making the sausage

Polone: How Pilot Season Ensures That Great Actors Rarely Land the Right Shows

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - NOVEMBER 18: Singer Trevor Whittaker singing to the judges at the audition for the Venetian Hotel Macao at the Sydney Dance Company on November 18, 2010 in Sydney, Australia.2010. (Photo by Mike Flokis/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Trevor Whittaker
Oh God they hope they get it. They hope they get it… Photo: Mike Flokis/2010 Getty Images

Hollywood is one month into pilot season. By the end of February, the networks will have culled the scripts they had been developing during the prior half-year and will order a select group of pilots for production. (Final decisions on which of these go to series is made in May.) But as the chosen scripts are anointed, the television industry becomes all about casting these projects. It is indisputable that a great script that has been miscast will fail and that a mediocre script with a terrific lead or leads may very well succeed. Yet for all of its importance, the process of casting pilots — for those actors who aren’t among the very small number well known enough to simply be offered a show outright – is, ironically, so strained and grueling that it doesn’t afford actors the opportunity to be cast in the show best suited to them, nor the producers a position of confidence that they have hired the best ensemble available.

As most of the new shows for any given season are made in March and April, almost all of the casting for them is done during the first three months of the year. Since the big four networks average about twenty total comedy and drama pilots each in any given year and the CW does several more, that is a lot of roles to fill in a relatively short period of time. The process starts with the hiring of a casting director, and the top tier of these actor scouts usually commit to between two and five pilots at once. Since most series, once picked up, hold on to the casting director from the pilot, it makes sense that they would want to do as many as possible, as the chances of getting a job on a series drop significantly later in the year. But no matter what they may say, a casting director can’t do a great job if they are spread too thin — and that’s exactly what happens when they focus on more than one pilot at the same time. Casting directors always bring in the actors they know well for all of their projects, and that’s understandable, since they believe in them. But if a casting director is challenged for time, he or she will sacrifice auditioning new people and just stick to the familiar. This is one reason why we end up seeing the same actors in so many shows: Doesn’t it seem like Alex O’Loughlin, Natalie Zea, and Breckin Meyer have been in at least half of the pilots produced in the last ten years? 

On two occasions, I’ve had friends of mine at smaller talent agencies call me to complain that they couldn’t get their clients in for a preliminary audition on my pilots and they’ve asked me to intervene: Agents at smaller agencies aren’t treated with the same respect as those at the bigger ones even though they are the ones discovering most of the new prospects. In both of those situations, I forced the casting director to bring in the actors and both of them ended up with the parts. One of those actors went on to become a well-known lead on a long-running NBC drama, even though the pilot he did for me didn’t make it to series.

Meanwhile, actors are horribly and sabotagingly overextended during pilot season. An actress who has been through eight pilot seasons kept a record of a typical year and described it to me: She auditioned for 30 pilots, reading directly for the producers, and was called back five or six times; she then had five “studio tests” (where she auditioned for the studio execs before being brought to the network execs); she was subsequently cut from one project at this stage and tested for the network execs on the remaining four, landing the part on one of them … which didn’t make it to series. That is a tremendous amount of work to get one pilot, since the actors are expected to memorize two or three scenes per audition, and sometimes go in on two or three auditions in a day. A casting director of several successful series told me that most actors aren’t given the entire script of the pilot for which they are auditioning, just the scenes they are using in the audition, known as “sides.” Therefore, they can’t really create an appropriate character: “They get the material at the last minute, they don’t prepare enough, they read as some version of who they are, and they leave.” When I asked the actress how she felt about the process after eight seasons, she said, “When it is last minute, it impacts preparation … If I had more time, I would be so much better.” More significant, the fact that she’s been in to see the same producers, directors, and casting directors so many times on so many pilots over the years gets her down. “Now, sometimes,” she says, “I feel like a ‘stale face.’ I feel like my expiration date is coming soon.”

And ultimately, who gets cast can have little to do with acting ability anyway. Rather, because there are so many pilots competing for the same pool of talent, timing and competition issues can frustratingly undermine an actor getting cast in the right role. Studios and networks always demand that any actor going in to test for a show sign a “test deal,” which says they can’t accept another deal within a five- to ten-day period following their test; such contracts are required so an actor won’t be able to use the after-the-fact leverage of having beaten out the competition in order to negotiate a better deal for themselves. Most networks and studios will not test someone if they are being held by another pilot under one of these deals, therefore these actors are kept off the market even though they might not get the pilot that is tying them up. Meanwhile, their compensation for being held in this way is zero.  

Worse, there are many times when producers and executives test and hold actors they have no intention of casting for a particular role. The usual number of candidates to bring to the network for a part is three to five, and even if the producers have one or two clear favorites in mind, they’ll bring in a few extra as “filler” so the network doesn’t feel like they’re having someone forced on them. So if an actor is held on a pilot that they have little or no chance of getting, they will be blocked from going up for another pilot for which they are the best candidate. Most every actor I know has experienced a situation like this.

The only way around this snarled process would be to evenly spread out the making of pilots throughout the year, which would mean the end of broadcast networks launching most of their shows in the fall. People have talked about year-round development and series launches since I’ve been in the business, not because it would make for better casting but rather because it is difficult to effectively market a large number of shows when everyone is doing so simultaneously. No network has ever taken the lead to make a real attempt at changing the schedule, but now is the time to do it. Evidence of the viability of year-round development and pilot production can be seen with the various cable networks who intentionally cast, produce, and launch their pilots and series when the networks are not, and it is pretty hard to argue that the cable nets are not now producing better product. So primarily this move would help the very survival of the network business, but as a bonus these changes would make it easier on actors. I think there is a common notion that acting is more about how you look than ability and effort. But being an actor, especially when you’re just starting out and have to support yourself with outside work, is really tough, and trying to get a regular part on a TV series during pilot season is the toughest thing an actor can do. So when you watch a new show next September on ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, or the CW and there is someone on it whose performance you like, I hope you’ll respect them a bit more now knowing what they went through to get that job.

Follow Gavin Polone on Twitter: @gavinpolone

Polone: How Pilot Season Ensures That Great Actors Rarely Land the Right Shows