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 Made for 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 hype up 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 first time round 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'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.
Contrast Poorly-Disguised Pilot (a redirect of this trope name, Backdoor Pilot, can also be used to describe pilot movies), where the pilot is shot as an episode of a different series. Subtrope of Made for TV Movie.
Anime and Manga
- Digimon Adventure had a Short Anime Movie, unusually released a week before the series itself; it was set four years earlier and starred a younger Taichi and Hikari, and its events are later stated to be the reason why the eight heroes are The Chosen Ones. It was eventually dubbed as part one of Digimon: The Movie, and it was arguably the part that fared the best in translation.
- Similarly, One Piece had a Pilot OVA.
- The eventual Mazinger Z spinoff UFO Robo Grendizer started off as a 30 minute movie named Uchu Enban Daisenso.
- Dragon Ball had a pilot movie for the American run. Funimation used "Curse of the Blood Rubies" as the pilot to sell the series. Because their initial dub had so much footage cut out from the actual movie, they had to copy/paste 5 minutes of footage from episode 2 to fill in for the lost time.
- Kimagure Orange Road's pilot was a TV special loosely based on one of the chapters in the manga.
- Ultra Maniac started out with a one-off OVA pilot before getting picked up for a full 26-episode series.
- 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.
- It is said[please verify] that the 1979 miniseries 'Salem's Lot might have been considered as one.
- The first season of Lexx is comprised of 4 telemovies.
- 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 1979 pilot film for the 1979-81 series Buck Rogers in the 25th Century went to theatres instead of TV.
- Eureka was planned as a TV movie on the Sci Fi channel. After seeing the movie, executives turned the story into a series.
- 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.
- One weird example is Us, a Pilot Movie that really wasn't. It was meant to be a normal pilot to a new vehicle for Michael Landon, but was converted to a movie when Landon died during production.
- Due South began with a Pilot Movie and later became a series, with a few cast changes.
- Borderline example: The pilot of Firefly, called Serenity like the later actual movie, was the length of a Pilot Movie.
- Each of the Star Trek series from Next Gen on began with a movie-length pilot.
- 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 revivials:
- Knight Rider 2000, set Twenty 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 and a total Idiot Plot.
- 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.
- The 1970s Wonder Woman series had a failed pilot movie that starred Cathy Lee Crosby in the title role.
- The Cathy Lee Crosby "Wonder Woman" TV movie was produced by a different group than the one that made the Lynda Carter Wonder Woman series, and was not intended as a pilot. It has about as much in common with the later series as the Knight Riders movie had to do with Knight Rider.
- The 2002 remake of Carrie was intended as a pilot for a TV series on NBC, but it was never picked up due to disappointing ratings.
- Turbo: A Power Rangers Movie, though not a pilot for the entire series, acts as a pilot for the fifth season of the long running show, Power Rangers Turbo.
- Red Skies (2002) Was an unsuccessful movie-length pilot repackaged and released as a Made for TV Movie.
- 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 on an 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.
- The Raymond Burr series Ironside started with a pilot movie.
- The Streets Of San Francisco.
- Earth Star Voyager was a 2-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.
- Murder, She Wrote began as a pilot movie which showed how Jessica Fletcher got into writing in the first place and her helping to solve a murder while staying in New York City.
- The Love Boat had three pilot movies, all of which had different actors playing the regular lead roles.
- Sabrina the Teenage Witch had this sorta. There were a lot of changes made.
- In the sense that it aired on Showtime, the tone was darker and Melissa Joan Hart and the girl who played Sabrina's friend were the only ones not recast for the series.
- Kojak started with the pilot film The Marcus-Nelson Murders.
- My Babysitter's a Vampire had a pilot movie telling how main characters met the babysitter and found out she was a vampire.
- ABC Family's Samurai Girl miniseries was supposed to lead into a TV series that never materialized.
- Endeavour, a film Prequel to Inspector Morse, is pretty clearly a pilot for a series. The decision as to whether or not the series is going to be made remains currently undecided.
- Level Up had a TV movie before becoming a full series.
- Push has "please give us a TV series" stamped all over it.
- Same with Jumper
- 1981's K-9 and Company was double the length of a Doctor Who episode of the time. It wasn't picked up as a series, though.
- Samurai Jack had a pilot movie that was actually the first three episodes with some footage taken out for pacing.
- Similarly, Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends had a premiere movie.
- Jimmy Neutron had a pilot theatrical movie that preceded the TV series on Nickelodeon.
- Similarly, Barnyard: The Original Party Animals ended up being a pilot for a Nick TV series from the same creators of Jimmy Neutron.
- Fluppy Dogs — The 80's Disney cartoon that never was, but was an animated, made-for-TV-movie. This article explains it better than I can. While the film recieved a substantial marketing blitz, with a line of all kinds of brightly colored toy dogs, the cartoon itself never came to be.
- Star Wars: The Clone Wars had a theatrical release, though it should be pointed out that the series was already green-lit well in advance.
- Buzz Lightyear of Star Command had a direct-to-video movie, which was later aired as the three episode pilot of the TV show (Tim Allen reprised Buzz for the VHS and DVD, but in the pilot version and the series he was replaced by Patrick Warburton).
- Many of the Disney cartoons from the 80's and 90's had a Pilot Movie, which would turn into a Five Episode Pilot in normal airplay. Among them Chip 'n Dale Rescue Rangers, DuckTales (1987), Tale Spin, Darkwing Duck, and Gargoyles.
- The Direct to Video Stitch! The Movie was effectively the pilot for Lilo & Stitch: The Series.
- Aladdin: The Return of Jafar was a backdoor pilot for the Aladdin animated series (establishing things like Abis Mal as a villain, Genie being somewhat weaker and his powers being on the fritz so that he couldn't solve the problem-of-the-episode easily, Iago being something of an ally to Aladdin and Co.) in addition to tying up some dangling threads from the first film.