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Early Casting Cuts Through Pilot Season Clutter

Felicity Huffman, Courtney B. Vance, Zach Braff, Reba McEntire, Alan Cumming, Mark Feuerstein, Craig Robinson, and Adam Scott.

These actors all signed onto network TV projects before pilot pickups — and now, their pilots have in fact all been given the green light.

This development season saw a growing trend of casting stars well before pilot season began, giving the potential series a leg up against the hefty competition.

While certain projects have always been developed specifically for a star, the bulk of TV shows are typically put into development without talent, then greenlit to pilot and then casting begins. But for the 2017-2018 season, studios were strategic in attaching more actors than ever before to projects in the midst of the development cycle.

Now at the halfway point of pilot season, some of the first pilots to be picked up were McEntire’s ABC series with Marc Cherry, Feuerstein’s CBS comedy “9J, 9K and 9L” and the CBS drama “Dr. Death” with Cumming, fresh off of “The Good Wife.” The very first pilot to be ordered this season was “Libby & Malcolm,” which co-creator Kenya Barris cast aggressively, landing Huffman and Vance well before Thanksgiving, purposely so that he could present a full package to executives considering his show.

“Anything we can do to get out ahead of late January and early February, we are going to try to do. It just felt like a good strategic tactic to try to put ourselves slightly ahead of the path with respect to actors,” ABC Studios president Patrick Moran told Variety in an interview conducted in the midst of development. The studio executive is behind “Libby & Malcolm” and McEntire’s project.

“If you can get in that top tier of actors, that’s certainly a benefit. Any of these actors would have their pick,” Moran added. “Certainly it helps you just getting way ahead, particularly with actors that have a lot of choices.”

But it’s not just star-power that helps score a pilot pickup — it’s the added benefit of better storytelling that comes along with writing for an actor in mind.

“There might be some added value as you are developing the material that you can now marry up the characters knowing the voice of those actors,” Moran said. “Then you’re better able to mold the characters in those scripts, knowing who you’re writing for.”

Actors who sign onto projects early on also have the option to weigh in on their character. Moran noted, “Presumably there’s some sort of dialogue with the actors and show creator so they may have a voice into how the material is shaped.”

Another project to score a pilot greenlight is Braff’s ABC comedy pilot “Start Up,” created specifically for the actor by his fellow “Scrubs” writer/producer Matt Tarses. Given that the duo had a shorthand from their former sitcom, it’s likely that Braff had some input in the character as well.

Robinson and Scott’s paranormal Fox comedy “Ghosted” was a hot project from the outset of development season, landing an early pilot production commitment and a formal order earlier this week. Kourtney Kang’s autobiographical comedy at NBC nabbed a pilot order last week, but only once casting was in place with young actress Isabella Russo, given that the central part is so integral to the entire series. Likewise, Fox gave a cast-contingent pilot pickup to the Fox comedy “Linda From HR,” which has not yet set the title character.

Still in contention for pilot pickups are pre-cast projects starring Toni Collette at ABC, Anders Holm at Fox, Morena Baccarin at NBC, Sean William Scott at NBC, Damon Wayans Jr. at Fox, Vine star Andrew Bachelor at Fox, plus Carol Burnett at ABC, which would mark the TV icon’s return to network television.

When asked during development season if his studio had received any momentum from the early casting strategy, Moran quipped, “That’s the goal. I’ll let you know at the end of pilot season if it worked or not.”

So far, all signs are pointing to yes.

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