The Pros and Cons of Testing for a Pilot on Tape

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Photo Source: Spencer Alexander

There’s nothing in this universe so permanent that it will never change. That’s the one consistent part of life. Even our bodies renew themselves every passing year through the process of metabolism, creating new cells to replace the old ones—so we, too, are in a constant stage of change. It’s happening to you right now as you read these words.

Looking back over pilot season, it occurs to me just how much has changed about the process of booking a series regular role, and there’s one change in particular that rubs me the wrong way. Let’s take a closer look at the process every actor must endure if they want to end up on a series that will change their lives, both professionally and financially.

Most acting jobs start with a preread for casting. If that goes well, you get called back to meet the producers and director. And that’s about it. If they want you, the casting director will call me with an offer. But there’s one additional step in the world of pilots, and that’s testing.

READ: 11 Tips for Dealing With Auditions During Pilot Season

The first thing you need to understand is that studios (e.g., Sony, Lionsgate) produce pilots while networks (CBS, NBC) license them. They both have a say in who gets hired. That means that if the producers and director want you, you’ll have to read for executives at both the studio and network. And you’ll be competing with a few other actors, because they rarely test just one person. So, hypothetically, you could be testing at the studio on a Monday, and, assuming everyone in the room signs off, you’re testing again the following day at the network. Or sometimes it’s all done the same day. Or there could be several days between tests. The permutations are endless.

There are pros and cons to testing in person. On the pro side, nothing beats a live audience for bringing out the best in a performer. On the con side, those executives are exhausted, because they’ve been testing countless actors for every role on every pilot, so they won’t be responsive, which can shatter your confidence (especially if the project is a comedy and no one’s laughing).

But these days, a lot more of these tests are being done off tape. The casting director will bring you in for a work session to get the best version of your performance on tape, and those tapes are sent to the executives. I like to think the executives focus on the actors, but I keep picturing them scanning forward and taking calls while watching those tapes; thoughts like that keep me up at night. You can argue these tapes create an equal playing field, but for me, I’d rather have those suits trapped in a room watching my client perform. Meeting someone in person undoubtedly gives you a better sense of their energy and what they can bring to a part.

Today, the testing process is still a mix of old-school and new, but I predict it will all be done off tape inside of a decade. By then, I’ll be running the Secret Agent Man Bar on a tiny tropical island. If you happen to visit, show me your SAG-AFTRA card and a copy of Backstage, and I’ll give you half off your first round.

Ask Secret Agent Man your questions about this and more on the Backstage Community forums!

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Secret Agent Man
Secret Agent Man is a Los Angeles–based talent agent and our resident tell-all columnist. Writing anonymously, he dishes out the candid and honest industry insight all actors need to hear.
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