Anything but automatic pilots

Strike-shortened season creates scramble for actors

The frantic pilot season is creating a bull market for top-tier talent.

Thirtysomething men including Dominic West, Matthew Perry and Simon Baker are receiving offers for roles, as are Amanda Peet and Amy Smart, the latter of whom recently signed to star in CBS' "The Meant to Be's." Also lured back to TV is "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" star Sarah Michelle Gellar.

As in previous years, there is the young hot ingenue. Last year, it was Jordana Brewster, who was offered a number of plum lead roles and ultimately picked ABC's "Mr. and Mrs. Smith." This year, it's "12 Miles of Bad Road" co-star Eliza Coupe, who is in hot demand.

There also is an accomplished foreigner who is taking over the lead of a pilot despite the fact he's virtually unknown in the U.S. Last year, Brit Michelle Ryan was tapped in "Bionic Woman"; this year, Australian Josh Lawson landed the lead in "Spaced."

Foreign-born actors continue to be hot this pilot season: West and "Eleventh Hour" star Rufus Sewell hail from the U.K., while Baker is from Australia.

As usual, there is a departing HBO series that has freed up actors for pilot season.

Two years ago, it was "Six Feet Under," whose stars Peter Krause, Michael C. Hall, Rachel Griffiths and Lauren Ambrose landed leads on new series. Last year, it was "Rome," with Kevin McKidd, Ray Stevenson and Polly Walker doing broadcast pilots.

This time around, it's "The Wire," whose star West is a hot commodity. Also, the end of "The Sopranos" made Edie Falco available for a new Showtime pilot.

Getting an actor who does mostly features to do a pilot is considered a major coup for the networks. In addition to Smart, open to giving TV a try this year are said to be Elizabeth Banks and Emily Mortimer, who did three episodes on NBC's "30 Rock."

But that list is shorter than ever this year as the 100-day writers strike and a possible actors strike has led to a boom in film production in the spring.

"There are so many studio movies going that a number of people who would normally be available for pilots are shooting movies and are not available," talent agent Bob Gersh said.

One of the main aspects of this strike-impacted pilot season is how uneven it is.

Post-strike, CBS and Fox have been churning out pilot orders, while ABC and NBC have been at a standstill.

CBS has picked up seven drama and four comedy pilots in the past month. Additionally, it's been actively casting four more, ordered before the strike. Fox has greenlighted six comedy and two drama pilot after casting five earlier pickups.

Because of the time crunch, some CBS and Fox pilots are being picked up with stars already attached, including "Exit 19" starring Geena Davis; "Mike Birbiglia's Secret Public Journal," fronted by Birbiglia; and Fox's "The Inn," starring Niecy Nash.

In contrast, ABC has picked up only pilots — all comedies — since the end of the strike, none of which were developed at the network. The network is expected to only pick up one-hour projects for midseason consideration.

NBC, which was active before and during the strike, has not picked up a pilot since the walkout ended. The network is betting on fewer pilots and more projects going straight to series, which has helped with attracting top talent, network head of casting Marc Hirschfeld said.

"The fact that 'Kath & Kim' is going to series made it more appealing to stars Molly Shannon and Selma Blair," he said.

The reduced number of pilots this season — 20th TV, for example, has a quarter of its pilot load last season — is not very good for casting agencies as studios are handling casting mostly in-house instead of using outside casting directors as they normally do.

It is not very good for talent agencies and actors either.

"It's extremely compact and there has reduction of the number of pilots. There is a lot less to chose from. and it's more competitive," Gersh said. "It's very unusual, it's never been like this."

The good news is that with their push for year-round development, many networks are planning to shoot more pilots in June.
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