A cottage industry has developed in Los Angeles in the last 10 years or so, an industry that exists to serve something called “pilot season”. But in the last two years, pilot season has changed drastically. So what’s the real skinny? Is it real? Is it worth it? We’re here to tell you the cold hard truth. But before we begin, a couple of disclaimers:
Traditional “pilot season” is the period of time between January and April (give or take) when the studios create samples of new shows. A “pilot” is one episode of a show that is ordered by the network as a test. They will cast it, produce it, test it with audiences and studio executives and decide whether to “pick it up” as a regular series. That series will be shown in the fall. Casting for the test episodes used to be done in a frenzy during “pilot season”. You can read more here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Television_Pilot
Pilot season used to exist on this timeline because it was built around advertising schedules. A little Hollywood Television 101: television shows only exist to draw advertisers. Those commercials you see between shows are the bread and butter of the entertainment industry. Each show is competing for the advertiser’s money. Advertisers buy time on each show and that is what keeps the show (and the network) afloat.
Traditionally, the networks hold an event in New York in May called the “upfronts”. Upfronts are basically big parties where each network announces their fall lineup on primetime and gives the advertisers (the party guests) a taste of the new shows, hoping to get them to buy ad time in the fall. The pilot season schedule is built around the deadline of “upfronts” in mid-May. Traditionally, pilot season is planned to conceive, cast, produce the test episode (pilot), and make program decisions by May.
We say “traditionally” because pilot season has changed. Many say it doesn’t really exist at all anymore, and we tend to agree. Here’s why: Pay cable channels (ie. Disney, Nickelodeon, HBO, Showtime, etc) were never really on the traditional pilot season schedule since they aren’t dependent on advertising. They now produce the lion’s share of new shows. Fox, a network, has also announced in 2005 that they have moved to a year round pilot schedule. The other networks have moved increasingly toward using “mid-season replacements” which are new series that are put into the TV schedule in January, when their first team of series fails. These mid-season replacements are often on alternative schedules as well. See how the calendar is getting a little murky?
Add to that the events of the last three years. In 2007 and 2008, the Writer's Guild was on strike against the producers. This meant no new scripts, which meant production was at a standstill. There was an early pilot season just before the strike, as producters stockpiled pilots and series in anticipation of the strikes. In 2008- June 2009, SAG negotiated their theatrical contract with the producers, and the same thing happened--a defacto strike of sorts. For 3 years now, pilot season has not really existed. Variety, Hollywood Reporter and more than a few other industry sources, report that the strike may prove to be the death knell for traditional Jan-April pilot season: www.hollywoodreporter.com/hr/content_display/news/e3ida2e9d7e0740c3cfb01ae6656f69a3c1
So the answer is…pilot season sure isn’t what it used to be. And it is surely going the way of the dinosaur. That doesn’t necessarily mean it is a bad time to come to LA, but those investing significant time and money should know that it is no longer the be-all-end -all it once was.
Traditionally, about 100 pilots are made each year, but the number is going down. In 2007, the number was approximately 140, including reality shows, talk shows and all of cable. Scripted shows were still about 100. In 2009, only 73 scripted pilots were produced. That sounds like a lot, but the opportunities are rapidly dwindling. You must remember: a pilot is only a test. Most never see the light of your television screen.
The full story for 2009 is still being told, but it appears that of the 73 scripted pilots for network television, only about 20 will make it to the fall schedule. Of those, only 5 have series regular roles for children. At this writing, we aren't sure which series will survive (many get cancelled within the first few weeks on the air).
Almost zip. By fall 2009, only 5 new series had a series regular who was a child. That’s a total of about 12 kids who got new series regular roles. Almost all those children had significant credits and many years in the business prior to booking the pilot. That has been the case consistently since 2006, when BizParentz first started keeping track. Usually, just one new child beats the odds and makes it through to a full time job.
By our estimate, about 95% of kids coming for pilot season go home empty handed. They don’t book anything while they are in Los Angeles. The other 5% book something, but it is usually a commercial, a student film or a low-budget independent film. They should consider this a great success, but it won’t be enough to pay for their trip. And it won’t be the star in a new television series.
Here are some stats: The state of California Department of Labor says that they issue approximately 50,000 entertainment work permits in California every six months, and the majority are working in the Los Angeles area.
According to LA Casting, the commercial casting service used by Los Angeles Agents, there are more than 20,000 kids under 18, with agents, auditioning in LA year round. In 2007, the number swelled to 21,360 during pilot season, adding 320 more boys and 800 more girls. That means approximately 1000 other children will join you in the pilgrimage to Hollywood this year.
In general, you can assume there are about 1,500 children in your child’s age range (ex. Boys 8-10 years old) that you will be competing against every day.
Your agent? There are about 40 agents in Los Angeles who handle children. The biggest ones have over 1,000 children on their roster. So even within your agency it is not unusual to be competing with 5-12 kids who are the same age and ethnicity as your child. It’s always good to ask how many kids are in your child’s “category” in the agencies’ roster before you sign.
Right. Here’s the 411 on casting: All those kids are submitted by their agents electronically for a role. Of the 1000 kids (or more!) submitted for each role in a show, the casting director will choose a much smaller number to come to a first audition. For a television show, they may only see 20 children. For a commercial, they will typically audition 100 at a first audition. Films and pilots have a longer time frame to cast, so they will often see 50-100 for each role. Of those only a few will get a “callback”. Only one will get the job. As you can see, it is quite an accomplishment just to get an audition!
Of course! Hollywood is made up of more than pilots, and realistically, your odds are better elsewhere anyway. Commercials shoot year round, the episodics (television series that are already on TV) are still shooting episodes, and feature films tend to cast in the spring for shoots in the summer. So there are still lots of opportunities.
Because someone back home told them it was a good idea to come to California. It’s kinda like the gold rush…everyone wants to take a chance at stardom. It’s the great American lottery. And every scammer wants to make a buck while they can.
An entire cottage industry has now been built around kids and pilot season. Short term apartment complexes such as Oakwood advertise “child actor programs”. Acting teachers offer “boot camps” and “pilot season intensives”. Competitions such as iPop and IMTA time their events so that kids might be “found” by an agent, and then encouraged to come to Los Angeles immediately for pilot season. Out of town agents arrange kick-backs with Los Angeles agents if they will represent their client for just a few months. It seems every cockroach comes out of the woodwork during pilot season. For a look at that, see this article by Bonnie Gillespie: Scam Season
Lots of people have hidden agendas when they encourage kids to come to pilot season. That said, it IS true that there are usually more auditions available during pilot season. So that is a good reason to come to LA in that time period. It’s just that you have to consider that there are also many more kids competing for that audition, so your odds aren’t so great.
From 2007-2009, we really didn't have a true pilot season thanks to labor disputes. The jobs simply didn't exist. Most of the out of state kids were told to stay home by their very respected agents and managers. Producers have found ways to work around the pilot concept, so the casting "season" may never return.
Please be aware that many (if not most) agents will not sign kids just for a few months. They just don’t play this pilot season game because they realize that it takes time to get a new face out there, and they have plenty of qualified clients already. It is not “normal” for agents to take kids on just for pilot season. Still, there are a few possible reasons why a reputable agent may choose to represent a child from out of town for the pilot season:
No…your child IS special. But the competition is insanely stiff in Los Angeles. There are lots of really incredible kids. It doesn’t mean you should stay home, but it DOES mean you should adjust your expectations for your own sanity.
We advise young actors to “bloom where you are planted”. In other words, take classes locally, get some local jobs, exhaust all the opportunities where you live. Get a local agent. Try to become SAG eligible since California is a union state (the importance of this varies by age).
Basically, if your child has a healthy resume and is consistently booking in a smaller market, you MAY be ready for a trip to Los Angeles. To see if your instincts are right, we suggest taking a vacation to California to test the waters. Come for a well planned week: see if you can meet agents and managers, check out housing options, take a class or two, get L.A. style headshots taken. Most importantly, get an evaluation or two from respected L.A. acting coaches who can assess your child’s readiness to compete in the L.A. market. Then go to Disneyland! Making a pre-pilot season trip can be the key to a successful pilot season later!
That’s a toughie, and it depends on your child’s age and type. In general, the older the child, the more professional experience you must have to compete. In Los Angeles, we do not put commercials, extra work, or print work on professional acting resumes. Take that off, and what do you have? Ideally, kids over the age of 8 should have some theatre, a film credit or two (even if it is a student film), good training, and at least one RECOGNIZABLE credit—a film shown in theatres or television show that can be seen nationwide.
It also helps if they are SAG eligible. It helps if they have something really unique to offer—an unusual look or ethnicity, or a level of skill that is uncommon (a martial arts champion for example). It is true that everybody starts somewhere. But kids starting out with nothing on the resume will have a tough time competing in Los Angeles. It is not unusual for a 10 year old here to already have a series regular, a couple of major feature films, and 5 or 6 guest star roles on their resume. That is your competition.
Yes. The labor laws in California dictate some optimal ages for working in the industry. Kids can work longer hours at certain ages: 6, 9, 16, and 18. A different set of rules exist for those who have graduated high school or have taken a high school proficiency test (such as the CHSPE test). Here is a grid of the work hours in California.
Size is an issue as well…or rather the appearance of looking younger. Kids who are short, and appear younger have a great advantage. The kids you see playing teens on television rarely are teens (consider that Jason Earles was in his late 20s when he worked as Hannah Montana’s brother, and most of the cast on the CW (and all their 2009 pilots, including Glee) are in their mid 20s playing teenagers). The period of time between 14 and 18 is affectionately known as the “Dead Zone” to moms in the industry since there is very little work that isn’t snatched up by adults who can play younger.
Even kids as young as 6 can “cheat” younger if they are small and still have baby teeth. Since they can often read and have longer attention spans, producers will hire them over a true 4 or 5 year old.
What does this meant to you? It means that Hollywood producers will hire a child who is 6 years old but is small and looks 4. It is simply a business decision for them—they get more work hours and time is money. You increase your odds greatly if you plan your pilot season trip at the right age. Wrong age? It may not be a deal breaker, but you might want to consider waiting a year. If you have a teenager, encourage them to work ahead in high school so that they can graduate and work as an adult.
This can vary widely, especially considering housing arrangements have a big variance, the need to rent a car, etc. But generally, you can plan to spend about $5,000 a month if you are being conservative. Your budget should include housing, car (you can’t do LA without a car!), food, acting classes, clothing for auditions, etc. There are several apartment complexes that cater to short term renters for pilot season, but many parents have reported better living conditions, less expense, and more sanity when renting a house (sometimes with another pilot season family). Here’s an article about actor expenses in general: http://more.showfax.com/columns/avoice/archives/000440.html
False. Sorry, but the average UNION commercial (and you will have to compete with thousands of young union actors to get it) pays approximately $6,000. The days of the $50,000 national commercial are gone, and they have been gone since the SAG commercial strike in 2000.
Most child actors get union scale for the work they do. Just to give you an idea,SAG union minimums as of 2009 are:
-Commercials: $592.20/day plus residuals.
-Day Player on a Movie or network TV show: $782/day or $2,713/week
-Average kid series regular on a network one hour TV show:
avg. $20,000 for the pilot, $10,000 a week if it gets picked up to series.
-Many films are classified as low-budget, and make $100 day or even less.
That Disney or Nickelodeon series your child is dying to get on? Be careful…many of these are AFTRA shows (the other actor’s union) and their pay is minimal. Sometimes as little as $341 for two days work for a speaking role! Many of these contracts effectively do not pay residuals. Don’t assume you will be cashing in…make sure to ASK your agent what the pay rate is!
Keep in mind that out of that gross amount the following percentages are deducted before you ever see a paycheck:
15% Coogan withholdingThat leaves just 28% left to pay for acting classes, transportation, headshots, housing in LA, etc. Even if your child has a PHENOMENAL pilot season, and books a commercial, a week on a television series, and a couple of days on a feature film , you would be clearing around $3000---not enough to pay for your apartment at Oakwood.
15% manager (if you have one)
2% union dues
30% state and federal taxes
We strongly advise against this. Why?
We know. There are other great benefits to coming to pilot season, aside of money or even getting a real job. The trick is to choose to seek them out. Los Angeles offers:
This varies from year to year, depending on how casting is going. The best idea is to ask your agent, but in general, it isn’t worth it come for less than 8 weeks. It takes a couple of weeks just to get your child’s pictures and resumes in to the online casting systems, have agents submit and get the first auditions.
Keep in mind though…a showbiz career is a marathon, not a sprint. One pilot season probably isn’t enough. Many families have told us that while they saw some success (a booking or two) their first pilot seasons, it took 3 years to really feel like they were competing in this market and booking fairly often.
Casting Director Mark Sikes says it takes 5 years of full time living in LA to really understand the town, long time kid’s agent Judy Savage says it often takes 7 pilot seasons for kids to book a pilot.
As we stated earlier, there is an industry that has built itself around the concept of “pilot season”. Those involved in this sub-culture of Hollywood range from the regularbusiness who just knows an opportunity when they see one, to the lowest level scammer in town. Here are some tips to help you steer clear of the bad experiences:
If you have read up to this point and you are still thinking you want to brave the odds and make a trip for pilot season, there are ways to increase your odds of having a GREAT experience, and being successful:
YES! Planning is everything! Time is money, but sitting around can also do damage to a kids’ motivation and self-esteem. For this reason, you want to be as efficient as possible. Here are some things to take care of BEFORE you arrive in L.A.:
First, become familiar with labor laws in California because they dictate what age children will be likely to work. For example, a five year old won’t work much in California because the labor laws allow a six year old (who looks 4 or 5) to work an hour longer. So if you have a five year old, you might be wise to postpone your trip until they are six. Your odds will be better next year! Same idea goes for teenagers who are not high school graduates. WHEN you choose to come may be key.
Do NOT ever come to pilot season without securing agency representation first. Legally, you cannot procure work in California without a licensed talent agent. Not to mention, it just isn’t done. You really do need an agent. And the reputable ones are too busy once pilot season starts to interview new clients.
Get L.A. style headshots before coming here. Photographers are booked several weeks ahead of time, and by the time you take pictures, get the proofs back, have your agent and manager look at them, and spend two weeks at the printer, you have wasted more than a month of your trip. Do this in advance! This is a perfect task for the pre-trip—then do your reproductions via mail order from home.
Get work permits and Coogan accounts in advance. California is very strict about the work permits and you simply will not be allowed to work without one. Currently, the wait time is more than a month to get one, so start now!
Plan your schooling. It is illegal in California to simply “be on vacation” during pilot season, regardless of what your school back home tells you. If you want to work here, you must go to school here in some manner. Check out the Education section of our website for lots of resources.
For more planning tips, here is an expert from Bonnie Gillespie’s book, Casting Qs. She asks 15 casting directors “What’s the First Thing An Actor Should Do Upon Arrival in Los Angeles?” http://more.showfax.com/columns/avoice/archives/000738.html
There is no magic formula for success in Hollywood. There is no one “right” way. Pilot season is no exception—it is not the silver bullet that will make you a star, nor is it even the normal path. But if you live outside of Los Angeles, it may feel like a pilgrimage to Hollywood is the only way to make it. It isn’t! Lots of successful families have found alternatives to pilot season. They suggest:
Predicting which pilots will make it
Great first hand experiences from pilot season parents:
Websites to Research Pilots in Development
Last updated by Double 19 Productions Oct 14, 2009.