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Why don’t movie studios make pilots?

by Aaron Cooley

I’ll remember 2013 as the year TV won. The summer movies were almost uniformly devoid of magic, over-franchised, over-story-structured, over-sequelled and over-CGI’d. Meanwhile, TV continues to overflow with creative genius. This realization has led me to wonder if perhaps TV has some lessons to offer the movie on how best to do business.

“You could never get that movie made,” is a phrase oft heard in the meetings I traverse. Surely that’s the response you would get if you pitched a studio exec a film about a chemistry teacher turned meth cook who transforms into a kingpin and in the process destroys the lives of everyone around him. So how the hell did Vince Gilligan get Breaking Bad made on TV? What did Matthew Weiner, or David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, or any showrunner that you admire, do that we’re not doing in the movies?

They made pilots.

Networks don’t commission pilots just to help them avoid train wrecks. Pilots can also help a network see that they’ve captured lightning in a bottle, see the magic they might not have recognized or trusted off just a pitch or a script page. It took a few years and a couple of homes before Gilligan finally got someone to let him shoot a pilot – and when he did, AMC saw that this insane idea of his actually worked.

Pilots allow networks to take more risks, to try things you would never see in a multiplex because they know, worse comes to worse, all they’ve wasted money on is one pilot.

Now imagine if Disney had commissioned a “pilot” of The Lone Ranger – sent the cast and crew out with a budget to make not the whole film, but just the first act, just a half-hour, just enough to set up the characters and whet the appetite (that’d be the theory, anyway) of anyone who saw it. They could spend a quarter of the full film’s budget and have something they could test in front of an audience; they’d see what was working and what wasn’t, and could either make changes or scrap the whole thing if they wanted to. If they did cancel the picture with only 25% of the budget burned, well, there’s $150 million saved that can go into another project.

Fun idea for a column, you’re probably thinking, not feasible for a movie studio. You’d never get the stars you want if you’re only offering them a quarter of their usual salary. Plus, these actors have only limited windows open in their schedules; if you don’t shoot everything while you have the chance, you’ll never get them back.

All it would take is one brave-as-hell studio chief to declare, tough, this is how we’re doing business, take it or leave it. Let’s face it, there aren’t that many studios out there with the coin to pay Depp and Cruise and Downey their full freight. If one of the heads of these 7 or 8 financiers was to declare that he or she won’t be making any movies without making pilots first, sure, they might lose out on the very, very top tier performers at first – but most name-brand tentpoles today can do just fine without the biggest stars. And I say those top actors will be back very soon, when they realize that when they shoot a pilot that doesn’t work, no one will ever see it. If After Earth never saw the light of day, Will Smith wouldn’t have to answer questions about it for the next year.

And when they realize that shooting pilots is allowing this studio to take greater and greater risks, to develop a slate you would never see at one of the other majors? The stars would rush back in droves.

Another counter-argument would be release dates: Studios plant their flags in release dates two or three or four years in advance – so how could they possibly cancel a movie after only shooting a quarter of it, and risk losing that precious spot on the calendar? C’mon. If you told me I was releasing a movie Memorial Day of 2015, I could shoot four “pilots” between now and then and still have time to finish the best one. With the pilot program, you could even re-shoot the first act of the same movie a few times over before deciding, “Okay, this is the magic combination we should move forward with.” (Many successful shows like The Big Bang Theory have shot at least two pilots before winning life as a full series.)

Commercial agencies test everything. Election campaigns test everything. The Obama campaign would send out the same email with many different subject lines and track which version raised the most money. (Messages from Michelle always did the best.) Campaigns are not run by gurus who wake up at 3 a.m. in a cold sweat and scribble down exactly what to say to the electorate – but by careful strategists who test every commercial, every mailer, every email dozens and dozens of times over.

I know what you’re saying – the movie business does test their product, with test screenings and focus groups. (No one who’s actually been to a test screening could say this with a straight face.) If something isn’t working, they reshoot. Okay, but this is way too late in the game, with way too much money already long gone. At most, the studio will reshoot a scene or a tenth of the movie or in the extreme case of World War Z, a quarter of it – but how much money have you just spent, and then re-spent, to put a band aid on a shotgun wound, when you could have entirely recast that role that isn’t working, you could have changed the whole MacGuffin that makes the audience groan, you could have avoided the whole damn R.I.P.D. for a quarter of the cost?

It may seem crazy. But so did Breaking Bad – until you saw the pilot.

Aaron Cooley

About Aaron Cooley

Aaron Cooley’s first novel SHAKEN, NOT STIRRED was named one of the Best Books of 2013 by IndieReader.com. Aaron runs development for famed director Joel Schumacher. His second book will be published in June of 2015. Follow Aaron on Twitter: @fleming17f

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