Pilot Season

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Could Go Either Way

This is Rob Long with Martini Shot on KCRW.

I have a writer friend who has two stacks of paper on his desk. In one pile, he has a brochure for the new BMW 650i and signed checks for next year's private school tuition. In the other, a fully-completed application for a home equity line-of-credit loan and registration forms for the local public school.

You see, it's pilot season, and my friend knows that things could go either way.

Pilot season is a trying and stressful time out here in Hollywood. Since August, the big television networks -- and the small ones, too -- have spent millions of dollars listening to pitches and ordering scripts for television shows they might be interested in making. When pilot season kicks in, sometime between the Screen Actors Guild Awards in January and the Oscars in March -- network executives sift through mountains of pricey material and select a dozen or two of the most promising scripts to turn into "pilot," or sample, programs. Then, in May -- right about now -- they winnow the handful of produced pilots even further, and order about four of them for the fall season. The chosen pilots will get an order for twelve episodes each, which means construction crews, writers, directors, art directors, set decorators, music supervisors, line producers, post-production supervisors, and craft services personnel all over town can count on at least twelve salary checks between June and November.

It's ironic, of course, that pilot season and awards season take place at roughly the same time, because award season is about being loved and pilot season is about getting paid, and though love and money are often twisted together in Hollywood, if we had to make a choice, we'd always choose pilot season. As one prominent costume designer told me a few years ago, right after winning her Oscar: "It looks great on the shelf, but you can't eat it. Are you guys looking to hire this year?"

We were hiring that year, as it happened. We had a script that had slipped its way through the system, and we were filming a pilot that would eventually get a full-season order. Everybody worked for the whole year -- that's 22 salary checks -- and we wrapped production in early January. When a network executive called us a few weeks later, ginning up her sad voice to tell us that we were cancelled, it was right during pilot season, which meant that the construction crews, writers, directors, art directors, set decorators, music supervisors, line producers, post-production supervisors, and craft services personnel who had been working for us were now left scrambling for a new show, burning up the phone collecting lunchtime agent gossip and surfing industry web sites, trying to find out what pilot was the hottest, most sure thing, most likely to end up on the fall schedule and create an everybody works situation.

Right now, according to lunchtime agent gossip and industry web sites, my friend with the two piles has a Hot Pilot. Last autumn, of course, it wasn't a Hot Pilot -- it was merely an Exciting Pitch (and before that, an Interesting Area). But the Exciting Pitch became, as autumn turned to winter and the pages were turned into the studio and network, an Offbeat Idea. Which became an Edgy Script, which attracted a Piece of Talent to become a Talent Driven Project and, eventually, a Hot Pilot.

So now he's got the two piles, two forks in the road: on one side, a home equity line of credit and a slow panic attack until July, when networks start hearing pitches for next next season. On the other, a shot at a place in Santa Monica Canyon. It's pilot season. It could go either way.

That's it for this week. Next week, I go to London. For KCRW, this is Rob Long with Martini Shot.



Rob Long