Pilot Season: 4 Hot Trends for 2014
This story first appeared in the Feb. 28 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Despite Fox Broadcasting chairman Kevin Reilly calling for an end to pilot season in a much-discussed speech in January, the annual four-month rush to create 90 or so TV contenders is far from dead. But it is changing to meet the market. This year, the networks have become more flexible, whether they're bypassing the pilot stage or making moves on a different timeline. In addition to increased experimentation, there's a continued reliance on serialized thrillers, a clamoring for romantic comedies no longer prevalent in movies and a growing appetite for multicamera sitcoms, which can cost half as much as a single-camera pilot and hit significantly bigger in the aftermarket (see The Big Bang Theory). Of course, so long as that mid-May upfront -- where $9 billion is spent -- remains at the epicenter of their financial model, it's unlikely that the annual development circus will go away entirely. Here's a look at four other trends to emerge in recent months.
Only the Big People Will Get the Big Job
Peruse any of the networks' development grids, and it's hard not to notice the abundance of familiar showrunner names, particularly when it comes to the coveted -- and increasingly attainable -- straight-to-series orders. And 20th Century Fox TV creative affairs president Jonnie Davis suggests it makes sense: "When you make that kind of series commitment -- both creatively and financially -- the networks want somebody who has two feet on the ground and has gone through the process. There's less risk in that." But landing those big fish isn't easy, which is why studios have been aggressively courting them with top-flight deals. Take CBS' Battle Creek, for which Sony recruited Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad) and David Shore (House, M.D.) and then said, "If you want this, it goes straight-to-series." CBS TV Studios did the same with a soapy drama from David O. Russell (American Hustle) at ABC. "There aren't that many players that you can do that with," says CBS TV Studios president David Stapf, "and I think we're all chasing the same auspices to be able to make that argument."
A-List Actors Write Their Own Tickets
As the landscape grows more crowded, landing top talent has become that much more cutthroat -- and, as several execs have vented publicly, they're all going after the same names . To avoid that late-winter rat race, networks and studios increasingly are looking to get out in front by locking in talent months ahead of time and building projects, usually comedies, around them. A few studio chiefs say they've had to rethink the types of deals they're willing to offer to stay competitive in a market where cable and Netflix have given freedom in terms of content, scheduling and longevity. Says ABC Studios executive vp Patrick Moran of one tactic he has employed to draw a certain caliber of actor: "We have a few shows where we're making a one-year deal for a particular role [as opposed to locking an actor in for several years]."
Studios Looking Outside Their Tent
The once-sturdy walls of vertical integration are crumbling, with each of the studios looking to sell more to networks outside of the corporate family. 20th Century Fox Television leads with eight outside sales, followed by ABC Studios (five) and Universal TV (three). The rationale? Top-tier talent wants to know that they, and their shows, have options if the sibling network says no. It's about "staying competitive with creative talent," notes Universal Television executive vp Bela Bajaria, with Moran adding that his studio has made an aggressive push to take elsewhere projects that don't work at ABC, a point he has made clear to many of the boldface names he's looking to lure. "The big win with most of these vertically aligned companies is a hit show on the sister network, and every conversation opens that way," he acknowledges, "but if they have an idea that doesn't make sense, you want to be able to travel with them and go to the right home for it."
First One to the Location Wins
The arms race doesn't stop at talent. Studio executives are finding themselves in a knockout battle for locations, too, this pilot season. With more scripted television being shot -- for broadcast, cable and digital outlets including Netflix -- than ever before, locales that once lured productions with tax incentives now are being forced to turn that same business away. "There are no crews available, casting directors can't take on another show, and production designers are just too busy," says a frustrated Bajaria, who ticks off locales from New York to Atlanta that have proved problematic, care of competition. "States are closed for business!"
By the Numbers
15 -- Shows ordered straight-to-series, bypassing the traditional pilot system
$6 million-$8 million -- The average cost of a one-hour broadcast drama pilot in 2013
24 -- Pilots adapted from existing material, including foreign shows (14), books (eight) and films (two)
20 -- Pilots with Oscar nominees/winners attached behind the camera, including 2014's David O. Russell and John Ridley
$175,000 -- What an A-list star can expect to make, per episode, in the first season of a show
91 -- Total pilots ordered by the networks in 2014 as of press time -- down from 100 in 2013 (including Fox's nontraditional orders)