Why a Failed Pilot Actually Means Success (Guest Column)

Twisted Pleasure of Pilot Failure - P 2013
Illustration by: Skip Sterling

Twisted Pleasure of Pilot Failure - P 2013

Noah Hawley, creator of "My Generation," reveals the open secret of pilot season for writers: "In TV, there's no stigma to failure."

This story first appeared in the April 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

The pilot writer in January, like Schrodinger's cat, is alive and dead at the same time. As Feb. 1 approaches, sleep becomes fitful, your mind split between equally likely scenarios. Either 1) the call comes and the network picks up your pilot, making you busier than most humans, or 2) a different call comes, and the network passes on your pilot, making you unemployed.

Impossibly busy or unemployed. These are your options. And you must prepare for both.

For me, the call came on a Friday. It was from my producers, not the network, which (you guessed it) meant the cat was dead. "The network is passing," they said, as if they couldn't believe it. We had, after all, been told in recent days to interview casting directors. We had run through multiple drafts of a director list and had, at the network's instruction, submitted the script to several names on the list. As other pilot scripts had fallen away, ours had remained on the "hot list." So we were doing our due diligence, preparing to hit the ground running, egged on by enthusiastic network and studio executives. So that Friday morning, when we heard the network was going to make some pickups, everyone expected the best.

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Except I've been down this road before, and I had a feeling. It's hard to put my finger on what it was exactly. Maybe it was the email from a top network executive the day before who wrote: "You guys have been fantastic and so collaborative through the process -- amazing partners! We really love the script and think that in the potential 'big swing' category, this one is fresh and original." Which sounds great, but it reminded me too much of calls I'd gotten in the days before that same network had canceled my previous show. Impassioned calls from execs who'd said they were "prouder of my show than any other in their career." At the time I thought it meant I had their support and we were going to weather the shaky ratings together. Later I realized it was the kind of thing people say when they visit you in the hospital. Last respects, I think they're called.

Or maybe it was the words themselves that made me uneasy. "Fresh and original." Which appear to be positives -- but also can mean unfamiliar and scary. Whatever the cause, I knew one thing when I hung up the phone.

I was unemployed.

Condolences, you say. How will having the network pass on your pilot hurt your career? Well, I say, that's the crazy thing. It won't. For two reasons.

1) Have you read the pilots they did pick up?

2) Failure in television is actually success.

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Come again?

Well, consider this. Someone once asked me the difference between the publishing business and the television business. In TV, something like 92 percent of all shows fail. As a result, there's no stigma to failure. None. Just the opposite. Simply selling a pilot script puts a writer in an elite category. Getting that pilot made bumps them up another notch. And the writer who gets to run his or her own show -- even for a few episodes -- becomes that most elite animal of all: a showrunner. Which automatically gives their next pilot a better chance of success.

Put simply, in television we fail up.

In publishing, an author whose book doesn't perform has a harder time selling the next book, and so on, into obscurity. In publishing, you see, failure is failure. But in TV, the thinking goes, each step forward a writer-producer takes imbues him or her with valuable job skills and authority. Once you've been The Boss, therefore, you remain A Boss, even after your show disappears. Like Napoleon on Elba, marooned on an island, waiting and plotting his way back to power.

This makes television the only industry in which you strive not for victory, but to Fail Better. As in, next time if I'm lucky, I'll make a pilot that doesn't get picked up! Or maybe this time I'll get a show on the air and then, when it's canceled, I'll get a fat overall deal!

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So to those of you shooting pilots at this moment, take heart. No matter what happens, you can't fail. And to the rest of you (writers and producers alike), the next time you get that second call, the one that leaves you unemployed, pop a bottle of Champagne anyway. Because your future just got brighter. In television development, you see, there's always next year. And next year starts in four months.

Noah Hawley is a film and TV writer-producer whose latest novel is The Good Father. He has failed spectacularly with the TV shows The Unusuals and My Generation.