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Pilot Movie

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Ad for the Pilot Movie of Emergency! on NBC, Saturday, Jan. 15, 1972, from WWJ Channel 4 in Detroit (now WDIV)

A Pilot Movie is a TV movie that, while purporting to be a coherent story on its own, is obviously an attempt to get the higher-ups to turn it into a series. Think of it as a proactive version of The Movie.

The advantage of a Pilot Movie over an ordinary pilot is that the bigger budget of a TV movie translates directly into better sets, cinematography, and effects, not to mention the occasional "big-name" actor. Speculative Fiction series which must build their entire "world" for the viewer in particular do better with a Pilot Movie.

In addition, by advertising it as a movie, a network can excite the pilot and gauge the reaction without having to commit to showing any additional episodes. Quite often an ordinary pilot that was not picked up the first time around is repackaged as a Made-for-TV Movie in an attempt to recoup costs, and a good audience reaction can lead to a series after all.

There are both successful examples (Babylon 5: The Gathering gave birth to, of course, Babylon 5), and unsuccessful ones (USA Network's 2004 debacle Frankenstein). An unsuccessful Pilot Movie can become an Amelia Earhart — "the pilot that was never seen again".

Sometimes the studio will be so impressed by the movie that it will be released theatrically — while still serving as a pilot for a series. This is especially common with anime, where the pilot may be designed from the start to be shown in theaters.

Some network made-for-TV Movies, while originally intended as only as a one-off production, are successful enough that the network decides to develop the movie into a TV series, thus turning the TV movie into pilot film.

Contrast: Poorly-Disguised Pilot (a redirect of this trope name, Backdoor Pilot, can also be used to describe pilot movies). Compare and contrast with Five-Episode Pilot (a Multi-Part Episode at the beginning of a series that is frequently repackaged as a Pilot Movie. Sometimes, a straight example of a Pilot Movie can be re-cut into several episodes to be aired alongside the rest of its series and Finale Movie (when a full-length film is made to serve as the ending of a television series).


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  • Kona Coast was a pilot movie for a TV series about a Hawaiian adventurer played by Richard Boone. After CBS passed on the pilot it was released in theaters as a feature.
  • Mulholland Dr. was conceived as a television pilot. Every scene after the blue box is opened has a very different tone compared to those from before, because they were added by David Lynch to wrap up the story once ABC declined to give it a go.
  • Painkiller Jane: This film was meant to be one of a series. While one did occur, it has a very different plot.
  • This is Spın̈al Tap: When they were given seed money to pitch the film, the cast (being unsure how to put the style of the movie across) instead of filming scenes or developing production concepts, shot a complete twenty-minute film, Spinal Tap: The Last Tour, as their 'pitch' instead. Some sequences, such as the performance of "Gimme Some Money" are lifted from the original short film. It appears only on Criterion's long out-of-print pressing of the DVD, not on MGM's more recent pressing.
  • The movie Zombieland. The plot, premise, and characters were all written with the intent of being a series but were instead greenlit as a film. The "Zombie Kill Of The Week" is one of the leftovers of its intended design.
  • The Wonder Woman (1974) starring Cathy Lee Crosby as a powerless, karate-choppin’, lasso and tiara-less, blond Wonder Woman was meant to be the start of a series but ABC didn't pick it up. Instead, a year later another pilot movie called The New Original Wonder Woman starring Lynda Carter as the more traditional Wonder Woman was made, which became the start of the Wonder Woman series.

    Live-Action TV 
  • The A-Team had a pilot movie to launch the series (shown in syndication as a two-parter called "Mexican Slayride".
  • The Adventures of Superman had a pilot film in the form of Superman and the Mole Men in 1951. At the end of the first season, the film was edited into a two-parter called "The Unknown People."
  • The Amazing Spider-Man (1978) was preceded by a 1977 television film that served as a pilot.
  • Arrested Development also had a feature-length pilot, but had a half-hour reduced cut as well.
  • Other Babylon 5 examples include "A Call to Arms" which led to Crusade, and "Legend of the Rangers" (even giving it an episode title: "To Live and Die in Starlight") which led to nothing.
  • Bates Motel (1987) was intended as a pilot to a supernatural anthology series set at the titular motel, but was never picked up due to poor audience response.
  • Both versions of Battlestar Galactica got a similar start; the original was envisioned as a series of TV movies, picked up as a series after ABC liked what they saw, and the 2000s version originated as a three-hour miniseries that was successful enough to be continued.
  • Blue Lagoon: The Awakening was written and filmed as a pilot for a potential series that could expand The Blue Lagoon into a full-blown franchise. Executives at Lifetime became uninterested, and the finished project became a standalone TV movie instead.
  • The Bold Ones:
    • The Lawyers had two pilot movies, The Sound of Anger and The Whole World is Watching before the series began.
    • The Protectors began with a TV Movie titled Deadlock.
    • The main character of The Senator, Hayes Stowe, was introduced in a TV Movie titled A Clear and Present Danger as a Justice Department attorney with political ambitions who takes on the (then-controversial) topic of air pollution. When the series itself began, Stowe had been elected Senator and served for some time. Interestingly, since the TV movie and series aired in the same year, Hal Holbrook earned two Emmy nominations for his performance as Stowe, in both TV Movie and Drama Series, winning the latter.
  • The 1979 pilot film for the 1979-81 series Buck Rogers in the 25th Century went to theatres instead of TV.
  • Cagney & Lacey began with a TV movie. When it was picked up as a series, Loretta Swit was replaced in the role of Cagney by Meg Foster due to Swit being unable to get out of her M*A*S*H contract. Ironically, Foster would be replaced by Sharon Gless after Season One. (Yes, two casting changes in one season.)
  • There was a 1979 Captain America movie that was made to serve as a pilot to a show never made.
  • The 2002 remake of Carrie was intended as a pilot for a TV series on NBC, but it was never picked up because NBC had no interest in a tv series and only wanted a tv movie.
  • The 1996 Doctor Who TV movie was created as a possible pilot for a revival. It didn't pan out, but it gave the writers of spin-off media a new canon Doctor to play with until the show was revived for real in 2005.
  • Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman: The pilot episode was more of a made-for-television movie or a first episode of a mini-series but the story arc could very well remain as a stand-alone two-hour movie, but the show was picked up and ran for five seasons. The leading role was played by the well-known Jane Seymour (Actress). Several characters were re-cast.
  • Due South began with a Pilot Movie, about a Canadian Mountie arriving in Chicago on the trail of his estranged father's killer. It later became a series, with a few cast changes and a slight retooling in tone (the movie was much more serious than the series tended to be, even with the Fish out of Water premise). Summarizing the pilot film's plot to explain why a Canadian Mountie was partnered with a Chicago detective became a Running Gag on the series proper.
  • "The Wedsworth-Townsend Act" from Emergency!, a two-hour made-for-TV movie that focuses on the effort to train L. A. County firefighters as paramedics and get the legal backing necessary for them to use their training, in spite of a very doubtful Dr. Brackett. Here is the opening from that 1972 pilot picture. It features a cameo from Adam-12 characters Reed and Malloy (leading to a later Mind Screw when the guys are discussing a recent ep of that series)
    • NBC tried to create a spinoff with the Emergency! Movie "The Most Deadly Passage" aka "Seattle Medic One", but without any luck that time.
  • Earth☆Star Voyager was a two-part miniseries that originally aired on ABC's Wonderful World of Disney in January 1988. It focused on a bunch of young people from a late 21st-century Crapsack Future Earth as they trekked through the stars to find a new home for the human race. Even though the series was never picked up, the miniseries was actually nominated for two primetime Emmys for sound editing and sound mixing.
  • Endeavour started as a one-off film prequel to Inspector Morse. It was picked up for a series, broadcast in April 2013.
  • Eureka was planned as a TV movie on the Sci-Fi channel. After seeing the movie, executives turned the story into a series.
  • Borderline example: The first pilot of Firefly, called Serenity like the later actual movie, was the length of a Pilot Movie. Fox, who wanted a more action-based pilot than a story-driven one, asked for a new one, and so The Train Job was written in haste over a weekend and then became the show's pilot episode. In one of Fox's last bits of Executive Meddling that plagued the series, Serenity was eventually aired last. (The series' preferred running order was the one eventually released to DVD.)
  • Forever Knight started as a made-for-TV film named Nick Knight. It was overhauled a bit and chopped in half for the two-part 'Dark Knight' pilot. Nick was relocated from Los Angeles to Toronto and his house went from a theater to a loft, and the male coroner was exchanged for Natalie. Don Kapelos (Schanke) was the only actor to make it from the movie to the series, however.
  • Wesley Snipes and Dean Cain's Futuresport, with its end sequence where a sportscaster talks about Dean Cain's character (a former player) becoming the coach of an FS team.
  • The Greatest American Hero kicked off with a pilot movie... and was also the first sighting of this.
  • /Hawaii Five-O had a Made-for-TV Movie to launch the series. Here's the intro. In syndication it's shown as a two-part episode called "Cocoon". You get no explanation added as to why Dan Williams is played by a completely different actor.
  • The first two episodes of The Incredible Hulk (1977) originally aired as two-hour movies.
  • The Raymond Burr series Ironside (1967) started with a pilot movie.
  • JAG began with a pilot movie, although the female lead was changed for the series.
  • John Doe started off with a pilot movie, which sported noticeably better special effects than the series did.
  • Each season of Knight Rider started with a double-length episode (when re-aired, they would be split into a two-parter) billed as a "Season Premiere Movie". Knight Rider has a long history of pilot movie revivals:
    • Knight Rider 2000, set 20 Minutes into the Future, guest staring Michael and Devon for the movie but not for the proposed series (Michael retires, and Devon dies), but with KITT returning as the same character in a new body. Never to be seen again.
    • Knight Rider 2010, a Battlestar Galactica-style reimagining, really more of an attempt at "Mad Max Gets a Talking Car: The Series", with no links to the original series (but adequate hooks left to add some in the proposed series). Never to be seen again.
    • Knight Rider (2008), for the win. Keeping in close continuity with the original series despite an entirely new set of characters (Michael Knight makes a cameo at the end), going to series in fall 2008 despite some aggressively blatant product placement.
  • Kojak started with the pilot film The Marcus-Nelson Murders.
  • Level Up had a TV movie before becoming a full series.
  • The first season of Lexx comprises four telemovies.
  • Little House on the Prairie started as a TV movie showing the Ingalls family moving across the country to Walnut Creek. To this day it is syndicated as part of a movie package to stations as opposed to being cut into two parts for the series.
  • London's Burning began with a two-hour pilot movie in 1986. Two years later it became a series, which ran until 2002.
  • The Love Boat had three pilot movies, all of which had different actors playing the regular lead roles.
  • A 2003 TV movie called Mermaids was intended as a pilot for a series about three mermaid sisters. Networks apparently weren't interested, as they felt it was too similar to Charmed. The concept did reappear again in the form of the Australian TV show H₂O: Just Add Water - which was more of a Slice of Life approach, as opposed to the adventure aspect of Mermaids.
  • Murder, She Wrote began as a pilot movie that showed how Jessica Fletcher got into writing in the first place and her helping to solve a murder while staying in New York City.
  • My Babysitter's a Vampire had a pilot movie telling how the main characters met the babysitter and found out she was a vampire.
  • Inverted with The Oogieloves in the Big Balloon Adventure, which was a very loose adaptation of an obscure PBS show called My Bedbugs. The creator of the film intends for it to become a potential TV series in the future (as of July 2015, nothing has materialized).
  • Popeye Doyle, a remake of The French Connection, was intended to be a spinoff, starring Ed O'Neill. Unfortunately, it was not picked up.
  • Push has "please give us a TV series" stamped all over it.
  • Starting in 1994, the Action Pack was a series of TV movies that were all intended as Pilot Movies, several of the titles having 4 or 5 movies made before being turned into a series. Hercules: The Legendary Journeys was the most successful of these, but there were also series made out of Tek War and Vanishing Son.
  • The Really Loud House, a live-action spinoff of the Nickelodeon cartoon The Loud House, started off with a Christmas film, A Loud House Christmas.
  • Red Skies (2002) was an unsuccessful movie-length pilot repackaged and released as a Made-for-TV Movie.
  • It is said that the 1979 miniseries 'Salem's Lot might have been considered as one.
  • Sabrina the Teenage Witch had this, sorta. The movie aired on Showtime, while the sitcom was picked up by ABC. Only Melissa Joan Hart and Michelle Beaudoin appeared in both. The sitcom changed the setting from Riverdale to Westbridge, inverted the unrequited love plot (Sabrina now pining for Harvey), swapped the two aunts' personalities around, dropped Sabrina's Romantic False Lead, renamed her best friend Jenny, and retooled her Alpha Bitch rival from Katie to Libby. The sitcom had its own pilot episode anyway, making the movie some kind of alternate continuity story.
  • ABC Family's Samurai Girl miniseries was supposed to lead into a TV series that never materialized.
  • Sliders started with a movie about, well, Quinn Mallory, his friend Wade Welles and his teacher Professor Arturo trying out Quinn's timer and getting stuck in a universe where the Russians won the Cold War with an unwilling companion, Rembrandt Brown. It's a coherent story on its own, and the series really starts with the movie's Twist Ending.
  • Inverted with the Stargate SG-1 pilot "Children of the Gods," a two-hour episode that was later remastered and turned into a DVD movie.
  • Each of the Star Trek series from Next Gen to Enterprise began with a movie-length pilot. The tradition actually began with the development of Star Trek: Phase II; though that series would never be produced, its pilot movie, "In Thy Image", was rewritten and expanded into Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
  • The short-lived but cultishly-loved detective show Tenspeed and Brown Shoe opens with one of these, establishing how the pairing of a daydreaming stockbroker and a savvy con artist comes to be. Alas, because it has a different rights-holder from the remainder of the series, it isn't included in the Region 1 box set of the show Mill Creek Entertainment released in 2010. Rather, CBS DVD brought it out as a Vanilla Edition disc in 2015.
  • One weird example is Us, a Pilot Movie that really wasn't. It was meant to be a normal pilot for a new series for Michael Landon but was converted to a movie when Landon died after production.
  • Turbo: A Power Rangers Movie is a strange case of this. This film is based on the already existing Power Rangers series, but acts as a pilot to its fifth season Power Rangers Turbo, as it introduces the season's new powers, villains, and zords.
  • The Untouchables began life as a two-part episode of Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse on CBS on the consecutive Mondays of April 20 and April 27, 1959; it then moved to ABC later in 1959, starting Thursday, Oct. 15, and ran for four seasons on ABC to 1963. This pilot was later released theatrically in England in 1959, and in the U.S. in 1962, as The Scarface Mob; this movie is presented as such on the Season 1, Vol. 1 DVD release of The Untouchables, but as a bonus, it has the original openings from the Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse CBS broadcasts, with introductions by Desi Arnaz and Walter Winchell.
  • Vega$ (1978) started with a 90-min. movie (73 min. on DVD) called "High Roller," Tuesday, April 25, 1978.
  • Walker, Texas Ranger premiered with the two-hour TV movie "One Riot, One Ranger."
  • Wonder Woman: "The New, Original Wonder Woman" was a TV movie airing on November 7, 1975, complete with special guest stars such as Cloris Leachman as Queen Hippolyta and Red Buttons as Ashley Norman, the Nazi spy with the best reaction shot ever to Wonder Woman deflecting his bullets. It proceeded slowly from there to specials in April of 1976 to a short season on ABC in 1976-77 to two full seasons on CBS from 1977 to 1979.

    Puppet Shows 

  • The "Disorganized Sports" arc of Precocious was partially used to introduce some of the main cast of the spinoff strip Copper Road.

    Western Animation