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Changes in TV pilot season make it tougher for aspiring actors

Los Angeles actor Dariush Kashani usually spends his winters networking to land a spot in a pilot TV series. But for Kashani, who has appeared in “Lost,” “24,” “Law & Order” and other popular shows, this year’s writers’ strike has dealt a serious blow.

“To use the word devastating would be an understatement,” he said. “You feel like you’ve fallen off the radar.”

While the writers’ strike is over and established TV shows are returning to the air, its effects are still being felt in the industry. Because the strike didn’t end until February 12--after auditions for new shows would normally have begun--the so-called pilot season is shorter this year.

Some networks are using the strike to really shake up their operations. NBC, for instance, made headlines recently by announcing it won’t go back to the usual schedule. It will debut shows year-round instead of during the traditional fall season extravaganza, and it will drastically cut the number of pilots it orders up. Many in the industry believe other networks will soon do the same. Pilots can cost between $1 million and $3 million to make--a lot of money to spend on something the public never sees.

“They’re almost letting the strike break pilot season,” said Christopher Thornton, who teaches audition skills at the Stella Adler Conservatory in Los Angeles.

The pilot season, however, has been shrinking for years. The 14-week strike was only the latest blow to an industry struggling to stay profitable as it competes with new forms of entertainment. The shift towards fewer pilots presents many challenges for aspiring actors. They have fewer chances to break into TV work and have a harder time committing to long-term projects that might interfere with a shot at an on-air job.

“What we thought of as pilot season in the past may never exist again,” said Mark Schlegel, a partner at the Cornerstone Talent Agency in New York.

That vanishing pilot season traditionally runs from January to March, when those with talent, looks, and hardworking agents book dozens of auditions for the pilot episodes of new TV series. Those who get parts start filming right away. Finished pilots are presented to advertisers in May and the few that are selected by the networks premiere in the fall.

This year, in the aftermath of the strike, a much-reduced pilot season is only now getting underway. Most networks will produce fewer pilots, each with a better chance of making it to the air--good news for those who land a part in one of those shows, but bad news for everyone else. Even if a pilot is never seen by the public, it’s still a way for actors to be seen by networks. And it pays.

“You can live three-quarters of the year, if you’re frugal, on what you get for one pilot,” said Thornton, who has appeared in three never-aired pilots over the past several years.

Fewer pilots means fewer roles and fewer chances for an aspiring actor to land that breakout role.

“I think that there is less work for the young actor who is coming out of a conservatory or college or coming to New York or L.A.,” said Robert Beseda, assistant dean of the School of Drama at the North Carolina School of the Arts.

One such young actor is Erin Buckley, 26, a recent graduate of Yale’s Master of Arts program, who moved to L.A. this past August--and moved back to New York to stay with her mother in January and February because Los Angeles on strike was too depressing.

“It’s sort of a bizarre time to begin your career,” she said in a recent interview.

It’s been a difficult first year in Hollywood. Her agent, who normally would read about 120 new scripts during pilot season, has only seen about 40 this year.

“The competition is so much more extreme this year,” said Buckley.

Networks are not only producing fewer pilots, they’re starting to shake up the traditional schedule of winter auditions, spring filming, and fall premieres. A year-round schedule robs actors of the ability to clear their schedules for pilot auditions from January to March. Traditionally, actors living elsewhere would come to L.A. for the big round of auditions; actors in L.A. would know to schedule their vacations for the quieter summer months.

“That kind of scheduling of your life is going to be harder,” said Thornton.

Balancing television and theater work may become more difficult, too. With pilot auditions concentrated in January to March, actors trying to juggle TV and theater can simply avoid commiting to a long-term theater gig for those months, leaving them open to jump at a chance to shoot a TV show.

“Nobody wants to commit to do a project and then a big money job comes along,” said Janet Foster, a casting director who is currently looking for actors for seven theaters around the country. With a more structured pilot season, she said, “You just knew what you were facing trying to get people to be available for your projects.”

For working actors trying to pull together enough jobs to make a living, these changes only make things harder. In an atmosphere with fewer and fewer chances to land that big part, each audition matters more.

Kashani has only had one pilot audition so far in this year’s strike-shortened season.

“You have to have all your stuff together,” he said. “You have to be really, really prepared. Anybody in New York who has a theater job is a very happy person.”