The Truth About Pilot Season

Working in television isn’t what it used to be…

It’s that time of year again – pilot season. The time when dozens upon dozens of pilots get the greenlight and immediately begin casting. In true traditional fashion, the big networks (NBC, CW, ABC, CBS, and Fox) all order their pilots at around the same time which results in Hollywood being thrown into chaotic turmoil. A good casting director is always trying to find the best possible cast for their projects. Now imagine having to do that when you have various producers, studios, and networks breathing down your neck while also having to compete with every other casting director in the business who are also trying to find the “best actors” for their pilots. Needless to say, things get pretty crazy, but the upside to all of this is that the plethora of pilots brings with it a plethora of job opportunities for actors! For the most part…

Because of the overwhelming influx of pilots and roles, many actors think pilot season should be the busiest auditioning time of the year for them. Truthfully, even though pilot season is indeed quite busy, that doesn’t necessarily mean it will be busy for YOU. This fact may be tough to swallow, but it’s one of the biggest misconceptions actors have about the season, and it’s important to understand why.

The nature of pilot season

The nature of pilot season has been shifting considerably over the past couple of years. The season used to only refer to the big networks and their projects, but with the explosion of cable channels like HBO and Showtime, as well as streaming services like Netflix and Amazon, the landscape of things have been forever altered. This increase of distribution outlets then affects the timing of when pilots are cast and helps to spread out projects over the course of the year. Granted, the beginning of the new year is still when most of the network pilots get ordered and cast, but that quantity has definitely dipped in recent years. Some networks have even adopted the “cable format” of episodics, and have been ordering more and more limited series and miniseries (shows with only 10-13 episodes), which are often cast later in the year rather than during the traditional pilot season.  Many cable channels and streaming services then tend to cast at different times of the year (avoiding pilot season altogether) since they typically have much more flexibility compared to the networks who have to follow strict schedules and timelines.

Besides for the timing of when pilots are ordered and cast, the perception of television has also changed considerably over the years. There used to be a kind of classist divide between “TV actors” and “Movie Stars”, and once you’re put into one category, there was little hope of ever getting out of it. However, because of the constantly increasing quality of episodic television as a medium, those once defined lines have been considerable blurred, and many actors are finding great success jumping back and forth between both worlds. Many established “movie stars” have flocked to television in recent years (Kevin Spacey in House of Cards, Halle Berry in Extant, Kevin Bacon in The Following, etc), while many “TV actors”, especially ones from critically acclaimed series, are highly sought after for films when they are on hiatus from their shows. Melissa McCarthy stars in every other studio comedy when she’s not shooting her series Mike & Molly, while every other actor from Game of Thrones seems to be in a movie (Peter Dinklage was in X-Men: Days of Future Past, Lena Headey was in 300: Rise of an Empire, and Kit Harington was the lead in Pompeii¸ all of which came out in 2014). Game of Thrones actress Emilia Clarke is then coming out in the highly anticipated feature Terminator Genisys.

Needless to say, working in television isn’t what it used to be a decade ago, and there is far more synergy between the big and small screens. Because so many “namey” actors have been flocking to television, the selectiveness and competition in casting new shows is ridiculously tough. Talk to any casting director doing a major pilot, and they will probably tell you that they have offers out to people like Jennifer Aniston and Jake Gyllenhaal for their leads, and are focusing on finding a “star name” before they even consider auditioning actors. On top of that, it’s not just A-list actors jumping to the small screen. The world of scripted television, like Hollywood, is surprisingly small, and well-known actors coming off of other series are often the first ones to be tapped for new shows. Taraji P. Henson is the lead of the hit new series Empire (alongside Terrence Howard, an established film actor) after coming off of CBS’ hit procedural Person of Interest. Rainn Wilson is the lead of the new show Backstrom after his years on The Office, while Connie Britton stars in ABC’s Nashville after runs on Friday Night Lights and the first season of American Horror Story, and the list goes on. Given the extremely volatile nature of television, i.e. so many new series debut every year, but only a small handful will actually survive past a first season, let alone become a breakout hit, it is only natural that networks and studios would try and pad their shows with as much star quality as they can.

Getting back to the aforementioned misconception about pilot season, given all the changes in the television landscape, now do you see why pilot season might not necessarily be busy for you? Put differently, the top casting choices for any pilot are always star names and actors with extensive credits underneath their belts. The latter type of actors then aren’t always “straight offered” roles in pilots, and many actually still have to audition for things like everyone else. Considering all of this, how do you expect to even be considered during pilot season if you don’t already have the credits, name, or experience? How do you expect to compete?

Your team

Another determining factor for how busy you are during pilot season is who your reps are (assuming you have any). If you have relatively unknown, boutique reps with minimal power and influence in this industry, don’t expect a whole lot of action during pilot season. Once again, pilot season is a mad frenzy – the amount of phone calls and emails casting directors get skyrocket, and they only have so many hours in the day to respond to people. Naturally, casting offices will be more communicative with people they know and have long standing working relationships with so if your rep isn’t well known, and thus doesn’t have a lot of strong connections, they will be hard pressed to get you any kind of traction for pilots. If your reps fall under this category, don’t be quick to blame them for any lack of pilot auditions! So many actors think that once they get an agent/manager the auditions will just start pouring in, and that’s absolutely not the case for most. Cut your reps some slack this season and know that they are probably doing the best that they can. Conversely, even if you do have a big agent or manager on your team that also doesn’t guarantee that you’ll have a lot of pilot action. Even the bigger agencies get bogged down during pilot season, and if you’re not already one of their top earners (and thus a priority on their roster), you might find yourself a little lost in the shuffle. Small fish, big pond.

Aussies, Brits, and types, oh my!

Of course, whether or not you go out for pilots isn’t 100% contingent on your reps. Until you’re a name, you’re a type. Whether you like it or not, you’re going to be categorized in this business – handsome leading man, quirky best friend, smoldering villain, schlubby funnyman, and many more. Because of this typecasting, you’re really only going to be considered and pitched for roles that match you. This is typically the case year round, but is especially prevalent during pilot season. Then, on top of this typecasting, you’re still going to face the abovementioned competition of auditioning against namey and more seasoned actors. For example, if your type is the handsome leading man, the roles in pilots that will probably be the most right for you will be the series LEADS, which means you’ll be vying for roles that are either going to be straight offered to a movie star, or actors coming off of other series. Once again, how are you supposed to compete with these kinds of odds?

Typecasting aside, other factors related to you as an actor that may affect you are your age and ethnicity. Age-wise, if you fall in the “in between” categories, i.e. you’re too young to play the mom/dad/police detective type roles, but too old to play high school and college aged roles, you’re probably going to be in a bit of a casting rut for a while. Getting stuck in this age purgatory can be a bit frustrating and unfortunately there’s little you can do until you physically age out of it. Finally, your ethnicity also plays an important component in pilot season. In an ongoing effort to make sure shows best reflect its diverse viewing audiences, pilots almost always have roles that are designated to be played by non-Caucasian actors. In fact, the demand for ethnic diversity is so high that pilot season tends to be significantly busier for non-Caucasian actors compared to their white counterparts. If you’re a Caucasian actor who isn’t already a household name in television or have an extensive resume, you’re going to be hard pressed to be considered for pilots as you will also have to face the overwhelming demand for ethnically diverse casting.

To add the proverbial nail in the coffin, if you’re just a typical homegrown American actor you’re also going to be at disadvantage to international actors during pilot season, specifically to Australian and British performers. The running joke every pilot season is that casting will only be open to seeing you if you’re a name, non-Caucasian, or a Brit/Aussie. As humorously reductive as that may sound, there’s a lot of truth to it. Pilot season is the one time of the year when casting directors can really throw a large net when searching for talent – especially for CDs who mainly cast television. If a pilot doesn’t have a household name attached in it, they have a top notch unknown actor on the verge of breaking out. When looking for this on-the-verge actor, casting directors tend to look beyond our borders for talent, with British and Australians being the natural choice (on account of them speaking English). Of course this shouldn’t come to that much of a surprise since this has been the trend for years. Andrew Lincoln from The Walking Dead, Charlie Hunnam from Sons of Anarchy, and Ruth Wilson from The Affair – all of them British, playing American characters, and all of them the leads of their respective series.

The Pilots

Although your team of reps and your “type” as an actor are crucial factors that affect your pilot season, it’s important to note that the pilots themselves also play a significant role. The types of pilots that are ordered each season vary, and each year there tends to be a “flavor of the month”. One year, pilots about witches seemed to be all the rage, next it was political themed shows, then it was period pieces, and the list goes on. Naturally, certain types of shows require certain types of actors. A pilot set in high school will most likely need a cast of young, diverse actors, while a pilot set in the Middle East might require actors who can portray those ethnicities. Because these “flavors of the month” come and go like most trends, it’s sometimes hard to gauge exactly how busy one will be during pilot season. One year might be the craziest, busiest season of your life while the next could be slow and average – a lot of it just depends on the material that’s out there!

Now that you have a better understanding of how pilot season has evolved over the years, as well as the types of actors that are typically sought after, you can better focus your efforts on having a meaningful season. You can still be very productive and busy during pilot season even though you’re not auditioning for pilots! Check out my follow up article on how to best make use of this time.

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Kyle