They hail from small towns in Texas, Ohio, Indiana, New Hampshire, Kentucky and Mississippi, from Chicago, New York and Manchester, England to South Africa and Italy. And they all want to be filmmakers, so much so they’ve put their lives and day jobs on hold to compete for a $1 million development deal with DreamWorks on the Fox reality-competition series “On the Lot,” produced by Mark Burnett and Steven Spielberg.
We know how much they want it because, to a contestant, they all gushed variations on the same theme in the first few minutes of the premiere episode. "I want to direct! I love movies! I’ve wanted to direct since I was a kid! I love movies! This is my big break! This is my big shot! I love movies! I want to be a director!" You get the idea. If not, hop over to the show's Web site.
“On the Lot” received more than 12,000 submissions from 33 countries from wannabe helmers. From that heap of homemade short-film submissions and passionate cover letters, producers gleaned 50 worthy contestants to vie for that development deal, and someday, perhaps even a good table at the Grill.
The premiere episode opened with the nifty 50 taking the tram-tour of the Universal Studios lot — which seemed kind of a funny choice because DreamWorks is now owned by Paramount Pictures and “On the Lot” is a Fox show, but the truth is they have the best trams at Universal this side of Disneyland. So the tour guide takes them on to the Universal backlot where they run in to the show’s oh-so-perky host Chelsie Handler.
Handler promises them that the challenges producers have in store for the contestants will separate “the good directors from the truly special ones.” And then she informs them they’re about to get on the “On the Lot” bus and head to downtown Los Angeles’ famed Biltmore Hotel.
After a bit of oohing and ahhhing over the Biltmore’s distinctive architecture and palatial lobby -- surely that was spontaneous -- contestants are ushered into a large screening room where they come fact to face with the three-judge panel of Carrie Fisher, Garry Marshall and Brett Ratner.
“Princess Leia is 10-feet away from me right now!” exclaims one male contestant who clearly toted a “Star Wars” lunch box when he was in the third grade. The pitches to turn these one-liners into features have to be made first thing in the morning before the judges. The judges stress to the contestants how important it is to be prepared, have the beginning, middle and end of the story well thought out and most of all, be confident and practice all night in the hallways of the Biltmore.
The team of Marty (pictured far right, holding notepad), Jeff and Trevor are at each other’s throats. Marty and Jeff seem to both be trying to prove that they know more about film than the others as they try to make a film about a man tries to have his wife killed.
Ratner introduces himself with a line he’s heard a thousand times. “I’ve seen every one of your films, and you’ve done incredible work,” he says. “I’m very proud of you.” The degree of star-struck-ness in the room has hit a narcotic level. Nobody bothers to ask how Ratner could possibly be proud of people he's just met, but..
Fisher does most of the talking for the judges. She tries to get the contestants fired up for their first challenge. The have only 12 hours to develop a full-blown pitch for a feature film based on one of five randomly distributed loglines that contestants find under their chair in an envelope. Each of the contestants gets one of the following loglines:
1) A slacker applies to join the CIA as a joke and gets accepted;
2) A man watching TV sees his face on the screen described as a man who’s wanted or missing;
3) A mouse kidnapped to be a lab rat has to plot his great escape;
4) A priest meets the woman of his dreams before his is ordained;
5) A crate from a military base is accidentally delivered to a house in suburbia.
At this point in the show, with so many contestants, it’s hard to keep track of who’s who. But some emerge as standouts, like Michael McClain, of Indiana, who's dressed in the suit-and-tie garb of every talent agency mailroom slave in Hollywood. He’s the first one we see go before the judges with his pitch, and it isn’t pretty. He chokes.
“I felt like you were making it up as you went along,” Ratner said of McClain’s feeble pitch for a giant Ratman character in connection with logline No. 3.
We see a bunch more pitches, and watch Brett, Carrie and Garry’s eyes roll faster and further back into their heads. And then we get to a guy from Minneapolis, Andrew Hunt, who looks the part of a dude from a cold climate in his wool cap, jeans, flannel shirt and T-shirt (the bearded Hunt can be seen in the tram shot above wearing his wool cap). But his pitch is good. The judges’ enthusiastically respond to his cogent, well presented idea.Hunt got the one about the would-be priest. He pitches them a story about a guy who’s about to be ordained by sent down to a poor country in South America to get some seasoning in the selflessness and charity department, falls in love with a free-spirited pilot down there, saves a village or two from flooding when the levee breaks, finally to return home to his own wedding to the pilot, not the priesthood.
“That’s how good your pitch was … you made me take my wallet out” and give him some development money, Marshall quips, as he pulls out his wallet.
After the pitches are finished, Fisher, Marshall and Ratner put their heads together and decide to eliminate 14 of the 50 wannabe DGA members, including the natty dresser. Once again, it isn't pretty, but given the conventions of reality TV you get the sense that McClain may be trotting that suit out again before the series is over.
Then the survivors are off to the next challenge. The contestants have to pair up in teams of three to make their own two and a half minute short film in 24 hours, with each of the team members directing one scene. Before the episode ends we get a peek at how four of the teams are doing, and mostly it seems to be driven by conflicts with the one alpha-personality on each team who talks the loudest and thinks they have all the answers.
The second episode from Thursday picks up with the scramble to finish the short film. Because there are still 36 contestants, it’s hard to know who's who. But a few alpha characters emerge as the episode keeps its focus on the four teams highlighted last week.
Hanna, Jessica and Kenny (pictured left) are oil and water. Jessica’s in film school, which Kenny clearly resents, He wants to do things his way, which drives them nuts, as they try to make a film about a Mafia informant.
Zach, Sam and Adam are computer geek types who infuse their film with heavy special effects. It figures, thanks to Zach’s background in graphics and VFX. The film about a couple who can stop time when they start fighting goes over well with the judges.
Hillary (pictured, right), Brent and Carolina are a happy trio, and it shows in their high-concept comedy about a ditsy woman determined to get in her random act of kindness for the day by taking a homeless man to the Laundromat to wash his clothes.
When the judges return to the red-carpeted screening room to judge the films, we learn that Garry Marshall had to leave (not sure why) and has been replaced by director Jon Avnet (“Risky Business,” “Fried Green Tomatoes”).
The VFX-driven film from Zach’s gets a big reaction. So does the random-acts of kindness comedy. To viewers’ surprise, judges praise Kenny’s work in the mafia informant short. Hanna and Jessica stew.
When the screenings and eliminations are all done, a teary-eyed Jeff is among the 12 casualties. So is Hanna, who looks ready to commit murder herself, having blamed Kenny’s poor cinematography for screwing up her scene. Marty and Kenny look gleeful that Jeff and Hanna are having some misfortune.
And just as the survivors are easing into the cushy screening room chairs with relief, Fisher pipes up with the next challenge. They’re handed a sheet of paper with one page of dialogue on it. The challenge is for contestants to shoot that one scene in an hour’s time using all the staff equipment and resources supplied by Universal Studios.