New trend: stars before pickups

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With the pilot season truncated to three months because of the writers strike, some broadcast networks are switching the order of pilot casting and pickups to save time and give themselves a better shot at sought-after talent.

On Wednesday, British actor Toby Stephens ("Die Another Day") was cast as the lead in Fox's drama "Inseparable." However, the project has not yet been picked up to pilot.

A modern-day Jekyll and Hyde tale about a partially paralyzed forensic psychiatrist (Stephens) with a split personality whose alter ego is a charismatic criminal, "Inseparable" was pitched before the strike by creator Shaun Cassidy, who originally developed it several years ago. The network asked for a revised draft, which Cassidy couldn't complete before the work stoppage began.

To get a head start when the strike concluded, Fox brass in January gave their blessing for casting to begin on the ABC Studios-produced project but delayed an official pilot order until they read Cassidy's new draft. (Full story)

In similar fashion, two comedy projects, Fox's "Don't Bring Frank" and CBS' "Ex Life," were cleared to begin casting Friday before the projects have been picked up to pilots. (Full story)

Casting on CBS' drama pilot "Mythological X" also will start before there is a script in place. The project had been in development at CBS, but when it greenlighted it to pilot Wednesday, the network also tapped a new writer, Diane Ruggiero, to pen a new script.

The move allows the networks to get an early start on the casting process, avoiding the mad rush when "everyone will be trying to tap the same talent pool," one agent said. "That pool gets depleted very quickly."

Another early trend emerging from the pilot pickup season, which started in earnest this week with CBS ordering a quartet of shows, is the expanding invasion of foreign formats.

The prolonged strike prompted the broadcast nets to take a closer look at international series.

Last year, a record seven foreign formats -- three dramas and four comedies -- made it to pilot stage. With the thick of pilot ordering still days away, that number already has been surpassed this year.

CBS on Wednesday picked up two pilots based on international formats: the British "Ny-Lon" and the Israeli "Mythological X." (Full story)

"Frank" also is based on a British format, as are ABC's drama "Life on Mars" and NBC's comedy "Father Ted," while NBC's "Kath & Kim" comes from Australia. Additionally, Canadian imports "Flashpoint" and "The Listener" recently were handed series orders by CBS and NBC, respectively.

NBC Uni, CBS Corp. and News Corp. toppers have promised major shakeups of the pilot process in the wake of the writers strike. But so far, aside from some minor tweaks like jump-starting casting, the biggest news this post-strike pilot season seems to be how business-as-usual it has been.

"They said they won't be picking up pilots, and they're doing just that," one agent said.
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