Wednesday, May 14, 2008

EXECUTIVE DECISION


This promises to be an interesting week in Hollywood. Because something's about to happen there which has never happened before. Canadian networks will be selecting the new series they'll be buying and simulcasting -- for the most part -- sight unseen.

In an effort to control the spiraling cost of producing pilots (most of which never make it to air) the US nets have opted to greenlight several new series before a single frame of footage has been shot. That's a risky proposition, but one they're stuck with this season.

The WGA strike pretty much canceled completion of scripts which would have pilot-shot in February, or made the shooting of those that were ready problematic because no additional changes could be made to the material on set. And -- with the possibility of a SAG work stoppage looming at the end of June -- if new series don't go right into production there will be few completed episodes available to open the season.

So that means schedules are being announced now that feature shows for which there are no confirmed casts, no showrunners and staff and in some cases not even a finished script.

Mistakes in the buying process could cost Canadian networks millions. And since they all appeared before the CRTC last month to affirm how precarious their financial situations were, a goof by any of their executives dispatched to Hollywood could be corporate suicide.

Choosing pilots that will become hits is far from an exact science. The history of television is littered with pilots which, because of concept, cast or creators with a winning track record, were considered slam dunk winners.

Anybody remember the much vaunted and quickly history concepts that were "Cop Rock", "Couples", "Mullholland Drive", "Quarterlife"...etc...etc...etc...?

Anyone with fond memories of "The Chevy Chase Show", "The Court" with Sally Field, Tony Curtis and Roger Moore in "The Persuaders"?

And every TV icon from Norman Lear to Steven Bochco to Aaron Sorkin has endured his turn in the barrel.

I've written a dozen pilots for US networks. Six made it to series. And the path from concept to final cut was always far from a smooth ride. William Goldman's Hollywood adage "Nobody Knows Anything" is never truer than in manufacturing a television pilot.

In some cases, the budget changed and key scenes had to be scrapped, shot more economically or completely re-imagined. Desired Actors became unavailable or were replaced after scene tests and the material had to be reworked to play to the strengths of the replacements.

Once or twice a secondary cast member shone and additional scenes were added to enhance their presence. Once or twice the reverse happened when a lead didn't live up to expectations.

From the first moment you watch dailies, the writers and producers become involved in a balancing act attempting to steer the pilot back to its original course and at the same time directly into the teeth of anything new and positive that's coming to light.

And from production designers to editors to composers, unforeseen elements were contributed to the vision or failed to deliver the desired result.

Of course, all of this was always accompanied and/or complicated by network notes. A development exec would be uncomfortable with a line reading and question an entire story arc. A VP of programming wouldn't like the lead actor's hair and demand some alternate choices. The company president might catch the latest blockbuster on the weekend and want a change in tempo or tone.

Once or twice somebody's kid would say something cute or hook into a new trend and we'd have to work that in.

The creation of a pilot is not unlike the gestation of any other living creature. The initial concepts of the participants are combined like strands of DNA. The nutrients of the talents consumed in the process begin to shape it, revealing its faults and strengths. Additional revisions are made to mend the missteps and facilitate what's working.

Even when the creatives and their network supervisors are "finished", the shaping of a pilot is still not done.

I was writing a pilot for CBS and meeting with my development exec on the afternoon they screened "Due South" for the first time. He was late getting back to the office and was obviously troubled. I asked what was bothering him. They'd liked the show, but some in the room had voiced concerns that the concept might insult Canadians. I'd already seen the pilot and didn't understand how that was possible.

"We make fun of all these Canadian institutions," he said, "The dog's named after one of your Prime Ministers." I assured him we'd find that funny.

I doubt my vote of confidence was a deciding one in getting "Due South" on the air. But given his uncertain mood that day, I've always wondered what would have happened if I'd suggested my countrymen would be offended.

The best pilot I ever wrote ("Gangsters" also for CBS) never made it to air. Copies were passed around LA for weeks, privately screened by agencies and for groups of trusted friends as those who would decide its future tried to determine if it would be accepted by the public or ignite another debate about violence on television.

Ultimately, despite almost universally positive responses, they decided they were stepping outside their audience's comfort zone and passed.

And even when these decisions are final, the baby that's been created keeps changing.

The final product may replicate the original blueprint but it has also become a reflection of the imaginations of everyone involved. And now the audience gets into the mix.

Because of their response or lack of it, the pilot evolves as the season progresses. Ultimately it looks no more like it's first incarnation than a baby at birth resembles the person it becomes. For, like people, pilots are ultimately formed by their experiences, how they are nurtured and how they are perceived by others.

So, no matter what their creative skills, industry experience or read of the audience mood, the Canadian buyers in LA this week will be taking even bigger chances than they usually do.

Perhaps it'll make them want to rethink simulcasting and shoot some pilots of their own.

1 comment:

James Goneaux said...

Thanks for another insight into the madness, Jim.

BTW, you've probably seen this, but it shows how the insanity runs in the movie biz as well:

http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/news/business/la-fi-movie15apr15,1,5611149.story?page=1&ctrack=1&cset=true