Pilot Season Grounded by Pandemic: How Some Key Players Are Making the Shutdown Work | Webinar

Jennifer Maas

While broadcast networks struggle to decide what to do with all the TV series that didn’t manage to finish production on their current seasons before the coronavirus outbreak forced them to wrap things up early, they’re simultaneously trying to sort out the situation with their shows that aren’t even shows yet, a.k.a. pilots.

During “TheWrap’s Survival Guide for TV Pilot Season” webinar on Tuesday, TheWrap’s TV editor Tony Maglio spoke with “Will & Grace” creator Max Mutchnick, “Arrow” star Katherine McNamara and “Good Girls” producer Carla Banks-Waddles about the state that each of their respective broadcast pilots were in when the COVID-19 pandemic grounded filming on all the potential series earlier this month — and how they’re trying to keep working on those projects during the shutdown.

McNamara is in a different boat than both Banks-Waddles and Mutchnick, not just because she’s the star of a pilot rather than the writer of a pilot, but because she’s the star of a pilot that was already filmed *and* already aired.

The “Shadowhunters” alum stars on an untitled spinoff of The CW’s now-ended “Arrow,” a series on which McNamara played Mia, the adult daughter of Green Arrow/Oliver Queen (Stephen Amell) and Felicity Smoak (Emily Bett Rickards). The “backdoor pilot” for the show aired in January as the second-to-last episode of “Arrow’s” final season.

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“Our pilot aired, which normally doesn’t happen until you know if you’re picked up, and we’re waiting to see,” said McNamara of her “Arrow” spinoff, which would follow Mia as she takes on the role of Green Arrow from her father — if it gets ordered to series at The CW. “They told us pretty much right away that we wouldn’t know anything until May, because they wanted to see their other pilots and see what other shows they had on their slate and everything else and now that a lot of pilots aren’t being shot, there’s a couple of other series that have been picked up, we really don’t know what’s going on at this point. So we’re all just in a holding pattern.”

Mutchnick’s pilot is “The Big Bad Wolfes,” a CBS comedy about a powerful businesswoman, which he’s working on with his “Will & Grace” co-creator, David Kohan. And just before everything was halted due to the coronavirus, Kohan and Mutchnick cast their leading lady.

“We wrote this script, CBS decided we were going to make this pilot, we were in the casting phase — and thank God we closed with Julie Bowen, which is just a very good, solid person to have in the process and on the project because it made it very real,” Mutchnick said. “I feel like if we did not have that, we just would have been a pilot that we were trying to cast for CBS for the upfronts. This makes us that much more solid — but I was trying to push this as long as it would possibly go. I was watching shows close right and left and colleagues were calling me and were saying they were getting shut down. And I felt like, ‘Well, I’m in a position where I’m just casting, let’s keep going. If actors are willing to come in and read, then I’m willing to show up and be there for the audition process.’ And then on that Friday, three Fridays ago, we finally got the call because [NBCUniversal’s Universal Television studio] was willing to keep us up and running, but it was only when CBS, the network, decided we are not going to pursue making these pilots at this time, that we stopped.”

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Mutchnick says this “doesn’t mean that anything was canceled — everything was just put in a holding pattern.”

“But I’m in a holding pattern with Julie Bowen as No. 1 on the call sheet, which I like very, very much, that that’s a part of this,” he said. “And now I just have to sit and wait and see. And I was able to use the time to do a rewrite of the pilot to just send that to CBS and say, here’s a polish of this thing, to get it that much closer to what we would want it to sound like when we shot it. Yesterday would have been our table read and I’m waiting to hear what everyone’s thoughts are because it would obviously be fantastic to get an assignment to keep writing, but I don’t know how they’re weighing that.”

Fortunately for Banks-Waddles, she *does* have an assignment to keep writing — for now — as NBC has ordered a second-episode script for her drama pilot, “At That Age.”

“The plan was to shoot in New York for the pilot,” Banks-Waddles said. “So we were there for prep, all systems go and meeting with key departments and mostly doing location scouting. And the news just kept getting worse and worse. But we were about two weeks out from our shoot date when we got the word. And it was very distracting because we would be in the scouting van and everyone was on their phone and new information was coming in by the hour. ‘Oh, they closed down NYU. Oh, they sent everyone home. The NBA is gone. Broadway is going dark.’ So it was so distracting.”

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“Everybody knew it was probably going to come our way very soon and so we got the call,” the “Good Girls” producer continued. “The actors had not come out yet, which was a blessing, because I think everyone was nervous about flying and unsure… They pulled the plug on a Thursday and the actors were scheduled to come out that Sunday. So I came back home to LA and everything has just been head-scratchy, what’s next?”

Since then, Banks-Waddles’ potential show has received its backup script order, as have many other pilots, which gives the writers something to do — even if the pilot itself can’t be shot.

“It keeps us working, keeps us creative, keeps the trains moving,” she said. “Writing is already such a solitary task, so it hasn’t changed much for me in that regard. Just being at home with everyone and trying to have as many meetings as we can, teleconferencing with the producers and make any decisions that we can still make to just sort of keep moving ahead.”

Typically speaking, pilot decisions are made by early May ahead of broadcast networks’ upfront presentations to advertisers, during which they show off their new fall slates. But because of concerns over the coronavirus outbreak, all in-person upfronts have been canceled — meaning McNamara, Banks-Waddles and Mutchnick don’t know when they’ll be hearing if their pilots have been ordered to series or not. And that’s the going to be the case for many key players with projects in limbo at NBC, CBS, Fox, ABC and The CW, until the networks decide how to proceed with the usual pilot season in an incredibly unusual situation.

In the meantime, McNamara, Banks-Waddles and Mutchnick told TheWrap they are trying to continue working on their projects while in isolation. Watch the full webinar, which is the second in TheWrap’s “Survival Guide” series, via the video above to find out how they’re pulling this off.

TheWrap’s next webinar will take place next Tuesday, April 7, at 12 p.m. PT/3 p.m. ET. Details to follow.

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