Nets Tackle the Talent Crunch

Mar 22, 2004  •  Post A Comment

Despite talk of a year-round prime-time development cycle, the television business is coping with a pilot casting season that by all accounts is as grinding as ever.
However, network executives, free-lance casting directors and talent representatives alike are cautiously optimistic that spreading the production of some pilots outside the traditional time frame could ease much of the pain associated with the annual casting crunch.
From January to March each year broadcast networks and studios race to cast hundreds of roles in more than 120 pilots. Those pilots then compete for spots on broadcast networks’ fall schedules, which are announced in May during upfront presentations to advertisers. It’s an intense time of year all the way around as the industry struggles to assemble the right casts and haggles over such issues as performers’ fees.
Casting directors ideally get eight to 10 weeks to cast a pilot. However, at the height of pilot season, that time is often condensed to just four or five weeks, and network and studio casting directors are working on multiple pilots at the same time.
“[Networks and studios] spend so many months developing and then writing a script, and then expect the casting director to cast that script in six to eight weeks or sometimes two to three weeks while competing with dozens and dozens of other pilots for the same talent pool,” said Marc Hirschfeld, executive VP of casting for NBC Entertainment. “To try to put together the right cast in that period of time under those conditions makes it very difficult to get it right.”
The biggest relief year-round development would provide for casting directors is more time to make decisions.
“[The tight schedule] lessens our ability to really be creative, because we work so quickly that we don’t have the time to stop and think about the project and spend time really going after the right people,” said Mary Buck, senior VP of casting for Warner Bros. Television. “Sometimes it’s the skill of a lot of people but also the luck of the draw when you put a good cast together.”
When given the chance to cast a show off-season, Ms. Buck said, things went smoother.
Last year Fox gave an early pickup to Warner Bros. drama “The O.C.,” so Ms. Buck was able to start casting before the traditional pilot season last year. “It’s a much better experience,” she said, because a large group of actors whose pilots didn’t get picked up were then available for consideration. “It’s about having the time to do the job right.”
This year, with Fox preaching year-round development, the network gave writers early script deadlines and started casting three pilots-Paramount’s sitcom “Related by Family,” Touchstone’s drama “Ricochet” and Universal’s drama “Hollywood Division”-in October.
The early start made a “tremendous difference,” said Marcia Shulman, executive VP of casting for Fox Broadcasting Co. “It was really clear sailing,” she said. “Our casting went fairly smoothly. Suddenly, when it hit traditional pilot season it got extremely competitive and felt like the old days.”
CBS, which hasn’t made noise about changing the traditional development cycle, did get a head start on two pilots off season-an untitled sitcom based on the life of sports writer Tony Kornheiser and a sitcom from Dan Staley and Rob Long about a mother-daughter relationship.
Both were cast-contingent pilots for last season that rolled over into this season. “Those were two of our best scripts last season for comedies, and we picked them up but we never found the right people,” said Peter Golden, senior VP of talent and casting at CBS.
With more time, CBS was able to sign Jason Alexander to the Kornheiser project and Ricki Lake to the Staley/Long sitcom.
“It’s always tough trying to find that perfect match,” said Mr. Golden, noting that even though Kornheiser was cast in October, it still wasn’t easy. “There were more actors available than there tend to be during pilot season, but a lot of them had other commitments or they didn’t want to commit themselves to a series. There is also the question … do the best actors take pilots early or do the best actors wait and see everything out there [during pilot season] and take them late.”
That’s a similar problem other casting executives have had when trying to cast off-season pilots. UPN’s 20th Century Fox-produced “Mystery Girl” was also cast in October. While Sharon Klein, senior VP of talent and casting for 20th Century Fox, said she enjoyed the luxury of having eight to 10 weeks to cast the pilot, “A couple of times we did run into people saying `We’re going to [wait] and see what else is out there.’ [It was] not, `We didn’t want to do this project.’ It was close enough to the beginning of pilot season that people were curious what would go on in the next few weeks.”
Some actors are thrilled to sign on to a pilot early and not have to go through the grueling ritual of pilot season, while others are too afraid of missing a great part if they commit themselves too soon. It all comes down to the material and whether the actor connects with it or not.
“Good stuff is good stuff,” said Leigh Brillstein, head of the TV talent department at ICM. “I don’t think clients care whether it’s in April, May, June, October or Ash Wednesday.”
Experienced actors are more eager to sign on to a pilot early, Ms. Klein said. “They see something they respond to and are like `OK, I’ve been through this. I need to move on it now because I like it,”’ she said. “The unknown person, they’re like, `Well, there might be something better tomorrow.’ They haven’t learned their lesson yet that you’ve got to take what’s in front of you when you like it and are passionate about it.”
While assembling the right casts might be easier with a pilot production schedule that’s spread throughout the year, speculation is mixed about who-if anyone-would benefit financially from year-round casting. Generally, the networks hold the power when it comes to pilot casting, since they have final approval on who is cast and the studios’ talent budget. Year-round casting could just bolster the networks’ position, some said.
If the pilot casting time frame weren’t so tight, in-demand actors and actresses might lose any leverage they can muster during the casting crunch by playing competing offers against each other. This could give studios a break on talent costs that carry over into production for the life of a series.
“When you are in that competitive environment as a studio or a network, you’re paying a premium for that talent because you are competing with other networks and studios for the same piece of talent,” Mr. Hirschfeld said. “You get into this vicious cycle of paying unreasonable amounts of money that you wouldn’t have to pay if you weren’t in that competitive situation.”
While Mr. Hirschfeld summed up a popular opinion, not every casting director thinks year-round development would make it cheaper for studios and networks to sign talent. A-list talent is always going to be able to demand a premium no matter the time of year, and competitive juices don’t permit an actor to lie dormant.
“There is a natural kind of competition that will happen in pilot season or whether it goes all year round,” said Judith Weiner, senior VP of talent and casting at UPN. “I still think it depends on the script. The actor always goes to the script that he or she loves.”
Also, while most people interviewed for this story gave year-round development and casting a hearty thumbs up, most expect the transition to be a slow process.
For example, while Fox has been the leader in pushing year-round development, only three of its pilots were cast before the traditional pilot season. Fox executives saw most of the network’s pilot scripts early because it moved up its deadlines for writers, but the network waited to give out the majority of its pilot pickups, which set back casting.
However, Fox still wants to turn the pilot production around quickly, so “it backed us into having four or five weeks to cast somet
hing that we used to have 10 weeks to do,” said 20th’s Ms. Klein, who is working on numerous Fox pilots.
Agents and managers will be sure to feel growing pains of their own with a whole-hearted shift. “Right now, being so seasonal, you can at least plan your time,” one talent manager said. “If pilot season is stretched out all year, it could be harder all year. Yet we will still have the crush.”
One of the biggest obstacles to year-round development are the upfronts, which impose a May deadline on finishing pilots. Networks present their new schedules to advertisers in May in New York and soon after sell the bulk of their advertising time for the next year. Broadcasters have to be able to tell their advertisers what shows they will be airing before advertisers can decide whether they want to buy time in them.
“As long we are all focused on that date, I don’t know how it could really change in a meaningful way,” said Gene Blythe, executive VP of casting at ABC.
Also, breaking the traditional cycle once and for all will be a huge challenge because networks will always be afraid that if they pick up too many projects early, there won’t be enough money down the line to greenlight a better idea that comes along.
The system won’t change until a network has “conviction about some material that it will work and takes the shot without it being in comparison to the dozens and dozens of other options,” said Jeff Greenberg, a free-lance casting agent, whose credits include “Frasier” and “I’m With Her.”
Year-round casting raises other questions, such as will there be fewer jobs for actors since one actor could conceivably be in two pilots in the same year? Will networks have to be diligent about getting a show on the air quickly to see if it works because they would have to pay more money to extend actors’ contracts? Will talent holding deals get longer because producers will have more time to perfect a show or to wait for a particular actor or producer to be released from another commitment?
“There will be a huge adjustment period to figure out how to really do this,” Ms. Buck said.
Melissa Grego contributed to this report.