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A Plea to the TV Networks: Please Release Your Unaired Pilots

The pandemic has disrupted production schedules, leaving some concerned we could run out of television. What better time to break out the original, reportedly disastrous pilot for ‘Game of Thrones’?

Ringer illustration

In late 2009, director Thomas McCarthy shot a pilot for an HBO series named Game of Thrones. The pilot was the product of almost four years of preparation by scriptwriters and showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, who adapted the story from a series of fantasy books by George R. R. Martin. Despite the strong source material and all of the work that went into it, though, the pilot was almost a total loss. Benioff and Weiss screened the completed pilot for their friend and fellow screenwriter Craig Mazin, who had trouble comprehending the plot and following the familial relations—perhaps understandably, given that the pilot features twins doing it doggy style. As soon as it was over, Mazin told them, “You guys have a massive problem.” Years later, Benioff remembered writing “MASSIVE PROBLEM” on his yellow legal pad and described the screening as “one of the most painful experiences of my life.” The pilot was reputedly such a steaming pile that Mazin had no suggestions for salvaging it, other than “Change everything.”

Benioff and Weiss did just that, reshooting upward of 90 percent of the pilot with a new director. This time, the production paid off: HBO picked up the series, which went on to become a global phenomenon that ran for eight seasons. On a 2016 episode of the Scriptnotes podcast, Mazin recalled leaving the eventual premiere of take two of the Game of Thrones pilot, which he had attended with some skepticism. “I very specifically remember walking out, and I said to [Weiss and Benioff], ‘That is the biggest rescue in Hollywood history,’” Mazin said. “Because it wasn’t just that they had saved something bad and turned it really good. You had saved a complete piece of shit and turned it into something brilliant. That never happens!”

More than a decade after the original pilot was shot, and more than a year after the series finale, we still haven’t seen the disaster that could have derailed Game of Thrones before it began. A few scenes from the original pilot survived in the revised version, and some plot details, casting differences, and behind-the-scenes photos have surfaced. But even though episodes of the series regularly leaked and HBO couldn’t contain spoilers in the last season, no unaired footage from the first pilot has emerged. Fans of the series can only imagine the alternate title sequence, Tamzin Merchant’s portrayal of Daenerys, and Martin’s cameo as a guest at the wedding of Dany and Khal Drogo. And historians of TV and chroniclers of the creative process can’t analyze why the pilot failed, how Benioff and Weiss almost miraculously corrected course (for a while), or what the series would have looked like if HBO had given the green light to their first approach.

If HBO is ever going to venture into its vaults and free the first Thrones pilot like Tyrion released Rhaegal and Viserion, now would be the time. Like every TV network and streaming service, HBO is dealing with pandemic-imposed domestic production delays. Filming for the third seasons of Succession and Barry hasn’t started, and the second seasons of Euphoria and The Righteous Gemstones were also postponed. As my colleague Alison Herman noted last month, the entire TV industry is running out of new content. “When an entire ecosystem is premised on the idea of too much TV,” she wrote, “what happens when there’s suddenly too little—or, at a minimum, dramatically less?”

One thing that could happen—and, I would argue, should happen—in these desperation-driven times is an industry-wide dumpster dive. If networks have holes to fill and can’t fill them with something new, they should show us what we missed out on. Empty out the archives and give us Game of Thrones and other unaired, unpicked-up, completed pilots of the past. Let us marvel at well-known actors in unknown roles. Let us laugh at the worst work of celebrated auteurs. Let us speculate about what would have happened if a rejected series hadn’t been stuck in someone’s desk drawer. Let us wonder why unjustly passed-on pilots weren’t picked up and advocate for those wrongs to be rectified. Until it’s safe to create new content, allow us to sightsee on the TV roads not taken.

Thus far, the pandemic seems to have hastened the demise of the traditional TV pilot season—and, perhaps, of the pilot itself. Of the 56 pilots that were due to be shot this spring for the fall broadcast season, only one (the multi-camera CBS sitcom B Positive) was completed before production shut down. Some networks have extended their options on their postponed pilots and plan to shoot them this fall. Even before the coronavirus set in, though, network executives had contemplated abandoning pilot season and moving to a year-round development cycle. That rhetoric has only ramped up amid the delays.

But even a more amorphous pilot production schedule could be in danger if broadcast networks economize by ordering second scripts instead of expensively produced pilots, or imitate their streaming competitors and commit to series unseen. “If the trial-by-necessity is successful, we could see the broadcast development model shift away from pilots toward straight-to-series orders,” wrote Deadline’s Nellie Andreeva. Bob Iger, outgoing CEO of Disney—which owns ABC and several cable networks—has reportedly told associates to “look across the business and permanently change how it operates,” an effort that could include “ending expensive old-school television practices like advertising upfronts and producing pilots for programs that may never air.”

Thanks to those trends and the pressures of Peak TV and the streaming wars, fewer produced pilots are falling by the wayside. More than 500 original scripted series aired in 2019, according to FX CEO John Landgraf, who projected prior to the pandemic that the total would “increase substantially” in 2020. In that seller’s market, it’s more common for projects that one party passes on to be repackaged and resold.

“Now, when there’s such need for content, I think that anything that makes sense to have another life gets another life somewhere,” says TV producer Jamie Tarses, who helped develop Friends and Mad About You at NBC and later became the president of ABC Entertainment. But there’s still a large library of mothballed pilots waiting to be dusted off. “Back in the day,” Tarses says, “there were absolutely things that people did try to set up elsewhere and failed, so they ended up not having an additional life.”

One of the problems with trying to resuscitate those pilots long after some suit pronounced them dead is that they can’t fill a time slot week after week. “I think the issue is to just have a single episode of something,” Tarses says. “There’s really no way to promote and market it without spending money that you don’t want to spend on something that’s a one-off.”

There might be one way: Package the pilots together. At HBO, the original Game of Thrones pilot could conceivably serve as a pilot for a series of previously unseen pilots. It’s not even the only unaired Thrones-related pilot that HBO could deploy: Last year, the network canceled a planned prequel to Thrones that was written by Jane Goldman and slated to star Naomi Watts. Like the first try by Benioff and Weiss, the pilot by Goldman got a second chance after a disappointing private screening, but the revamped version wasn’t well-received either, consigning the series to the TV graveyard. But its burial doesn’t have to be permanent: With no new Thrones content due out on HBO until 2022, the unearthed pilots could keep people talking about what will be next.

Granted, with so much money riding on the future of the franchise, HBO probably wouldn’t want viewers’ first glimpse of a Thrones prequel to come from a flop, so The Long Night—or whatever it would have been called—might have to stay in storage for a few years. That’s another one of the problems with unpicked-up pilots: As Tarses says, simply, “A lot of them aren’t very good,” which is why they weren’t aired in the first place. Then again, taste in TV is subjective, and one executive’s trash is another executive’s smash. Tarses was at NBC when the network snapped up Law & Order and 3rd Rock From the Sun after CBS and ABC, respectively, passed on the pilots. One TV truth never changes, says Kevin Falls, an executive producer of Sports Night, The West Wing, Pitch, and This Is Us: “The surefire hits on paper and after testing often fail. And vice versa.”

HBO doesn’t have to double-dip on Thrones or venture into the “recently rejected” pile to come up with items of interest. The network is sitting on several pilots by big-name directors and writers that may or may not have deserved series orders but do deserve better than the dustbin. In 2012, HBO passed on Da Brick, a boxing drama loosely based on the early life of Mike Tyson. The series was supposed to be produced by Spike Lee, who directed the pilot. John Boyega was set to star, two years after Attack the Block and two years before The Force Awakens.

“The pilot was made, but finding it now is like finding the crystal skull from Indiana Jones,” Boyega said in 2013. “There are so many films that get made and never seen. I understand why it happens, but it would be good if people got the chance to make up their minds for themselves. Part of me is frustrated by it. Acting careers don’t come out fully formed.”

Then there’s Last of the Ninth, a 2008 drama about NYPD corruption in the 1970s that was written by David Milch and NYPD Blue veteran Bill Clark. HBO opted not to pick that up, just as it did with Milch’s The Money, a 2014 pilot starring Brendan Gleeson that sounds a lot like Succession. The list goes on: Noah Baumbach’s 2012 pilot for Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, with a script cowritten by Franzen and a cast that included Ewan McGregor, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Greta Gerwig. “The pilot was wonderful,” Gerwig said, but HBO disagreed, deeming it too complex and pricey (per Baumbach).

HBO also axed Bill Condon’s 2010 pilot for Tilda—a drama about Deadline Hollywood founder Nikki Finke—amid messy drama among showrunner Cynthia Mort, Condon, and star Diane Keaton. Also unseen is The Miraculous Year, a 2010 drama based on the life of Stephen Sondheim (who would have composed musicals for the series) and featuring a script by John Logan and camerawork by Kathryn Bigelow, who was fresh off of The Hurt Locker. (HBO later passed on another Bigelow project, Mogadishu, Minnesota.) Would you watch the pilot for Documental, a 2010 comedy that would have reunited Tropic Thunder’s Justin Theroux, Steve Coogan, and Ben Stiller? How about All Signs of Death, a 2010 Alan Ball concept that starred Ben Whishaw as a crime scene cleaner who becomes embroiled in a murder mystery? Maybe The Missionary, a 2013 Cold War spy drama written by Charles Randolph and directed by Baltasar Kormákur? Or People in New Jersey, a 2013 comedy directed by Paul Feig and starring Sarah Silverman, Topher Grace, and Patti Lupone as, well, people in New Jersey?

We could go on. And those are only the HBO options: Showtime passed on Ridley Scott’s The Vatican, which starred Kyle Chandler and would have marked Scott’s small-screen debut. CBS passed on Nick Stoller’s Entry Level, a cubicle comedy with a cast that included Michael Angarano and Brie Larson. ABC passed on a Brian Cox fantasy detective drama called Gotham (not the Batman one). NBC passed on Brad Anderson’s Midnight Sun, a Julia Stiles drama about an Alaskan cult being investigated by an FBI cult specialist. Comedy Central passed on David Gordon Green’s Black Jack, starring Ving Rhames as a decommissioned special ops agent. FX passed on Charlie Kaufman’s How and Why—a half-hour comedy starring John Hawkes and Michael Cera—as well as Hoke, a Scott Frank vehicle starring Paul Giamatti as a homicide detective in mid-1980s Miami.

Some unaired pilots are available in grainy form on YouTube: You can, if you’d care to, check out the original pilot for Buffy the Vampire Slayer (which creator Joss Whedon said “sucks on ass”), the 1999 Fox reject Heat Vision and Jack (directed by Ben Stiller, cowritten by Dan Harmon, and starring Jack Black, Owen Wilson, and Ron Silver), and a 1997 pilot for a TV version of Fargo, starring Edie Falco as Marge Gunderson. Other long-lost pilots periodically leak: Earlier this year, the 2011 Marc Romanek–directed pilot for Locke & Key (which Fox turned down) appeared online but was soon whisked away. Exposure can sometimes breathe a little life into a canceled pilot’s prospects: In 2006, the pilot for Scrubs creator Bill Lawrence’s rejected WB show Nobody’s Watching was leaked on YouTube, and the series almost received a second chance.

What if all of these never-seen curiosities and scrapped versions of eventual hit shows were presented in pristine quality on networks and streaming services in need of a short-term content fix? “I think it would be a great idea to air some now,” says Falls, who wrote a rejected 2009 pilot for Fox that would have starred Will Arnett, James Van Der Beek, and Rhea Seehorn. “I suspect what’s tricky is the good ones that weren’t picked up could embarrass a sitting or ex-executive or an actor who was recast. But there are so many pilots I bet you could find enough to program.”

Naturally, I’m not the first to think of this. Just ask Lauren Zalaznick, the former chair of NBCUniversal Entertainment & Digital Networks. In 2002, Zalaznick was appointed president of Universal’s new TV network, Trio.

“We, like the networks of today, did not have enough of an original programming pipeline, but we wanted really high-quality stuff,” Zalaznick says. “I guess 15 years [earlier], almost 20 years, we were drawn to the same idea as you’re having, which is, ‘Hey, if networks commission 150 scripts or 200 scripts a pilot season, and they commission 30, 40, 50 pilots, and they would winnow them down to eight or 10 or 12 or 15 or however many they need to fill their fall and spring and summer season, surely they had to have passed over some that were gems.’”

The result was Brilliant But Cancelled, an idea devoted to re-airing quickly canceled series that were innovative, critically acclaimed, and associated with actors or creators who had gone on to achieve fame. The concept soon expanded to encompass a smattering of pilots that had never before been seen. The 2003 slate included Falco’s Fargo, Conan O’Brien and Robert Smigel’s Adam West comedy Lookwell, Kiefer Sutherland’s pre-24 Fox pilot for a TV adaptation of L.A. Confidential, and Rewrite for Murder, a 1991 CBS pilot starring a not-yet-famous George Clooney, about which Zalaznick says, “It was a terrible pilot, but he was incredible in it.” (Thanks mostly to Brilliant But Cancelled, all of those are on YouTube, too.) Unfortunately, Trio didn’t last long before the brand migrated to Bravo’s website, where Brilliant But Cancelled was relaunched online. Even when it was on the air, Trio was a tiny channel, but Brilliant But Cancelled was a cult and critical hit. “People loved it,” Zalaznick says, adding, “We got thousands of column inches of press coverage.”

In researching Brilliant But Cancelled, the Trio team came across many more pilots that had been untouched for too long. “I’m not a hundred percent going to say it was a treasure trove, but it was unbelievably interesting,” Zalaznick says. All of that rummaging around in TV’s discard pile led to a documentary called Brilliant But Cancelled: Pilot Season, which was narrated by Paul Rudd and interspersed clips of unaired pilots with interviews with creators. (Trio also produced a short-lived original sitcom called Pilot Season, starring Sarah Silverman and Sam Seder.) The archival effort, Zalaznick says, “was incredibly gratifying, fascinating, et cetera. It was also really, really, really hard to clear.”

Here’s where we come to the catch. Although unaired pilots are finished, they’re not necessarily ready to air, and the studios or networks that own them are often reluctant to let them go. “It boils down to a very obvious and inside-the-industry reason, which is that they’re bad and the networks and talent don’t want them to be seen,” Zalaznick says. “And then a raft of technical reasons and financial reasons, like they’re simply unclearable, either from a talent release, financial, or music clearance perspective.”

Clearance was the responsibility of licensing and sales consultant Kris Slava, who went on to be head of programming at Ovation after his time at Trio. “The big issue in clearing for broadcast tends to be talent agreements (actors, directors, etc.),” Slava says. “If these agreements were not put in place at shoot time, hunting everybody down can be hard. If a bump-up was negotiated in the initial contract, the cost—based on the assumption it would be a network broadcast—can be prohibitive. If music was composed for the show, [it was] usually doable. But if needle-drop music (existing known songs) was used based on the idea it would never be broadcast, it can cost too much.” If a pilot used a Rolling Stones or U2 song, Trio would have to strip it out or ask the creators to lay in another track.

On top of that, licensing pilots caused accounting headaches for whomever owned the rights. “If they were not picked up for series, they financially got written off or written down, and they’re just off the books of the big network,” Zalaznick says. “And it’s a big pain in the neck financially sometimes, at some networks, to assign a value to them, put them back on the books.” That hassle wasn’t always worth it for the small amount of value that the transaction could create. While the rights to TV pilots sometimes revert to creators, the networks or studios usually retain control. That was particularly true in the era before showrunners gained their current clout and the power to dictate conditions.

For Slava, all of these hurdles amounted to a logistical nightmare, but a successful scavenger hunt was worth the work. “As hard as getting Brilliant But Cancelled series was, the pilots were even harder,” he says. “Half the time these shows were never even cleared for broadcast—so not only did we have to romance the studios into licensing a single show for a couple thousand dollars (still takes lawyer time, salesman time), but in many instances we had to convince them to clear the shows—or at least take the risk that they were cleared. In many instances all the paperwork was buried in some backroom. Lots of times, the studio wouldn’t even know that they owned these pilots, they didn’t appear on any sales list. So the studio would say, ‘No, we don’t have that,’ and we would say, ‘Yes, you do,’ and just keep working them until they talked to the oldest guy in the library, and he or she would say, ‘Yeah, yeah we own that, so and so produced it.’ So it took months and months, but we got them.”

Of course, Trio had a hard time with Brilliant But Cancelled and Pilot Season because it was trying to broadcast someone else’s pilots on another network. The bar is a lot lower without the broadcast component. In the early 2000s, writer, comedian, and producer Beth Lapides, who founded and hosts UnCabaret, observed some of her friends getting crushed by the pilot process. “They were so excited about it,” she says. “And then they would return sort of limp.” Then it happened to her. After she and her former partner Greg Miller made a pilot for an MTV talk show called The Couch, the network canceled it in favor of The Tom Green Show. “It’s so disappointing,” she says. “And I at that point just thought, ‘Well, I don’t know, we can just show them. I mean, we could just do it. I’d love to see these things, and I’d love to show ours.’ And it was just that simple.”

In 2002, Lapides started The Other Network, a live show constructed around screenings of unaired pilots and interviews with their creators. Lapides hosted dozens of performances in Los Angeles and took the show on the road to some out-of-town comedy clubs and festivals. The gatherings were informal affairs: Writers and producers would bring tapes of their spurned pilots, and Lapides would project them to the small crowds without interference from the networks. Although The Other Network came close to a DVD deal, it was scuppered by some of the same issues that Slava encountered at Trio. “Oh my god, rights and permissions,” Lapides sighs.

For any networks who own their own unpicked-up pilots, though, rights and permissions aren’t insuperable obstacles, so they’re relatively free to get by on their own supply. There’s precedent for that, too: In the 1980s, it was common for networks to “burn off” episodes of canceled series during the summer months, which allowed them to list those shows on their balance sheets in a more advantageous way. From 1987 to 1989, CBS even aired unsold pilots on a program called CBS Summer Playhouse and encouraged listeners to call in and express their preference, a prelude to a practice Amazon adopted decades later.

Slava says that even after his toil at Trio, there are “probably hidden gems buried out there,” and Lapides believes it’s a good time to dig them up. As Theon Greyjoy says in the second season of a series that survived a crappy pilot, what is dead may never die. “What you will never know is if a mediocre pilot—if it got worked on, if it got recast, if they had a little more time, a little more money—you just don’t know whether that would have turned into a longtime, wonderful, complex [series],” Zalaznick says. “Some things just need a little air and a little light.” It’s too late for a little light to save the pilots that people passed on years ago. But some of those pilots could still serve networks well in the industry’s prime-time hours of need.