The Pilot's Pilot

Curator's Note

Television pilots are expensive, time-consuming, and can mean a significant investment for studios and networks. Pitches and scripts are tweaked and adjusted, actors are cast and re-cast, sets are built and struck, and a pilot may be filmed only to be heavily re-tooled and re-shot before actually being aired on TV (if it even gets that far). As a result, some studios will film a demo to present to networks instead of shooting a full pilot. The demo is a brief "sample" of what a full pilot, or even full series, could look like. These demos are, essentially, the pilot's pilot.

Demos seem to be under-discussed in both academic and journalistic discourses about television production, but this shouldn't be surprising. Demos largely go unseen by anyone but those involved in the production and the various network executives that decide what gets ordered for the season, and as such, are overshadowed by the full pilot versions. Despite this, demos can be still tell us about the development process of a television program, how things change, and with proper contacts, discussions can be had with creators about that process. 

Two examples of pilot demos for you. The first, which you can watch by clicking here, is the complete demo pilot for Buffy: The Vampire Slayer (1997-2003). While it's still very rough, and Willow and Principal Flutie were eventually re-cast, it's very Buffy, full of wit and action, and the demo even shows the "dusting" of a vampire (though it uses very clunky time-elapse animation).  Whedon doesn't like to talk about it.

The second, and appearing with this post, is the pilot demo for Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1994, 1997-1998). Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski were both working independently on a Batman cartoon pitch for Warner Bros., and this pilot showcases Timm's character designs and Radomski's "dark deco" aesthetic. The gist of this demo would go onto become the series's opening.

A demo for an animated series makes sense. Production time needs more of a lead between script writing, storyboarding, sending those storyboards overseas to be animated, voice work, editing, and scoring. A fully animated pilot may be even time-consuming than a live-action pilot. 

Both examples showcase what their respective pilots would be and what their series would eventually become, and provided executives with the confidence in funding and producing a full pilot and, eventually, series.


This raises several questions for me, but probably mainly because all I know about demos is what you've shared here. (Thanks!)

This makes me wonder about the pitching process and criteria for shows that ultimately get made based on stripped-down demos rather than full pilot episodes. For instance, how much selling (more, or less?) has to happen in discussion/notes to convey the show's story, conventions, aesthetic, audience/market appeal, etc? Who can get a show produced on a demo and who can't?

How might the demo pitch work better for a show with a clear, provocative, or familiar concept or a show that fills a genre/niche need? I also wonder how many shows begin as demos instead of pilots since clearly a pilot can be a huge investment that often won't pay off....



I admit that this is just something I've been noodling on recently, and haven't done a great deal of research about. I aware of the Batman demo (and a Justice League demo that the same production team would do years later), but the Buffy demo was something I learned about recently when I read Susanne Daniels' book Season Finale (it's a very good read; I got the sense that the WB was responsive to demos, and given the time frames that demos started appearing according to the Museum of Broadcast Communications, may've popularized the practice).

My initial impulse is to think that a really strong demo can help convince a network to begin financing the pilot instead of waiting for the network to kick in licensing fees after the pilot has been produced. On the flipside, I imagine a lousy demo might turn off a network completely, but it costs the studio less to shop around a half-version instead of a full, so the loss may not be as great either.

As to who can get a demo...No idea. I must imagine it hinges on what the studio feels about the script, and if they feel a script may not completely sell its product: It needs that pop of performers and sets to convey its energy.

I initially sought out more animation demos since, even more than live action shows, so much has to be done to create an animated program, that demos, either like the Batman one or in the form of pencil tests or storyboards, have to be even more common than they are for live action shows. Sadly, I didn't turn up other clear examples (I thought for sure that the guys behind Avatar: The Last Airbender would have leaked something along these lines!).

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