Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Pilot season update

All of the networks are in the process of casting their pilots for the upcoming TV season. Having been a part of that on numerous occasions I can tell you it’s the world’s most insane version of musical chairs.

Actors race from audition to audition. Producers must decide quickly because often someone they think might possibly be good for a role is on the verge of taking something else. Do you take him pre-emptively or keep looking? Might somebody better come along? Or will it turn out you let the best guy get away?  It's maddening!

Like swallows returning to Capistrano, New York actors fly in for pilot season. These are the casting Olympics. It’s a wild time and everything is up in the air.

But here’s what I’m seeing more and more now: Deadline Hollywood, the online trade website de jour, posts announcements on who’s been cast in what pilot. And invariably, I’d say almost 100%, it’s an actor who has already been in at least one series. They’ll have his name and in parentheses, the show or shows he’s been in before.

So my question is: How does a new actor break in? What do you have to do? It’s not like these actors with a previous series are necessarily that great. A third of them will be fired during pilot production or after. Do the networks really believe that someone who was a supporting player on THE REAL O’NEALS has a big enough fan base that he’ll actually bring in an audience?

Having done primarily multi-camera pilots I do see where it’s an advantage to hire people who have had multi-cam experience. They’re used to working in front of an audience. They’re used to memorizing entire scripts. But you get that with theatre actors too. You don’t need someone who had a recurring role on DR. KEN.

I feel bad for young actors. I wish I had the answer. But just know that if you somehow, someway DO break in, then all the network casting people who dismissed you two years ago for a one-line part will today be shoving your name down the throats of producers with ultimatums to use you or else.

And so it goes in pilot season.


Steve Hoffman said...

Ken -- maybe this is actually a "Friday Question," but the article you posted here describes the premise of this new pilot, and I'm struck by how this reads as the same exact premise as "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend." Does this happen often? Wouldn't networks want to green light pilots that don't sound like exact duplicates of something that's already out there and is reasonably successful? Or do they really not care?

Curt Alliaume said...

Here's an example of what you're saying, from Warren Littlefield's book "Top of the Rock":

Jennifer Aniston had been in our weak attempt a few years earlier to do Ferris Bueller as a series. (We did not have the services of John Hughes.) She played Ferris’s sister, Jeannie, and we liked what we saw. We cast her in a few more pilots, but none were very good. One night while gassing up my car on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, I ran into Jennifer, and she asked me, “Will it ever happen for me?” God, I wanted it to. I didn’t care what it would take—this was the role for her.

Aniston was cast as Rachel even though she had another series, Muddling Through on CBS at the time (which was cancelled before Friends aired).

blinky said...

Stephen Hawking just died. Did he ever appear on any of your shows?

Joseph Scarbrough said...

Wait . . . producers can make decisions again? I thought the network suits dictated all the decisions themselves anymore!

Niv said...

Jennifer Aniston was not some out of the world talent, that so many stories are being cooked up about her series cancellation, gas station meeting etc...... to show that an entire contingent was working to get her.

The reason she got that part was something else, which many knew at that time and now too. But never spoken on public forum.

E. Yarber said...

A lot of the business is about name-dropping, even if the credit is less direct than it may sound. I was in the same spot as a writer. Pardon me turning every post into a story about myself, but if you transpose the jobs, this little story may illustrate the pilot situation. Decide for yourself if I'm only griping out of sour grapes.

A producer I'd worked for once called me with a problem. He'd gotten financing for a film but the writers he'd hired had never produced anything usable. He'd lose the funds unless the movie was made within a year. I was given the group of characters and premise the backers had approved. I knocked off a script in three weeks and the producer told me that the bankers had actually been laughing out loud as they read it around a conference table. Not only did they approve the script, but they extended the deadline another year.

Sounds like I was in clover, eh? Well, next they hired a director. The director had never heard of me but he had a buddy who needed work, and this pal had worked on HOT SITCOM. The producer called me to say I was out. Still worrying about the fate of the project, I asked, "Did he create the show, or was he on staff in the later years? Has he ever written a feature film? Did he devise plots or was he one of 28 guys pitching gags in the story room?"

"It doesn't matter. We now have a hook we can market."

My name was immediately put in 9 point type on the promotional materials while Writer X of HOT SITCOM was prominently featured as the author, even though he hadn't even written anything yet. This was annoying, but I figured that I'd put up with the PR snub as long as people in the business knew who had really done the work. Unfortunately, the new writer really wasn't up to the job, the director flailed about, and the deadline passed without a movie.

Nobody appreciates established writers more than me. I've worked with some and learned a lot. But it wasn't about their credits but their CRAFT. In an image-conscious business like Hollywood, one equals the other, and few people are going to bother to poke beneath the skin level of a IMDb listing. It's easier to assume an actor has proven their chops from previous jobs than judging applicants on the level of their work for the current project. I guess the only answer is to have the luck to find an employer who is beyond that sort of thing and truly wants the right person for the job. Of course, you can go crazy expecting that sort of fairness in this business.

Mike Bloodworth said...

This is a crazy time for "background actors" AKA EXTRAS as well. Everyone would love to get on a series as a regular extra. You know the ones. You see them in every episode. M*A*S*H, for example, had several. These gigs are highly coveted. Not only because its steady work, but sometimes, if the stars are aligned, an extra will get a line or be promoted to "day player." Pilot season is also when stand-ins are hired. These are some of the most sought after jobs in the background area. Don't get me started on the politics and favoritism associated with these jobs. Among other things they always ask for "experienced" stand-ins. Its the oldest Hollywood cliche in the book; You can't get the work without experience and you can't get experience without the work. I shouldn't burn my bridges, but needless to say I never got one of those prized positions. I came close...but no cigar.
P.S. I guess it wasn't all bad. I did get my SAG card through extra work. ...A lot of good that did me!

Jeff said...

Ken, see this video and the devil called 'Natalie Wood' that has possessed you will go away FOREVER 😀

Dhruv said...

Another great post Ken :)

I like to read your stories always Mr. E. Yarber :)

I am always fascinated about Hollywood. So keep searching the net for such stories of constant struggle to make it against the odds.

For the past year or so I saved some money and gave it friends who go to America (since I can never go), to buy as many Hollywood writers' autobiography books as possible. I am reading one now, and it looks like Hollywood is more about nepotism, people whose names can attract investment and actors, than really giving the chance based on, as you put it, one's craft.

Hope you succeed in finding the right employer :)

Dr Loser said...

This is probably unhelpful, but are there any seed-bed theatre groups out there, as there were back in the '60s, '70s, '80s and so on?

I'm thinking specifically of the Steppenwolf Theatre guys, but there could be others. It might sound silly, but at least as an actor you get to produce a portfolio. And who knows? You might even get to utter the magic casting spell: "Yeah, I used to work with John Malkovich."

Gary said...

Well I'm intrigued. What was the real reason Jennifer Aniston got the part on Friends? Niv can't just leave us all hanging like that...

ODJennings said...

This might be a Friday question, but how common is it for actors to get stuck on a show they hate? The reason I'm asking is that the Steppenwolf Theatre comment reminded me of a story I once heard from someone in Chicago who was in a position to know.

He swore that a supporting actor on a popular sitcom only took the part because they were 110% certain that the show would be a flop. They bragged to their friends and coworkers that the money would pay for their home remodeling, and they'd be back in Chicago before anyone even noticed they were gone. The show became a hit and they were stuck in LA for 6 seasons hating every minute of it. (And no, it wasn't John Mahoney although I've read that he didn't think much of LA either.)

Peter said...

Out of interest, will Abe Lincoln be guest blogger tomorrow to thank the people of Pennsylvania for electing Conor Lamb?

Matthew Kugler said...

Friday Question: Similar to your questioning of how a relatively unknown actor breaks through during pilot casting season, how does a young writer get staffed?

The past two years I've been up for staffing, I feel like I get my stuff read too early or too late, and meetings for the one slot "maybe" available for a "baby writer" are so low on the priority list, if at all. How do you stand out from the massive pile of packets if you're not already established, the showrunner's niece/nephew or repped by the same agency as the creator(s) and leads who are acting as EPs on the show?

Andy Rose said...

@Mike Bloodworth: While I don't endorse dishonesty, I'm not aware of any shows that do extensive research on prospective stand-ins to make sure they actually have prior experience. The only thing they really want is someone who can fastidiously show up on time (meaning BEFORE call) and follow directions, and will otherwise be quiet. If a person can do that and prove to be reliable, I don't think an AD is going to be too upset to discover at the end of the season that there was some resume exaggeration going on.
That said, a person ought to get SOME experience as an extra before trying to become a stand-in, because you need to know through observation how a set works and what a stand-in does. They're certainly not going to believe you have prior experience if you tell them, "Can you remind me... what does 'second team' mean?"