High concepts, costs and risks this pilot season

The stakes continue to rise for studios

Hell broke loose this pilot season with projects about purgatory dwellers sent back to Earth, the devil and his bounty hunter and zombies and vampires walking among us.

And that's just on the creative side.

For studios, producing a dozen to couple of dozen pilots within two months sure resembles going through the nine circles of hell — from hiring a director to casting to setting up production, filming and editing and delivering the finished pilot on time to be screened by the network executives.

The stakes for production companies have gotten even higher during the past couple of years as the networks have been going for dramas with higher, more sophisticated production values and larger, more prominent casts and have been betting heavily on single-camera comedies.

All broadcast networks except Fox opted for comedy slates heavy on filmed comedies this year.

A single-camera comedy pilot is said to cost on average of more than $3 million, with the lowest-budget filmed comedies going for as much as the most expensive multicamera sitcoms. That is a big investment for the studios, especially when considering that none of the new single-camera comedies this season has made a serious dent in the ratings.

"Single-camera comedies are pretty risky for the studios, and the networks will have to step up and pitch in," 20th Century Fox Television president Gary Newman said. "On the drama side, costs are creeping up with heightened production value and the cast costs continuing to rise."

While observers note that production costs did not go up as sharply this pilot season as in the past couple of years, most agree that they are becoming more difficult to manage.

A drama pilot costs on average $4.5 million-$6.5 million to produce, with most hovering above the $5 million mark as networks push for featurelike production values in the wake of the success of such shows as "24," "Lost" and "Heroes." The number of scenes in a drama pilot has gone up substantially and is now as high as 80.

"It gets harder and harder," ABC TV Studio president Mark Pedowitz said.

But producing bigger, slicker shows has one financial upside for the studios.

"We're blessed to have the DVD and the international marketplace," Pedowitz said. "Globally, with quality shows like 'House' and '24,' American studios are moving back into primetime."

There isn't a "Lost"-size budget buster crossing the $10 million mark this season, but several pilots carry hefty price tags.

The budget for Fox's "Terminator"-themed "The Sarah Connor Chronicles" is said to be in the $7 million-$8 million range. "Mrs. & Mrs. Smith," from the creative team behind the hit 2005 feature, including director Doug Liman, reportedly costs about $7.4 million. It's running neck and neck with NBC's "The Bionic Woman," a reimagination of the 1970s series. CBS' murder mystery musical "Viva Laughlin" is said to cost around $6.8 million, while ABC's "Dirty Sexy Money," which boasts a large ensemble cast led by Peter Krause, and another ensemble ABC drama pilot, the Bryan Singer-directed "Football Wives," are understood to come in at about $6.7 million.

"There has been a shift in the way viewers consume entertainment with the proliferation of new digital distribution systems," Warner Bros. TV president Peter Roth said. "The need to impress, to score a home run right off the bat, has increased geometrically."

To do that, the networks and studios are betting on big-name talent behind and in front of the camera, which creates a feeding frenzy and drives up the prices as the studios compete for the same pool of actors.

Krause, Paul Rudd, Michael Vartan, Simon Baker, Christina Applegate, Jordana Brewster and Lucy Liu all fielded multiple offers and — with the exception of Rudd and Baker, who passed on all — commanded top dollar for the projects they chose.

Behind the camera, the studios attracted such feature helmers as Singer, Lasse Hallstrom, Spike Lee, Guy Ritchie, Gabriele Muccino and Christopher Guest.

"There is a real belief and an excitement out there about working in television," said Jamie Erlicht, co-president of programming and production at Sony Pictures TV, which has Ritchie, Muccino and Guest directing pilots this season.

With top-level talent and big-scale production pushing the budgets up, the studios are trying to carefully manage their portfolios.

"At the beginning of the season, we talked to our writers and pushed them to be bold, but we're also trying to have a very balanced slate," 20th TV president Dana Walden said. "On the comedy side, we have some more conventional and some more adventurous half-hours."

The studio has been experimenting with the multicamera format on its successful CBS comedy "How I Met Your Mother," which is not shot in front of a live audience to make room for several more sets on the soundstage. That allows for shorter scenes and more filming flexibility. 20th TV is applying that model to two of its multicamera pilots this season: "Nice Girls Don't Get the Corner Office" at ABC and the untitled Victor Fresco project at Fox.

Meanwhile, WBTV — the studio behind the top comedy on television, the multicamera "Two and a Half Men" — went against the single-camera tide with only one filmed comedy pilot on its slate.

"For us, it's always been about the content, not the form," Roth said.

The struggle of this season's crop of single-camera entries and the midseason success of traditional sitcoms "Rules of Engagement" and "American Idol"-enhanced " 'Til Death," both from Sony TV, is sure to boost the prospects of the now-cold multicamera format.

"The networks are re-examining their slates," Sony TV co-president programming Zack Van Amburg said. "Our success with 'Rules of Engagement' and ' 'Til Death' shows there's an appetite for four-camera comedy."

On the single-camera front, one way to contain costs is to film within a contained location like the ABC TV Studio-produced NBC comedy "Scrubs."

Or to do pilots the Jason Winer way. This development season, the writer-producer used a $150,000 script fee he received from 20th TV to shoot a full-length single-camera pilot, which is now in consideration at CBS along with the rest of the network's multimillion-dollar comedy pilots.

If handling big-budget productions is tough on the big studios, it is even tougher on the smaller players.

Regency Television, for instance, is fielding three high-profile pilots this season: "Smith"; the Hallstrom-directed drama "New Amsterdam" for Fox and Amy Sherman-Palladino's multicamera comedy for Fox "The Return of Jezebel James," which stars Parker Posey and Lauren Ambrose.

Regency TV brass had been "really careful to take incredibly specific shots at things," company president Robin Schwartz said.

Still, "we had three projects, and each one took on a life of its own in terms of quality of the talent they attracted," she said. "I feel that every one of the shows deserves to have the full financial support as well as the focus and the attention of the studio."

While all studios are grappling with rising production costs, things are said to be worse for entities that are not vertically integrated.

"I think there is less financial struggle internally when the studio is owned (by the same company as the network)," NBC Universal TV Studio president Angela Bromstad said. "Many executive producers say they feel that, in a vertically integrated company, there is more money to do the shows — which could be good and bad, depending on what you want your bottom line to be. Ultimately, it is good for the audience, as 'Heroes' proved, because the production value is there."

To break through the clutter, the networks went for pretty unusual concepts this season, including a comedy set at a home for the handicapped (NBC's "I'm With Stupid"), musical mystery ("Viva") and a show about partner-swapping in 1970s suburbia (CBS' "Swingtown").

"There was a tremendous openness to any and all ideas as the networks are looking for shows that can make noise and are easy to market," said David Stapf, president of CBS Paramount Network TV, which produces "Swingtown" and co-produces "Viva." "And while some concepts were pretty out there, at the core, they are relatable and accessible."

While high-concept comedies can score big, as proved by NBC's "The Office," the risk associated with them runs high.

" 'I'm With Stupid' will either be a huge success or a huge miss," Bromstad said. "There is no middle ground."

In the wake of the success of NBC drama "Heroes," which became an online hit long before its premiere, even at the pilot stage, some studios already are looking at potential digital extensions for their projects.

NBC Uni TV is looking to tie a "Lipstick Jungle's" character's job as a magazine editor to launching a real online magazine on NBC.com, and WBTV would re-create online the virtual database downloaded into the brain of the title character in NBC's "Chuck."