Development season is supposed to be a marathon, not a sprint — it takes as long as nine months for a project to go from pitch to series pickup. However, the final part of that journey is turning into a mad dash, causing a lot of anxiety for producers and TV executives.
Pilot orders have been coming later and later every year, and all networks, particularly ABC and CBS, were again way behind in their pickups, compressing the time for staffing, casting and producing the pilots. (It’s mid-April, and at least one pilot, a CBS comedy, is still filming this week.)
Add to that the ever-increasing competition from cable and digital that has made the casting of broadcast pilots an even lengthier and more laborious affair the past couple of years. And the relatively early start of upfront week (it kicks off May 11, the earliest in at least a decade by a day or two), making for final delivery dates in the April 22-26 range. All of that has made for a very tight production window this season.
And a lot of compromises. Producers and agents describe the rush to start casting following the late pickups and to find a location with the best tax incentives in order to make the budget work. The push by studios to go out of town for better production rates is not limited to dramas now, with three single-camera comedy pilots filming outside of California this year. Setting up production outside of LA and New York limited the casting choices and led to talent compromises in some projects.
But the biggest compromises seemed to be happening in postproduction. Normally, a pilot’s editor would cut the material together and send the preliminary version to the pilot’s director, who would work on it for three days before the director’s cut goes to producers. They also would have three days to make tweaks before the pilot is sent to the studio for extra fine-tuning before the tape undergoes studio testing and is sent to the network.
This year there has been virtually no time for a director’s cut, with directors and producers often getting the raw copy together. They then have just a couple of days before the pilot has to go to the studio where it often undergoes testing immediately, with no time for polishes.
“It takes time to find the right cast, time to cut the pilot well, to get the right music,” one agent said. “People cannot make their best effort in the short amount of time provided, and that does not lead to the best quality product possible.”
The rushed final product makes even less sense given the financial stakes, with the five broadcast networks spending over $700 million combined on the development and production of their pilots.
“It’s like you spend a lot of money to buy the best ingredients and hire the best chefs to make a great meal but then you take the dish out of the oven before it’s ready because your guest is hungry,” one producer quipped.
Creators try to stay upbeat and find a humorous side in the ever increasing stress of shortening pilot production windows that challenge the physical ability to have a finished product by the upfront deadlines. “The upfronts will soon become a live staging of the pilots,” one writer deadpanned.