Pilot, Premise Pilot, Backdoor PilotComplications Ensue
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Thursday, June 05, 2008

Carl P writes:
Greetings from Austria, where the Europe Cup is driving everyone crazy. I am writing my masters thesis on serial narration in childrens literature and I need to work with the term "pilot" or rather different types of pilots (backdoor, establishing etc.) but I can't find any definitions.
A pilot is the first episode of a series.

Traditionally, networks shoot the pilot, and then make their decision to pick up the show or not based on how they feel about the results. There are drawbacks to this system. You can write a kickass pilot that paints the series into a corner; since the networks don't commission more scripts until they've shot the pilot, they won't find that out right away. Also, you spend months waiting to see if the network likes a pilot, then you have to jump into your story room on short notice and start cranking out scripts. In Canada we usually don't pilot (only the CBC goes to pilot). Instead you write a bunch of scripts and the greenlight decision is based on them. That means the writers have some scripts in the bank when the greenlight decision comes down. On the other hand there's no opportunity to recast after the pilot as there is in the American system.

A premise pilot is a first episode that sets up the circumstance of the pilot. In the BATTLESTAR GALACTICA pilot, the Cylons attack and the Battlestar Galactica goes on the run. In our NAKED JOSH pilot, Josh returns to McAllister University as a professor. In the BUFFY pilot, Buffy comes to Sunnydale, which turns out to be infested with vampires.

I've heard that you should try to avoid a premise pilot if you can. It's hard to re-air a premise pilot because it is often quite different from the regular show. The SEX & THE CITY pilot is just an episode of S&TC; no explanation how Carrie met the other girls, or how she got her column. The WEST WING pilot starts with Josh about to be fired. However, often you can't avoid a premise pilot. You need to explain who the Cylons are and why the Battlestar is running from them. You need to explain what the LOST island is and how all these people got stranded there. Often, too, it is easier to introduce characters if one of the characters is "coming into the family." Cop gets a new partner. Betty gets a new job. We see the characters through the new person's eyes, whether or not the new person is the hero.

A backdoor pilot is a feature film or TV movie that is made with an eye to an eventual television series. It works as a feature film, but also sets up the characters and situation for the series. If you have a TV series you haven't been able to get off the ground, one possible approach is to write a feature using those characters, that ends up more or less where your series starts. If the feature is a hit, or even well liked by the right people, you can go back and repitch the TV series. TV execs may dig your concept more if they can see it in action.

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Funny how two of your three examples had both premise pilots and backdoor pilots. (Well, at least sort of, in Buffy's case.)

What's the opposite of a premise pilot called?

By Blogger Matt, at 6:05 PM  

I don't think BUFFY was a backdoor pilot. I think it was a feature and then Joss resold it as a series. The feature is light and goofy and the series is fairly dark. If you were trying to make a backdoor pilot, I think you would want the tone of the feature to match as closely as possible the tone of the series.

But only Joss (and everyone at Whedonesque) knows whether Joss intended to go to series with it when he wrote the feature.

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 10:44 PM  

Actually, the new Battlestar Galactica began life as a Sci-Fi Channel miniseries - and is probably one of the best examples out there of a backdoor pilot turning into a series. It was always geared toward a full television series, but the first season wasn't ordered until after the miniseries had already aired.

Just thought you should know.

By Blogger brenderlin, at 2:26 AM  

and once in a while an episode of an on-going series is used as a backdoor pilot; the Star Trek Gary 7 episode comes to mind. Jaime Weinman had a post about backdoor episode pilots a while back...

By Blogger Mef, at 1:13 PM  

From what I have read in Joss' interviews, Joss wrote Buffy as a feature, hated that they turned it into a campy film and decided to turn it into a series so he could do it his way.

By Blogger Tim W., at 3:49 PM  

Carl: I realize you wrote this a while ago, but if you read this: your thesis topic is fascinating to me! If it's in English, I would love to read it. (Sadly, my German wouldn't be up to it.) My email is
wrigleyfield AT wisc DOT edu

By Blogger wrigleyfield, at 10:48 PM  

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