While reading pilot scripts, picking up and casting pilots this winter, Fox also has been actively buying drama and comedy pitches in a renewed effort to develop projects for off-cycle pilot and straight-to-series orders.
The idea is not new — broadcast networks have been talking about switching to year-round development for years as they lament the craziness of pilot season when more than 80 pilots are being cast and produced at the same time, competing for acting and directing talent as well as locations among themselves as well as with cable and digital projects. Fox’s previous programming chief Kevin Reilly went as far as declare in January 2014 that the network would be bypassing pilot season going forward but he exited four months later and that radical plan was never implemented. While the broadcast networks would commission an occasional off-cycle pilot — NBC’s This Is Us and Fox’s Star are successful recent examples — the number is usually less than 2-3 total across all nets, and there were none this season except for the re-piloting of CBS’ Superior Donuts.
Fox is looking to change that. I hear that since January, the network has bought about 15 drama and 10 comedy pitches. The approximately 50 drama and 50 comedy projects the network bought during the traditional July-October window resulted in 6 drama and 6 comedy pilots this season. All six comedy pilots are being produced while of the 6 drama pilots, 4 are being made while the other 2, The Passage and The Beast, initially intended for the regular pilot season time frame, will be filmed in June for various reasons related to need for more prep time (The Passage) and a late order that led to difficulty casting the lead (The Beast).
I hear Fox’s intention is to pick up 2 more drama pilots and 2 more comedy pilots from the extra scripts it bought off-cycle for a total of 8 drama pilots and 8 comedy pilots for the calendar 2017. Ideally, the orders would be made in mid-June, with the pilots filming in late summer.
For some projects developed off-cycle, Fox may also be considering straight-to-series orders, a model that has worked in the past for such projects picked up outside of the traditional window as Glee and Last Man On Earth.
Why is Fox giving off-cycle development a serious new try? Besides the obvious — trying to take advantage of more TV acting and directing talent available for pilots over the summer — I hear it was also the network’s desire not to miss out on pitches that do not follow the regular broadcast schedule. While the vast majority of pitches specifically tailored for broadcast are taken out July-October, the cable-streaming networks are open for business year-round and, perceived as the edgiest of the broadcast networks, Fox is looking to pounce and compete for projects that may not necessarily have been earmarked for broadcast.
Unlike Reilly’s R.I.P. Pilot Season 2014 proclamation, the current Fox initiative doesn’t aim to radically change the process, with the bulk of its development action still happening within the traditional framework but it is looking to take some opportunistic shots outside of it.
There are challenges — for instance, while more actors are available in the offseason, some do not want to commit to an off-cycle pilot because they want to see what else is out there and wait until January when there will be more scripts to choose from.
It will take a concerted and consistent effort by one or more broadcast networks, who need to stick with off-cycle orders year after year, as well as a few big successes like This Is Us for the model to take hold and be fully embraced by the creative community.