Fox's 'On the Lot': Hollywood, Get Me Rewrite!

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Assignment: Describe Fox's new filmmaking competition series, "On the Lot," in five words.

Answer: Boring, boring, boring, boring, boring.

After all the trumpeting about the show being a project of entertainment giants Steven Spielberg and Mark ("Survivor") Burnett, you'd think both or one of the luminaries would at least have put in an appearance for last night's premiere. But no, they must have been busy dreaming up other moneymakers. Instead, the show was hosted by breathless nobody Chelsea Handler.

Spielberg and Burnett lent their names to the program, but did they lend anything else?

The concept, though it barely qualifies as one, is to pit young contestants -- in this case would-be filmmakers -- against each other a la "American Idol" and "The Apprentice." A large group will be winnowed to one survivor over 13 weeks, with the winner receiving a $1 million "development deal" to make an original film.

It would help "On the Lot's" championing of original filmmaking, however, if there were something original about the show itself. Not only is it a plastic-coated copy of all the other competitions on the air -- from dancing to cooking to bingo-playing -- it's even derivative of another series about young filmmakers, HBO's classy "Project Greenlight," which aired years ago.

The new show, which aired in the catbird seat following "American Idol," is achingly trite, with all the familiar little reality rituals tidily in place (among them the contestants' aftermath annotations, spoken into the camera), though the cinematography and editing are perhaps slicker and smarter than on less ballyhooed shows. So is the marketing and cross-plugging; commercials for Verizon were integrated into the show almost seamlessly, and certainly shamelessly.

Winning films will apparently be screened on cellphones, a rather dispiriting sign of the times.

Actress Carrie Fisher, comedy producer Garry Marshall and director Brett Ratner (one of the creepier big shots in Hollywood, by the way) served as judges for last night's contest, certainly a letdown to those who thought Spielberg would be a judge himself. The first challenge for each hopeful was to come up with a pitch -- delivered to studio executives -- based on one of five "loglines," or situations, for imaginary films.

Among the premises the young directors had to work with: a story about a mouse that is captured by an evil pharmaceutical company and somehow turned into, or mistaken for, a laboratory rat; and a presumed comedy about a slacker who is accepted by mistake for a position at an intelligence agency.

The young man seen making the first pitch spoke a few lines to the judges from a stage and then froze, unable to come up with a plot and characters even after supposedly staying up all night. Another entrant wept after doing a poor job, and another became so strenuously carried away that at one point he whipped off his belt and began slapping the floor with it.

In fact, the art of the pitch is something practiced in Hollywood more by writers than by directors, and so the pitching competition was essentially meaningless. Still, it was surprising that none of the entrants seemed to have heard of the three-act structure and other scriptwriting staples. Some didn't even appear aware of the difference between a plot and a premise.

One thing most of the aspiring filmmakers do have and will certainly need in Hollywood is not so much talent as ego, a firm, unshakable belief in themselves. The chap who went whacko with his belt had declared before going in, "I've got the thunder in my back pocket and the lightning in my front." After being all but hooted away, he conceded that "maybe I went a little too far."

Earlier, one of the contestants arriving at the Millennium Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles, the generously plugged headquarters for the competition, said he entered because he was concerned about "my legacy" and knew he had "something to say" to the world. How much of the world will be watching, however, is questionable. As the show dragged on, with the contestants revealing their innermost thoughts and the judges trying vainly (except for Fisher) to be witty, one could almost hear TV clickers around the nation hurriedly switching channels.

When final ratings come in, it could be that "American Idol" drew 30 million viewers last night, but there's likely to be radical drop-off for "On the Lot." Who knows, but that its 13 weeks might be judiciously trimmed to five or six. In fact, one single episode was more than enough.

On the Lot next airs Thursday at 9:30 p.m. on Fox.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company