Pilots are the tip of the spear in the television industry. The first episode of most television series, whether it’s a half-hour comedy like BIG BANG THEORY, an hour-long drama like HOUSE, or a cartoon like ARCHER, determines if that show is on the air for five seasons, or fades into history after the third episode. This is why so much time, energy, and money goes into making these pilots: the entire fate of a show depends on their successful reception.
But what’s the process of making a TV pilot?
Step 0: Getting the Pilot Script Picked Up
Before a creative project is a pilot, it’s a pitch.
To go from pitch to pilot, the pitch needs a “greenlight” — a “yes” to your idea from the studio and/or network. The first step in getting a greenlight is selling your pitch. This entails you going into a room with studio execs or network execs (or both) and sketching out the world you imagine for your show.
If the execs like what they hear, they buy your pitch. But there’s no time to celebrate, because after they buy it you need to finish step two in getting that greenlight, which is delivering them a pilot script.
And not just any script: one that both the studio and network like.
If the pitch was a sketch of your idea, then the script is the painting: colored in, fully formed and framed. The process of creating this painting is often a harrowing one, aptly referred to as “development hell” in the industry.
Why? Because the execs didn’t have any input on your pitch idea; the pitch was all you. That was then, though. Now executives give notes based on their perspectives as the network and studio, e.g. the business perspective (versus a purely creative/artistic one).
Their notes tend to focus on things like:
Is the script what they envisioned when they bought the pitch?
Is it in line with their mandate?
Does it fit their brand?
Will it fit the budget?
It’s the writer’s job to deliver script rewrites that strike the delicate balance between incorporating notes and maintaining the creative integrity of the story. Which can be tricky.
When everyone agrees the script is ready, it’s sent to the top network execs to read over the holiday break. You, meanwhile, get to spend your break developing acute heartburn as you wait for news on your greenlight. Happy holidays indeed!
Step 1: Put Together The Creative Elements
Christmas came late: the network decided to pick up your script and order it to pilot. Again, no time to celebrate, because you need to get the ball rolling on making your pilot.
After getting greenlit, the next step for creatives working on pilots is to put together their team (director, casting director, possibly a showrunner, etc.) and begin casting. Unfortunately, most of Hollywood is doing that same exact thing at the exact same time. It becomes a race to get your first, second, or even third choice for roles, while Business Affairs negotiates contracts for all your players (all while they negotiate with other parties as well).
Since statistically most shows fail and lose money, networks and studios look for ways to minimize their downside. One go-to strategy is to make a pilot pick-up “cast contingent,” meaning a network will only release enough money to fund casting. If an acceptable cast isn’t found, the project is tabled and no more money is spent.
Step 2: Shoot It
After putting your team together and finding a network-approved cast, you have to film your pilot. It’s a rushed process that involves:
A table read
A runthrough for the team and cast
A second runthrough for the network
A day set aside for the director to set up shots
The length of a shoot depends on the show. Multicam comedy pilots shot on a sound stage may take only a few days; single-cam pilots, on the other hand, may shoot for weeks or more (for example, the massive 2-hour LOST pilot took two-and-a-half months to shoot.)
Meanwhile, writers continue reworking the script based on notes made by the cast and team, and sometimes even recasting.
Even at this stage, the studio or network can take further steps to minimize their downside if they aren’t confident in the project. Instead of shooting a “full pilot,” they can shoot low-budget pilots or “proof of concept” presentations instead. With these, only a truncated script is shot and borrowed sets are used, to cut down on expenses.
This gives the network an idea of what the full pilot would look like without a major investment (and major risk). Shows like CBS’s JUDGING AMY and MTV’s CASSANDRA FRENCH’S FINISHING SCHOOL FOR BOYS were shot as presentation pilots (with JUDGING AMY ultimately having a successful series run, while CASSANDRA FRENCH’S was never picked up).
Step 3: Edit, Edit, Edit
Once the pilot is shot and in the can, it goes through the editing process. A pilot typically goes through a series of cuts by the director, showrunner, and studio before it’s turned in to the network.
Many networks then run the pilot through various screenings and marketing tests. Another cut is then usually produced based on this data.
Step 4: Series Order or Bust
Once the pilot is in the network’s hands, all that’s left to do is wait in creative purgatory while the network decides whether or not to order your show to series.
Pilots are viewed en masse a few weeks before the May upfront presentations, and then the orders are made. Series order decisions are based on:
What shows will draw the biggest audiences?
What shows fill certain programming blocks?
What shows will be important critically?
What shows satisfy the network’s mandate?
What shows satisfy the network’s brand?
A handful of pilots get series orders. The rest are dead pilots.
The lucky few writers with series orders get busy writing scripts for the 13 or 22 episodes needed to complete the first season. Meanwhile, network execs air the pilots for advertisers in the upfront presentations to sell commercial airtime.
How Much Do Pilots Cost
The reason studios and networks use cast-contingencies and pilot presentations is because of the incredible costs of pilots — costs most shows never recoup.
To put this into perspective:
The average cost for a 30-minute comedy pilot is $2 million.
An hour-long drama averages out at $5.5 million.
Those are just the averages; some cost much, much more:
LOST’s pilot cost somewhere between $10 and $14 million.
The Scorsese-filmed BOARDWALK EMPIRE pilot ran up a $18 million price tag.
Fox’s TERRA NOVA cost between $10 to $20 million.
How TV Is Changing
TV is a constantly (albeit slowly) changing industry, and will continue to do so as more and more non-traditional networks (Amazon, Hulu, Netflix etc.) become contenders in the scripted television space.
Cable networks have long been operating on a different timeline than prime time networks, and usually develop and produce pilots year round.
Amazon in particular is shaking things up by posting all of their pilots online and letting viewers vote for their favorites; they can also track the number of times each pilot is viewed. It’s unclear whether or not these numbers make any difference in Amazon’s decision on which pilots to move forward with or not, but it does create a more democratic and interactive process for viewers.
Examples of Amazon pilots posted like this include the pilot for ALPHA HOUSE, starring John Goodman, and THE AFTER, the latest project from Chris Carter (creator of THE X FILES).
Another way things are changing is that some networks and studios are starting to copy the cable network method by bypassing pilots altogether and ordering projects straight-to-series, which you can read more about here. Examples of straight-to-series shows include Netflix’s hit HOUSE OF CARDS and the Halle Berry/Steven Spielberg show on TNT, EXTANT.