''On the Lot,'' the new reality-competition series about filmmaking, debuts with some really bad movie ideas and some low-level bickering

By Gregory Kirschling
May 23, 2007 at 04:00 AM EDT
Mike Yarish
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The ”On the Lot” premiere: Pitch problems

Delivered by Pretty Woman director/old-timer Garry Marshall, here is the keeper bit of moviemaking wisdom we got from last night’s ultra-hyped premiere of On the Lot, the Fox reality show that wants to be for directors what American Idol is for singers:

”A buddy picture between a rat and a mouse is a good buddy picture!”

Actually, a buddy picture that’s just about a rat and a mouse sounds like a really formulaic buddy picture. But a buddy picture about a rat and mouse is one of the few ideas the show endorsed last night, which immediately makes you wonder: Over the course of the summer, is On the Lot inadvertently going to show us why so many movies today are so safe and so bad?

That was the most tantalizing question raised last night. The rest of the show — a kind of Survivor Greenlight brought to us by Steven Spielberg and Mark Burnett (now there’s a buddy picture) — was so scattered and rushed that other ideas, personalities, or dramas didn’t have any opportunity to bloom. Which is a little disappointing, given that movies are awesome and the premise here is cool. We start with 50 budding Garry Marshalls. They’re facing off for a $1 million development deal at Dreamworks, and they’re a wide-eyed bunch — we meet them all on the tram taking the tour at Universal Studios, menaced by Bruce the Shark (too slow and pasty to be scary, but he will splash water on you), wowed by the plane-crash set from War of the Worlds, and fooled into thinking that someone is ”actually shooting stuff” on Pee-wee’s Big Adventure-type backlot lanes crammed with sky blue backdrops and extras in the kind of cheesy, antique-souvenir-photo period garb nobody’s worn in any movie since 1942.

There’s 50 of them! Way too many to care about at this point. So let’s meet the judges. Garry and co-panelist Carrie Fisher are a guttural Randy and Paula, while X-Men 3 helmer Brett Ratner, we can only hope, will pepper his lightly wrought but Cowell-y tough love with a lot more yelling by episode 3. ”Guys, honestly, what are you still doing here?” he asked the 50, playing it cute after assigning them to take one of six dumb log lines and pitch an original scenario of their own devising by 9 a.m. the next day. ”You got a pitch to give in the morning!” The only problem with that line is that Ratner didn’t scream, ”You’ve got a pitch to give in the morning!” and then throw his phone at them.

Perhaps the fury will come later, after the tenderest grapes are plucked from the vine. As we watched the worst of the gang screw up their pitches the next day, the show turned into an episode of bad Idol auditions, with huge choking but a lot more crying. And here, that crying felt a little skeezy to watch. You had to feel sorry for these guys. Unlike the bad Idol singers, who — at worst — have camped out in the rain for a night or two to be embarrassed (in most cases, intentionally), the filmmakers who flubbed their pitches were presumably talented. After all, to make it on the show, they had to craft an entire short film good enough to beat out 11,950 other wannabe Brett Ratners. And so picture — for instance — poor Rahim of Santa Monica, weeks after that proud, cinematic moment when he dropped off his just-so application to On the Lot at the post office, jubilantly taking that phone call from a producer that tells him he’s gonna be on the show and he should get his ass (across town) to Hollywood. Ah, to dream big! Now, picture him exactly as you saw him last night, sobbing tracks into his face after staying up for 40 hours straight and mangling his pitch. Stings a little to watch, don’t it?

Then again, this was Rahim’s pitch, verbatim:

”The story is about this crate. It was originally intended to go to the neighbor’s house. The next day, mysteriously, their next-door neighbor dies. The son breaks in to the next door neighbor’s house, and he sees all this, like, military stuff. You know, Nazi insignia. And he’s really, like, freaked out. To make a long story short, the father, you know, hires a private investigator, and the only thing that ends up getting dug up are secrets and lies about his own family. And that is my pitch.”

So long, Rahim. In the end, 14 people got booted, Chorus Line-style, including a snazzy dresser with a hoop in his upper ear named Mark, who couldn’t stop freezing and pointing and smacking his lips while hawking a story about a New York mobster who turns into a 300-pound rat named Ratman. But what was most unpromising about the show is that the good pitches we were treated to — like the rat-mouse buddy picture — didn’t sound that great, either. One guy, Andrew, spun the tale of a priest set to be ”the next big bishop” in New York, maybe even the first American pope, who ends up in South America doing tequila shots with a cargo pilot, and the whole thing, as Andrew imagined it, ends with a wedding instead of an ordination. You could tell this story, it seems to me, in a 30-second Expedia commercial — maybe, if you add a little finesse, it airs during the Super Bowl — but to hear it from the judges, Shane Black had just walked in and sold ’em Lethal Weapon. ”Can you pitch my next film for the studio?” Ratner gushed. ”Let’s give him the money!” boomed Marshall. ”That’s how good your pitch was. It made me take my wallet out.” And crazy Uncle Garry (so he’s gonna play Paula?) actually took his wallet out.

Once there were a mere 36, the judges sent them out in teams of three to make a two-and-a-half-minute short film in the severely impossible time span of 24 hours. It would’ve been a tall order for Spielberg, Coppola, and Scorsese to make a comprehensible two-and-a-half-minute short film together in 24 hours, even back in their ’70s heyday, so you gotta wonder again: In encouraging the creation of slapdash work, might this show accidentally help reveal what’s wrong with Hollywood today?

This new task produced just a bit of sub-Apprentice-level squabbling before it was time to sign off, so we’ll have to tune in Thursday to see what comes of it. Anyway, what did you make of the whole thing? Will you keep watching? I’m predicting the show will pick up when the personalities start to sharpen, but have you got any early favorites?

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