Fox is switching to the cable development model. That is the takeaway from today’s announcement by Fox Chairman Kevin Reilly that the network will be bypassing pilot season this year and going forward. I sat down with Reilly to discuss how the changes will be implemented and what it means for writers, actors and agents.
First, “we are abandoning pilot season, not pilots,” Reilly stressed. “Pilots still are a helpful tool, especially on the comedy side where the alchemy is fragile, and you really need the casting to inform your decision on the project.” But going forward, “we will be ordering pilots geared towards series,” he said. That means picking up fewer pilots, which is the cable model. “Instead of making 10 pilots hoping to get one series on the air, I’d like to make it more 1-to-1 ratio,” Reilly said. That means fewer pilot roles for actors but a better chance for those who get pilots to get on the air. The switch also means likely buying fewer scripts, Reilly said.
This will be a transitional year as Fox has a stockpile of scripts, some of them with big commitments. “There will be a few more drama pilots ordered in the next month or so, with another half dozen pushed forward for the next cycle with further investment,” Reilly said. That involves a pilot order plus backup scripts and/or funds for a writing staff, or, in some cases, just extra scripts and a bible for a straight-to-series consideration. On the comedy side, “we’ll have a leaner slate, we will order a few more pilots.” There is no mandate for any of those to be ready in May for fall consideration, though, if magic strikes and a pilot comes quickly and knocks it out of the park, it could make it on the 2014-15 schedule. Expected to be on the schedule are Fox’s current pilots, drama Gotham and comedies Fatrick and Cabot College (Matt Hubbard), with Reilly expected to formalize their series orders next month. With those three, plus comedy series Mulaney and drama series Hieroglyph and Ben Affleck’s The Middle Man, there will be no much shelf space for new series anyway, especially as Reilly said he wanted to bring back most of the network’s current series and only has 15 hours of primetime versus 22 for the other major nets.
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Going forward, Fox will not make series pickups based on one episode, as has been the pilot season tradition. Also like cable, Fox plans to commission backup scripts and set up small writers rooms while work on the pilot is going on — as it is currently doing with The Middle Man and Gotham — to get a detailed road map for the series before proceeding with an episodic order. That is not a ploy to make creators do more for the pilot fee and wait longer, Reilly said. “Fox wants to do more work in order to get their projects on the air.” He feels that message will attract talent under the new model, which is being widely used in cable. Fox also is adapting the straight-to-series template based off multiple scripts and a bible, which it used on adventure drama Hieroglyph.
As pilots shoot throughout the year, July-October is expected to be particularly busy, with the beginning of the year and spring also earmarked for pilot production activity. Fox also will try to be buying scripts year-round the way cable networks do. However, if the other broadcast networks don’t follow Fox’s lead and remain constrained by the traditional pilot season, Reilly anticipates more active buying during the so-called pitch season in summer and fall. He also plans to continue doing event series alongside traditional drama series.
The move away from pilot season had been years in the making, ever since Reilly returned to what he calls an “antiquated broadcast system” after a stint at FX. “The success ratio on broadcast is not great, so we can’t do any worse,” he said.
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