The bumpin’ VIP after-party that is Pilot Season is officially happening. It is so on right now. Multiple times a day insanely talented, stunningly beautiful actors are knocking it out of the park in front of brilliant show runners and savvy executives who have their fingers on the pulse of the next big thing in television. This party is off the hook. And guess what? You’re not invited. Oh, sure, you can drive by the party in your ’95 Nissan, looking longingly through double-paned windows at the fabulous people in evening wear inside. But you’re not getting past the velvet rope. Look at them. They’re having the time of their lives. They’re at the center of the universe. They matter. And whether you’re not auditioning at all, or are auditioning and not booking, Pilot Season makes you feel like you don’t matter.
While it can seem like the most exclusive club around, that’s only the image of Pilot Season painted by that voice in your head. It wants you to believe that there’s a magical land of talent, beauty, and celebrity that you’ve never been to. But the truth is something altogether different. The truth is that pilot season as you know it is a myth. There’s no party. “Pilot Season” is a term to describe 120 days during which artists and business people, fueled by hope and fear, scramble to create between 22-50 minutes of Network television that will be different than thousands of TV pilots that have failed miserably before theirs. The creator of a show hopes that her show is worthy of respect and acclaim, the executive desperately hopes that this show will attract millions of viewers, the agents define this season in much the same way big Chain stores identify Black Friday, and the actors hope this pilot will make them mega TV stars so they won’t have to do Pilot Season next year.
Practically speaking, they’re afraid of failing and the total loss of self worth that comes with it. And that fear is warranted. No one is safe in the elementary school dodge ball game that is Pilot Season.
Out of many pilots that are made in March-April, twenty are picked up, ten make it past Christmas, and five last to season two. There is no formula (even though everyone thinks they’ve found one) so everyone is driving in the dark. No one knows what the audience will like. Heck, most savvy industry folk don’t even know what the Network brass will respond to. Casting directors, show-runners, and directors follow Hollywood’s favorite actor-of-the-week only to second guess themselves, and then scramble to work through the studio and Network hierarchy, trading actors like playing cards, and often selling out their original vision in the process. Compromises abound in the pursuit of a product that will get on a Network. Everyone is guessing, hoping and waiting for someone to give them some assurance that what they’re doing is working. And 99% of the time that assurance never comes.
Point is, the cool kids at the high society party you’re not invited to are as unsure as all of us. We’re all trying to figure it out as we go.
We are in the midst of another Pilot Season and for those making pilots, it’s NOT about your artistry. It’s about getting a show on the air with names, faces, the next hot 20-something indie actor, the new Aussie, etc. The execs can’t agree on what ex-movie star or Netflix darling will be right for a role, even if the academy award winning director or show creator wants her. The star of a hit show that lasted 10 years on the air can barely get an audition. The actor who won an Emmy 3 years ago is struggling to get a meeting with a writer-producer she helped launch not that long ago. The Oscar nominated director is drowning in decision-by-committee.
This season isn’t kind to actors. It’s not supposed to be. Its goal is not kindness and respect. Or even giving you your shot. It’s about business. It’s about putting together a pilot that gets on the air… and the competition is fierce. The Networks (Pilot Season is entirely about the 4 Networks) are competing with wildly high-budgeted cable shows, and groundbreaking, award-winning series from Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and more. They have to satisfy their advertisers; they have to grab their audiences fast and hard. Now that movie stars are seeing both money and creative satisfaction in television, and cable stars are at the top of everyone’s lists, there aren’t many roles left for regular working actors. But the good news is: This is the “Golden Age of Television” once again. There are more roles in TV than ever before and outside of the Networks, shows that are taking real risks. Pilot Season certainly offers some opportunities, but many of them come in other ways and at other times.
As much as your heart yearns for commercial success as an actor, Pilot Season absolutely cannot be about booking a pilot. Beyond the fact that there is no formula for booking one, and that there are very few series regular opportunities for talented, working actors above the age of 21, you must focus on the work and not on the result of the work. The only things you can control in all of this are how hard you work and how deeply you are willing to engage in your artistic exploration. The rest is an exercise in trying to control the wild beast that is the TV business and no one has ever done that in the history of broadcasting. Do good, productive work this Pilot Season by putting up a play, shooting a short, writing a screenplay, auditioning boldly wherever you can (in and outside of pilots), and getting into class. Be “of the work” and trust that when you are doing amazing work- acting and otherwise- the pilots will follow.
This year it cannot be about your popularity. It’s got to be about your consistent, bold, wonderful work. Work you manifest. Work you initiate. Work you create.
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