

"Tom Fontana, who is one of the great showrunners of all time, said that the showrunner's job is to convince everyone that everything is going fine all the time no matter how bad it is," Hanson says. "So I try to do that, which is not my nature; I'm more like an Eeyore. Once I say it, then everything has to be fine — and maybe that's my secret."

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Get scripts in and prep early to get a leg up

For prolific producer Darryl Frank (Red Band Society, Extant, The Whispers), Fox's early pilot pickup for his Minority Report reboot was the biggest blessing he could have asked for.

"Sometimes you can hurt yourself," he says. "I was talking to another exec at another network and they still had 10 first drafts that they hadn't gotten. We already hired a director [Mark Mylod]. We're seven and a half weeks from shooting, so imagine in two or three weeks other shows are getting picked up and they have to shoot around the same date we do because everyone has to deliver for the beginning of May. That means they have five weeks to prep instead of seven weeks, and that's a big difference."

Of course, after a development season that got off to a slow start, the pilot pickups started a bit later in the season and many didn't have the early pickup advantage. So now the race is on.

When asked the first thing they'd do — after drinking to toast the pickup — many producers rattle off four key positions to fill before the first beer has been consumed: director, casting director, production designer and director of photography.

"They always say in football the Super Bowl is won in training camp, and it's the same thing with doing pilots and movies — it's prep," Frank says. "The more you prep, the better you prep, the better it's going to be once you go into production."

And the prep work is key when building elaborate genre worlds — as was the case with Minority Report and last season's Batman origin story Gotham, the latter of which earned an early second-season renewal at Fox.

"Increasingly what is in very short supply is the great directors," Gotham showrunner Bruno Heller says. "Early pickup means that you can book and schedule them. With a show like Gotham, it's very visual with a hundred story lines running and you need the best directors you can get. The timing of it and the way it's compressed into that period makes it like a sporting event. People get very hyped up and fortunes are lost and made over a very short period. For me, the way to deal is to remember it's just show business; no one is going to live or die off this stuff."

Finding the leads

Of course, amid the race to hire the behind-the-camera team responsible for bringing the look and feel of the show to life, the casting chess match has already been going on — often before the official pilot pickup call comes in. While news has slowed following the wave of pilot pickups, behind the scenes it's a crush of actors fielding offers as networks are embroiled in a game of wait-and-see until they pursue other roles.

"You have to be cognizant of the Catch-22 — that your show is going to be attractive to the network and studio, for the most part, if there is a 30- to 40-something funny guy who is also good-looking," You're the Worst boss Stephen Falk says of the process he previously went through with NBC's ultimately doomed Dane Cook vehicle Next Caller. "There are about seven of them in town that mean anything. So you have to then know immediately that everyone is going to go for the same people."

To hear Zuiker tell it, casting is all about timing — and an impassioned pitch.

"You'll get your dream shot to hopefully sit in front of an actor of a high caliber and pitch them what's in your heart," he says. "It's the funniest thing: If you catch the actor at the right time where he or she says, 'This is me,' then you got 'em." That much was true for Hanson, for whom Rainn Wilson was on his short list of five dream actors for the lead in Backstrom. "You make a list of about five impossible people to get and it took so long to find our guy that he was suddenly available for about three days."

Multiple producers, meanwhile, noted that the pressure and race to cast often inflates the value of midrange actors as networks and studios fear of not finding their lead and being rolled to next season — as is the case with ABC's Irreversible and Runner (originally developed for Fox) as well as CBS' The Mistake and Taxi-22.

"Are they necessarily the right person? You don’t know. It becomes a feeding frenzy then where not only are the networks are calling you insinuating that, 'Well you better get this cast because we're getting a little concerned that all the other pilots have cast two, three roles and you haven't cast any,' " one insider notes. "The subtle intimation is that you may get rolled to the next season."

Falk suggests exploring talent with holding deals at the network — as was the case with Cook and Next Caller — and, echoing Lawrence and Hanson's suggestion, holding out to make sure you have the person who matches the role. "You'll know when the right person comes in — and make sure your casting director is on the same page with you."

And no matter what kind of pressures you're facing, Forever boss Matt Miller warns, never settle.

"Invariably, what will happen is you'll have a week or two of some civilized pilot season casting and then you start to panic," he says. "Then what they start to tell you is, 'You've got to cast this person because the network likes this person. Suddenly, the concept of being cast is more important than making a good show. You have to hold on because if you don't cast well you make a bad pilot and there's no point. There are shows that don't get cast and you hear those horror stories — 'I'd rather make something shitty than nothing at all.' You've got to stick to your guns and hold on. If you don't feel it in your bones that it's the right person or people, do not compromise."

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Learn to say no — the right way

Miller held out to find Forever lead Ioan Gruffudd after a "horrible, arduous process" of seeing people in L.A., New York, London and Australia that included mounting pressure to make offers amid the flurry of casting.

"You have to have a really good reason for not thinking they're right," he says of pushing back against the network. "It's not like you can just say, 'I'm not a fan.' You've got to say, 'There's this element of the character that may not be on the page in the pilot, but it's where I see the series going.' "

Ultimately, he bumped into Gruffudd at the preschool where both their children attend and was immediately taken with the actor's white loafers. "Anyone who can pull off a white loafer, maybe he could do this crazy character we conceived. He was getting offers and fought for the role," Miller recalls. But at the same time, his CBS half-hour comedy Good Session — starring Mandy Moore and James Roday — didn't have the same luck that his ABC procedural did. "We were in this same state of pilot hell where we couldn't cast anyone. It literally came down to the 11th hour when we got Roday to do it. We were very lucky. That ended up not moving forward and that was another example of being able to play the game of chicken until the very end and stick with your gut."

Seriously consider packing up shop

Redeveloped and rolled pilots continue to add up — four from last year are again in contention this season up from two and one in 2013 and 2012, respectively — as the competition can be too fierce and producers opt to hold out for what's best.

"When there's so many different pilots made, and now with basic cable, premium cable and streaming, it's a feeding frenzy, and there's a lot of great talent, but there's not that much great talent," Frank says. "We've had pilots before where we got late orders and we didn't cast them on time. If you can't get the right cast, you really shouldn't do it."

Once the lead is in place, rounding out the cast becomes all about the magic of securing actors who gel as a collective unit.

"Sometimes you have the good luck of having a bunch of excellent actors and sometimes they just don't gel," Brooklyn Nine-Nine's Dan Goor says, noting the Fox comedy had star Andy Samberg sign on early and got lucky with Terry Crews — at the time, one of the most sought-after actors — as well as then-unknown quantities Stephanie Beatriz and Melissa Fumero.

Warns Arrow, Flash and Mysteries of Laura EP Greg Berlanti — who netted Glee breakout Melissa Benoist to star in CBS' buzzy Supergirl: "Know a certain amount of it is luck. It's lightning in a bottle when you get Stephen Amell or Grant Gustin or those kind of people; you don't plan for that when you're writing the script."

Learn to what the network really wants

Network notes is an inevitable part of the process, with producers having to learn the fine art of uncovering the note behind the note. "A lot is also being willing to take notes and listen to notes and figure out the what people are really saying — and taking it in a way that stays true to your vision," Goor says.

The Brooklyn and Parks and Recreation scribe also stressed the importance of the cold open — the first scene in the pilot that the audience will see.

"On a network show, it's very difficult to have a successful pilot if you don't show in the first three minutes that your lead character is funny, likable and good at what he does on some level," he says. "That doesn't mean he or she can't be flawed or have a lot to learn. A lot of times people want to introduce their lead character in a cool but unlikable way, and that ends up really biting them in the ass."

Don't take it too personally

With only about a quarter of the broadcast pilots will earn a spot on the schedule, Lawrence stresses that it's important to keep things in perspective.

"The secret to emotional survival is not attaching any of pilot pickup week to whether or not what you did was good," he says. "The second you realize it has nothing to do with whether or not you're good, you wouldn't get paid to write a script if you weren't good and it's really about the zeitgeist, what shows they like, what they're doing that year. It frees you up a little bit."

For the latest pilot news and updates, bookmark THR's annual guide, which will be updated with directors, castings and, ultimately, which survive.

Email: Lesley.Goldberg@THR.com
Twitter: @Snoodit

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