Celluloid Dreams Can Come True 'On the Lot'

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The singing stars of "American Idol" and the dancers of "So You Think You Can Dance" owe a debt of gratitude to FOX viewers, whose votes have helped propel them to new careers (or condemned them to return to, and possibly remain in, obscurity).

Now these same viewers get to have a say in picking a future filmmaker, as FOX launches a new reality competition series called "On the Lot."

"People love those shows," says actress, author and screenwriter Carrie Fisher ("Postcards From the Edge," "Star Wars"), who's the "anchor" of the judging panel. "I think they love to participate in someone's success. They feel like they helped make that person who they are.

"They picked them. They put them where they are today, and that's a big deal for people."

Executive produced by reality mogul Mark Burnett ("Survivor," "The Apprentice") and legendary filmmaker Steven Spielberg, "On the Lot" offers the ultimate prize of a $1 million development deal (meaning the winner can use the cash to buy material from which to develop scripts) with Spielberg's DreamWorks Pictures.

Through a Web site called onthelot.com, 12,000 hopefuls from around the world made video submissions. From those, 50 semifinalists come to Los Angeles for a "Hollywood Boot Camp." There, they will pitch ideas to Fisher and her fellow judges, directors Brett Ratner ("Rush Hour"), Garry Marshall ("Georgia Rule") and Jon Avnet ("Fried Green Tomatoes"), and then participate in filmmaking challenges.

At the end of the first two episodes, airing Tuesday, May 22, and Thursday, May 24, the 50 will be winnowed to 18. Then on May 28, a two-hour "Film Premiere" episode features the finalists' first short films. The audience votes, with the results revealed in a one-hour "Box Office" show on May 29. One filmmaker will then be sent home.

The following week launches the regular pattern of one-hour "Film Premiere" episodes on Monday, followed by half-hour "Box Office" episodes on Tuesday.Spielberg won't appear on camera until the very end. "He will be in the last episode," Burnett says. "He'll be giving the keys to the new office to the winner. The public is the final arbiter, but he gives the prize at the end."

Other judges will be announced as the series progresses. "Carrie's going to be the anchor," Burnett says, "and I think (the other three) will come in and out. There are lots of people who want to promote their films, so there are a lot who will come on."

Having signed on at Spielberg's request, Fisher found the task to be harder than she expected.

"The beginning is so tense with all of them," she says. "We were given 50 kids, chosen from 12,000, and we had to get it down to 18. It was devastating for me.

"Like I said to them, 'I don't even like to break up with people. I'll stay with someone for years rather than break up with them, so this is a nightmare.'"

But it wasn't all bad, especially when the contestants set out to shoot their own interpretations of a single page of script. It turns out that even if directors have the same words and even the same actors, the results are very different.

"I have never seen anything like it in my life," Fisher says. "When would there be time to do something like this? Maybe in film school."

As to whether this might make viewers appreciate the unique contribution of the director, Fisher says, "I don't think I've ever appreciated a director this much. I've worked with some fantastic directors, but this, it's extraordinary. It's not like a contest show where people are showing off their various talents. People are talented, yes, but it's talent based on skill. Different skills that you have to have in order to direct.

"There's editing; operating a camera, some of them; cinematography, some of them; visual effects, some of them."

Fisher also isn't too worried that all of the eliminated contestants will just fade away.

"Anything is possible with effort," she says. "But these kids, some of them, whether they win this, working with Steven or not, they will work as directors in this industry. They will. They're that good, some of them."

With all this raw talent on display, additional factors also come into the judging. Since a director must work with other people to finish a film -– despite perceptions to the contrary, even the most celebrated auteurs don't make movies all by themselves -– social and managerial skills are important.

"Everybody can't pass," Fisher says. "So it's part of how you judge them, horrifically. It's based a little bit on how you hear they're getting along. Part of the show is shooting them in their sleeping environment. They're living in some sort of dorm environment.

"So they follow them around as they're writing and coming up with their ideas, doing everything. And we visit them on the set. It's partly their work and partly how they work with others."

As with any actor, Fisher is well-acquainted with rejection, and it was hard to be on the other side.

"You have to let certain people go. It's horrible, horrible! It's a really good learning experience, if nothing else. This is really intense, and they cry."And, win or lose, the filmmakers achieve something that is an unrealized dream for many of their cohorts.

"Your films are getting seen," Fisher says. "It's amazing. They're going to show their short films, so that's a tremendous opportunity no matter what."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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