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On The Lot Debuts

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I hate reality shows, but there are a few that I've really enjoyed in the past, such as Project Greenlight. On The Lot, a series created by Steven Spielberg is very similar in that it's a contest that revolves around film development, but exists at a different stage than did Greenlight.

Greenlight held their contest, and the subsequent show followed the winner(s) as they directed the winning film script. Lot comes after the initial contest which filtered something like 12,000 people down to the 50 that would compete on television -- where the real fun happens.

No telling what might happen afterwards, or if DreamWorks plans to keep providing development deals to people for each subsequent contest.

During the course of the show, the "directors" would be given assignments and tasks to complete, designed to eliminate those who are incompetent with the goal of finding the one person amongst them that will win a $1 million dollar development deal with Spielberg's DreamWorks studio.

Before I get into the first episode, I need to talk a bit about the judges for the contest -- industry professionals all of them -- but not necessarily the best choices in my opinion for a competition amongst budding directors.

Those three judges are actress Carrie Fisher, and directors Brett Ratner and Garry Marshall.

Immediately I have a problem with Carrie Fisher, why pick an actress to judge a film making competition? She has a limited amount of writing and absolutely no directing experience whatsoever. Was she picked because she's friends with Spielberg, or for the name brand value? It certainly wasn't because she knows a lot about film making unless you count acting, in which case every actor on earth is a film maker.

Acting, sure, but directing and producing? Hardly any experience at all.

Ratner has been hugely successful over the years which is why he got on the panel, yet his films are rather plotless and mindless action orgies to be honest. He may be skilled at literal directing, but he has zero self-control when it comes to budgets (that's a serious knock) and his vision is questionable.

Marshall perhaps is the only bona fide on the panel in my mind, yet he just got done doing Georgia Rule which has been almost universally panned as slow and terribly boring. In his prime he would have made a fantastic choice, but today? All I see are people treading on reputations and brand names, not supremely gifted directors and industry workers.

The first episode began with a tour of a studio lot for the 50 contestants, though I didn't catch whose lot it was. Whoever DreamWorks is affiliated with, I assume.

After the greets came the first assignment, one I found quite inappropriate for this competition. For a bit of fair disclosure, I'm a freelance screenwriter, so I'm biased, but this struck me as a typical example of Hollywood's self-delusion when it comes to the skills and services that writers bring to the table.

Each amateur director was randomly assigned a logline that they would have to take away, and turn into a pitch within 24 hours. They'd then take their story and pitch it to the panel, and then be judged. This is inappropriate because they are asking these director wannabes to become writers.

Directors don't turn loglines into stories, or in general pitch story ideas at all, not like they are being asked to do here. Writers take loglines and pitch them (sometimes without any preparation at all, shooting from the hip) or write up treatments or if done on spec, full fledged scripts. Directors will never be asked to turn a logline into a pitch during their whole career as far as I know, it's totally pointless and designed simply to put them under abnormal pressure, presumably to make for a good reality show, because it sure as hell won't help them become better directors.

The excuse from the panel that this was to see if these people were good story tellers is just an excuse, directors aren't story tellers, writers are. Directors turn stories into reality through cinema magic, which isn't to say their jobs aren't hard or that they don't require a fair amount of creativity in their own right -- they do. But they don't do *this*.

The five possible loglines were as follows.
  1. A slacker applies to the C.I.A. as a joke and is accepted.
  2. A man sees his face on the news described as missing or wanted.
  3. A mouse is captured by a pharmaceutical company and must plan his escape.
  4. A priest meets the woman of his dreams before he is to be ordained.
  5. A crate bound for a secret military base is delivered to a suburban family.

My first reaction is that I could do any of these without much trepidation, other than the one about the mouse. It begs to be done as animation, or live-action mixed heavily with CGI and a lot of celebrity voice-overs. I don't know how a mouse thinks, what a mouse would do, nor do I particularly care about animation. I would choke on this one, and choke hard.

Any of the other four would be pretty easy, even though I'm not very comfortable doing comedy, the CIA story in particular wouldn't be that hard to mine for ideas.

Predictably, one of the best dressed and seemingly most confident and professional of the young contestants -- and also the first one they showed doing his pitch -- choked on the mouse setup, and choked hard.

It made me cringe and duck behind an office chair, and be very happy that it wasn't me up there. It also made for outstanding voyeuristic entertainment.

Other contestants didn't really understand what pitches are, where one guy they focused on for a priest story went on for a lot longer than it should have, where he was basically telling the story from beginning to end. That's bad, really bad. Pitches introduce the main characters, the beginning, middle, and end of the story as fast and lightly as possible, while getting across some emotion (comedy works well here, especially if you have some improve talent) helps quite a bit.

You don't want these things to take more than a couple of minutes, and you don't want to get bogged down on mundane details. You aren't trying to tell the story, you're trying to sell the idea, so you tell it like would a movie you just saw last night. Hit all the plot points and move as fast as possible with it still making sense.

As I said, this is not a strong skill requirement for directors, this is what writers have to get really good at for selling screenplays and new television shows. I'm really bothered that they went through this circus, because while it's very entertaining and good fodder for a reality show, it's a stupid and pointless exercise for directors.

Could it help at some point? Yes, but it's time that could be better spent testing their current skills and training them with new ones better suited to their profession.

I have to hand it to the panel though, they were very nice about it all. They understood how nerve racking pitching is -- not that I'd know, I've never done it, but the though of it doesn't really make me nervous in the last. When I get wound up about something I like and understand, I can pull amazing things out of my ass with the best of them.

I got to see a couple of more pitches, including one where one guy just absolutely nailed it. He should give up being a director right now, and go into writing, because that's where his real talent is.

Now, unfortunately, my DVR decided to throw me a curve, and I only got half the show recorded, so I can't talk about it anymore. I'm pissed, and it'll be Sunday before a rerun comes on and I can finish this, so consider it a two parter. I'm looking forward to seeing more, not so much to find out what happens with these director wannabes, but because I'm watching the judges like hawks.

Yeah, I dissed every single one of them, but they are on top of the heap, and I'm not. I would kill for a shot to pitch to either Marshall or Ratner -- not so much Carrie Fisher though. It might be enlightening to get her opinion on some things, but she can't do anything for me, and I don't know how good her senses are when it comes to scripts or development in general.

This ought to be entertaining, but while I was looking over the shows Wiki page, I'm seeing quite a bit of negative stuff here. I know this has already been shot and in fact it's probably already over, or close to it, but there's a ton of information out there on what has already happened thus far, and a lot of it isn't good.

Feel free to look for yourself if you'd like, but you might want to wait until the show is over with, it probably won't make any difference either way. The heavy handed censorship, especially surrounding a film making contest, is sickening though.

Spielberg, Fox, and co-creator Mark Burnett ought to be ashamed of themselves for letting that happen.

Hang in there for the rest of this coming Thursday, I have a feeling this show will become sickly addictive.

TV Squad has their writeup, which is much shorter. IGN has clips and Firstshowing had their preview as well. Between four of us, you should be able to get your fix.

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