Saturday, May 26, 2007

Film Making Idol

I'm not exactly sure what FOX is trying to do with On The Lot. The show debuted on Tuesday with an hour long episode that brought together the fifty film makers from around the world and saw that number culled down to thirty-six. Then we were told that the next episode would be seen on Thursday night after So You Think You Can Dance. I was expecting an hour and instead what we got was a rather oddly timed 35 minutes, which is why I held off from reviewing the first episode (that and the Dancing With The Stars finale). All of which leaves me with the impression that having given the project the green light – probably because the name Spielberg was attached to it – they are possibly embarrassed by the final result or just don't know how to handle it. Or maybe it's a combination of the two.

The concept behind On The Lot is intriguing. Take short films submitted by aspiring film makers from around the world and bringing the fifty best to Hollywood for the opportunity to win a development deal at Dreamworks. The fifty who make it to Hollywood are then winnowed down to eighteen through an intense selection process that puts them in a pressure cooker – three challenges in three days with little or no time for minor details like sleep. Then the eighteen would do one film a week to be judged at least in part by the show's viewers. Judging the filmmakers – at least in the beginning – would be actor/director/producer and TV legend Gary Marshall, director Brett Ratner, director Jon Avnet, and Carrie Fisher (who everyone refers to a "Princess Leia" ignoring the fact that today she is primarily a novelist and screenwriter, as well as a highly regarded script doctor rather than an actress).

The first thing the aspiring filmmakers had to do – after being brought off the regular route of the Universal Studio Tour by our friend Tony Figueroa (he was the tour guide on the Tram; he had two lines and maybe fifteen seconds of screen time and if you blinked or tuned in late you missed him) – was to develop a pitch for a film based on one of five one sentence loglines. The contestants had to take the logline they had randomly received and develop a concept for a movie and then pitch the concept to the judges, and they had to do it all in a period of twelve hours. The loglines were pretty out there, including "a slacker applies to the CIA as a joke and is accepted," and "a mouse is abducted as a lab rat by a pharmaceutical company and has to plan his escape." If you're like me you tried to play along at home – I came up with a couple of ideas for one of the other loglines – but the real task was the pitch which had to sell the judges on the story telling abilities of the movie makers. It's not as easy as it sounds – one man not only couldn't tell his story in an interesting way, he could barely speak at all. And that was part of the problem with this portion of the episode – we saw far too much of people whose pitches stank to high heaven and not nearly enough of people who were able to get their ideas across effectively. Fourteen people were sent home after this stage.

Immediately after the selection process was completed the contestants were given a new assignment – break into teams of three and make a two minute movie based on the logline "Out of time." They had two actors, three locations and 24 hours to complete the assignment in. That meant of course that there were twelve teams but the show only followed two of them, one with three guys and one with two women and one man. They were obviously teams that were having trouble working together. The team with three guys had two control freaks who clearly couldn't work together and were constantly contradicting each other on just about any issue possible. Meanwhile on the team with two women and one man, both women had attended film school while the man was almost proud of the fact that he hadn't. Unfortunately he seemed indecisive when it came to using his actors and when he was serving as director of photography for a scene directed by one of his team mates there were a number of technical errors – like a mike boom getting into the shot that the other two people on his team said he ignored. The shorts were edited on laptops (Macs?), probably using a program like Final Cut, and then presented to the judges. One of the films shown, the production of which had barely been seen during the entire 35 minute episode, was a special effects masterpiece that one high praise from the judges. But that short, and the films from the two bickering teams were the only ones that we saw on the show (the rest can be viewed on the show's website). In the end the control freak from the team with three guys and the woman whose scene was shot by the man who had never attended film school from the team with two women and one man were sent home, along with ten others for reasons that we really don't know. Then the next challenge – to shoot a one page scene with a professional crew and actors – was presented to the remaining twenty-four contestants.

The premise sounds intriguing. Unfortunately the execution was scarcely original. Really, it came off like the audition process for American Idol, So You Think You Can Dance, or the various other shows – running or cancelled – which have adopted a similar format. The tasks may have changed but the underlying principals remain the same. And I think that if you were doing a show called So You Think You Can Act that might work. The problem here – one of many – is that we don't know why Spielberg and Mark Burnett (the other Executive Producer), and whoever actually sifted through the videos selected these particular people from the ten thousand or so who submitted films to the show. Obviously they all exhibited some talent in their initial submissions, including the guy who was barely able to speak during his pitch, but unless you were motivated to check out the show's website you never saw more than a couple of seconds of a couple of the audition films and are rarely able to associate people with their short films. This business of judging, and not knowing the criteria, carries on into the initial tasks that the contestants are given. Having brought the film makers to Hollywood, and given them their tasks, the show's producers – probably Mark Burnett – focussed on specific individuals and usually if they focussed on you it was either because you weren't going to be around long for some spectacular miscue or because you were part of a dysfunctional team. Maybe this could have been made right – particularly in the two minute short test – if the show had run in a two hour time slot rather than in the fragmented manner that it was shown. Part of the result was that we never got a consistent feel for the criteria that the judges were using in their evaluations. And given that more than half of the people who started in the competition were eliminated in those two episodes, it would have been nice to know what the judges were looking for and even nicer to get at least an inkling of why they were let go. Maybe this will change when (or, based on the show's ratings in its first two episodes, if) the show gets to the point where it's dealing with the "final twelve" rather than the unwieldy initial fifty. At the very least we'll be able to get to know the individuals and their work. As well it will put more emphasis on one aspect of the format that I really like: the "live" aspect of the show – necessary for the fan voting aspect that I'm not entirely happy with – puts the film-makers under the sort of deadline pressure that film makers who have to meet a release date have to deal with.

As I have mentioned several times in this review, I think the idea behind On The Lot is an intriguing one but that the execution has been thoroughly botched. There's plenty of blame to go around. Burnett blew it by focussing a big part of his first episodes on the elimination process. While they didn't necessarily have to go right to the final twelve competitors, I think he could have done so relatively easily simply by saying "From the thousands of entries submitted from around the world, we brought the directors of what we judged to be the fifty best films to Hollywood where we further reduced the field down to the twelve finalists." That would have immediately given us a group of people that we could get to know and might have allowed us to see the short films that they made that got them into the competition. As it stands the final twelve contestants might come down to a group of people who have barely had any screen time yet – in 95 minutes of the show – while the producers have focussed on people who they already know are going to be eliminated. I think that Burnett can also be blamed for the very format that he's chosen for this show, the American Idol format complete with audience voting each week. This show might have been ideal for a format that Burnett himself pioneered – an Apprentice style show although with all three of the show's three judges making the decisions and explaining their reasons for those decisions (something Trump rarely if ever really did). In this format Carrie Fisher (who I like as a judge) would be more of a spokesperson for the group than a final arbiter. The final decision – between the top two films could be left to a viewer vote, the audience being the ultimate critic. Fox also isn't without blame in this mess. They were the ones who gave this show the green light but more importantly they were the ones who decided to "help" the show by putting an hour of it on after the final performance show of American Idol and then shoehorn a further 35 minutes in behind the debut of So You Think You Can Dance. The net result of this hasn't been a boost to the show's ratings but the distinct feeling that they were dealing with a show they wanted to get rid of. As for Spielberg, well I guess you could blame him for putting his imprimatur on this mess by including his name on the list of executive producers, because as far as I can tell that's about all the contact he's had with it.

On the whole I judge On The Lot to be a failure. It had potential but failed dismally to live up to it.

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