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LA still top pilot producer in US

screening roomFilmL.A. has released its annual results of an ongoing study into where and when TV pilots are made in the US, with LA still the top choice for programme makers.

FilmL.A. is the non-profit organisation tasked with co-ordinating permits for filmed entertainment using LA locations (including Los Angeles county and local jurisdictions), and reports that of the 186 television pilots made during the 2012/2013 development cycle, 96 were shot in the City of Angels, the second highest number for many years.

The life cycle of a pilot show

There is a clearly defined life cycle for pilot shows, starting in the summer when the all-powerful US networks are bombarded with hundreds of elevator pitches (so called after the idea that your presentation should be as brief as possible, no longer than the average journey of an elevator between floors).

In the autumn, the networks then whittle the list down and ask to read scripts from a selection of under a hundred. This is then pared down again, with fewer than half the shortlist being approached the following January to deliver a pilot episode. The frenzy of production then begins, to get the pilots ready for screening in May; these previews are known as ‘the upfronts.’

As any TV producer knows, a pilot is absolutely crucial in determining the success and longevity of a show, particularly in the case of drama, sitcoms and gameshows. It was reported that the casting director charged with finding actors for the six leads in Friends saw over 75 actors for each role, just for the pilot.

TV studios setSome pilots are test screened, that is in front of an audience; all are presented to studio and network executives. (A put pilot is one that the network has committed to ariing on, which generally leads to a series.) It is this feedback that decrees whether a full series will be ordered, and advertisers are brought in, followed by overseas distributors.

The economic impact

According to industry sources, the average pilot employs around 150 people, which has a positive knock-on effect for the producing region. The average cost of a drama pilot is now around $5.5m, with a comedy pilot coming in at $2m. The alternative to a full length pilot is a presentation, which can cost around 40% less. With all these taken into account, FilmL.A. estimates that around $277.8m was spent on TV pilot production overall in LA during the 2012/2013 cycle, compared to approximately $262m the previous year.

The figures

It is easy to see therefore, why the spring produces a spike in location filming. FilmL.A. reports that from 1 January - 10 June 2013, permitted production days (PPDs) were up by almost 40% compared to the previous year.

However, as with all statistics, there is a flip side. With respect to overall market share, LA hosted just 52% of all pilots during the current cycle, which is actually the second lowest on record, certainly a long way behind 2006/2007’s share of 82%.

To break it down further, LA’s market share of drama pilots this cycle is even lower, with just 22%, as opposed to 63% in 2006/2007. Comedy was down slightly, with an 83% share as opposed to 91% during the previous cycle.

The geography

There are several US cities snapping at the heels of LA when it comes to pilot production, with New York City (19 pilots), Vancouver (15), Toronto (6), New AtlantaOrleans (5) and Chicago (5) all putting in a strong showing. But perhaps the hottest new kid on the block is Atlanta, Georgia, which has ramped up a total of 9 pilots this year. All the non-Californian locations offer some form of filming incentive, which perhaps goes some way to explaining the growing number of competing jurisdiction.

Sometimes the other cities actually stand in for LA, sometimes they play themselves: Just one of the pilots shot in Atlanta was set there, while of the 19 filmed in NYC, 11 were in fact set in the Big Apple. 

The future

The traditional pilot process is now being challenged by the likes of Amazon, whose Amazon Studios division made six live action and eight animated pilots for its streaming service. Viewers have much more feedback power on this platform, as there are no advertisers needing to be kept happy.

Netflix operate slightly differently with their output, while also doing away with advertisers. Rather than one-off pilots, the company put out whole series, such as House of Cards, making all episodes available at once. This aims to encourage viewers to view the series in a saturated way, maybe consuming a whole season of drama in one day – the box-set syndrome. This can also do away with the concept of weekly cliffhangers, as writers have the power to change the story as it goes along.

With the fast- changing world of multi-platform viewing, second screen interaction and social media, it is likely that the traditional pilot-making process will need to be flexible in the coming years. 

Do you have experience working on a pilot show? Tell us about it by leaving your comments below.

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