Tuesday, May 29, 2007

On the Lot

As a movie fan who indulges a taste for some reality TV (primarily THE AMAZING RACE, SURVIVOR, and AMERICAN IDOL), it was imperative that I check out ON THE LOT. The Steven Spielberg and Mark Burnett produced Fox show is searching for an undiscovered director to receive a million dollar development deal at DreamWorks.

ON THE LOT started culling the field by giving the contestants one of five loglines and having them pitch their ideas to actress/screenwriter Carrie Fisher and directors Garry Marshall and Brett Ratner. In other words, it was as though the now defunct Query Letters I Love blog had been brought to life in televised form. This was a decent enough way to test these aspiring filmmakers' ability to sell their visions. Those who survived this initial cut were grouped in threes and sent out to shoot one scene each for a short film. Again, the directors were pared down to the final 18. (Another task, in which each was supposed to direct a scene on a pre-arranged set in an hour, seems to have disappeared from the competition as nothing with it was involved with last night's program.)

On Monday's episode, each filmmaker presented a one-minute comedy short that they were given a week to prepare. In the comments to his insightful piece about the show, Noel Murray summed up the resulting films as equivalent to the Coca-Cola refreshing filmmakers' shorts that are part of the "pre-show entertainment" at multiplexes. Even the better entries were highly derivative. Many relied on toilet humor: flatulence blame diverting across time and borders, a woman on a bus has to pee, intoxicated aliens projectile vomiting. (No disrespect meant to the woman who made the bus short, but when it comes to thwarted urinary relief, nothing can top the scene in BUFFALO '66.)

Most were OK on some level. The exceptions were WACK ALLEY CAB, which made no sense visually or narratively, and GETTA RHOOM, which was supposedly centered on a nerd making an ill-timed exclamation. When Garry Marshall, the director of the horribly offensive THE OTHER SISTER, takes you to task for making fun of the, how to say it, mentally challenged, you've got a problem. THE BIG BAD HEIST missed the point of the exercise, opting instead to be a mock trailer.

In an improvement over another Burnett production, ON THE LOT appears to be giving the contestants tasks that apply to what they are seeking to do for a living. On THE APPRENTICE, in which Type A business professionals sought employment with Donald Trump, the contestants were evaluated more for marketing savvy than for the nuts and bolts business skills the job presumably entailed. If ON THE LOT asks the filmmakers to make shorts each week, it's about as fair of a test as possible...for a competition like this.

But is it really about finding the best unknown director? Of course not. Writer-directors have an advantage since they are forced to generate their own content, not just shoot scripts. Genre versatility, a treasured trait of some directors but not an implicit measurement of greatness, will be an advantage. More than anything, though, the ability to go safely and competently down the middle will be the trump card. ON THE LOT isn't about artistic expression but predigesting the conventions of mainstream films and aping them. In other words, they're looking for Ratners and Marshalls.

Maybe some of these filmmakers will surprise us, but my best guess is that we won't see anything too out there. Like AMERICAN IDOL'S opinionated three, the judges talk about taking risks, but that's the fastest ticket to get the voting public to look elsewhere to cast their ballots. The surest way to advance is to make something flashy and familiar. That's why the prohibitive frontrunner should be Zach Lipovsky. The special effects wiz is likely to produce the most dazzling films. Toque-wearing Minnesotan Andrew Hunt, the puking aliens guy, also looks to be a strong contender because he seems more experienced and aware of what it takes. Family man Will Bigham might be in it for the long haul, especially if the producers play up how this might be his last chance to pursue his filmmaking dream.

It will be interesting to see how many contestants stick around because of secondary factors (looks, playing the villain role, heart-tugging back stories). To be sure, talents beyond what can be put on screen have kept other careers afloat, so who's to say it won't be accurately reflected in ON THE LOT'S results?

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