Reality check on what it takes to make it big

Among the messages conveyed by television’s onslaught of “reality” programming is the notion that anyone, given the opportunity, can become famous -- as talent, dating and contest shows keep birthing instant stars, even if most tend to go nova faster than the average boy band.

Lately, however, there have been a few reminders that with Hollywood, breaking in is hard to do -- best demonstrated by the awkward flailing of two fellows simultaneously tossed behind the cameras to make a movie and in front of them for our amusement.

That would be Efram Potelle and Kyle Rankin, the directing duo currently featured on “Project Greenlight,” the HBO series that chronicles a film production from unproven writers and directors chosen via an Internet contest. In the latest documentary (at least as it’s been edited), the two come across as inept tackling dummies, stumbling through their assignment each week in what has become a less-than-enticing prelude to “The Battle of Shaker Heights,” a coming-of-age tale due for theatrical release by Miramax later this month.

Departing from all those shows that depict Hollywood as being more about geography than talent, “Greenlight” flashes a red light, in its way saying, “Hey, losers, this isn’t as easy as it looks.” That was certainly true of the film that came out of the first “Project Greenlight” in 2001-02, writer-director Pete Jones’ “Stolen Summer.” Times critic Kenneth Turan spoke for many by calling it “feeble,” proceeding to label as flawed the premise “that anyone off the street is fit to write and direct a motion picture if only they want it badly enough.”

From what TV viewers have seen, it’s hard to imagine “Shaker Heights” is going to be much better, which hasn’t prevented a small but loyal audience from growing addicted to the “making of” show -- proof that watching trains hurtle toward each other is often more fun than viewing the actual wreckage.


Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, who championed the “Greenlight” concept, theoretically drew inspiration from their experience as the Oscar-winning writers of “Good Will Hunting.” Yet more cynical observers see the entire experiment as a case of Hollywood striking back, with Jones, and now Potelle and Rankin, having essentially been set up to fail. A disastrous film shoot, after all, makes for a more engrossing TV show, which is arguably the more significant component when you amortize the film’s puny $1-million budget over a dozen episodes.

An HBO representative said the directors were unavailable, having been too busy with the film to watch the series, which is probably a blessing. On the plus side, they can draw consolation from the fact that their movie will be hard-pressed to match the critical depths plumbed by Affleck’s latest, “Gigli.”

By turning the winners into sacrificial lambs, the series teaches a not-too-subtle lesson to the world’s wannabes that insiders are there for a reason. This idea that succeeding in show business requires more than hunger is similarly reinforced, wittingly or not, by “Gay Hollywood,” an AMC special premiering Monday that focuses on five young men looking for their break.

Although the aspirants happen to be gay, the program’s most interesting revelations hinge on how ill-prepared some are for a career. One wangles a job interview with the TV newsmagazine “Extra,” for example, and is quickly exposed as being unfamiliar with the show -- hardly the way to endear himself to a potential employer.

Even in “reality TV,” most Hollywood stories mirror fictional conventions and end happily -- zeroing in on the heartwarming rise of someone like “American Idol’s” Kelly Clarkson while skipping over the multitudes with their noses pressed against the glass who far outnumber the chosen few.

Some in that well-populated category could be found last week at “TV Producers Boot Camp,” an event sponsored by NATPE -- the TV industry organization whose initials used to be an acronym for the National Assn. of Television Program Executives.

More than 200 attendees, the vast majority from outside Los Angeles, paid up to $460 for the seminar at the Bel Age Hotel, where they were schooled in areas such as how to “network without stalking” and that it’s “about who you know.” Scanning the room, there were enough bald spots and gray hairs to indicate many on hand had kicked around awhile, with most signing a three-page waiver to practice pitching their concepts to seasoned entertainment pros and receive coaching in how to sell them.

Given the long odds, producer Jacquie Jordan used the right analogy by telling the group it “might as well put the $15,000 on black or red in Vegas” as spend that much of its own money on a demo tape for a proposed show. Ellen Sandler, a writer-producer on “Everybody Loves Raymond,” also passed along the reassuring news that TV executives who need to be served up easily digestible ideas are “not stupid. They’re just busy.”

It was hard not to think that any savvy observer of Hollywood could share similar advice for a more nominal fee, starting with the following tip provided free as a public service: Unless your mother or uncle runs a major studio, the best bet for those with a liberal arts background is to surrender now and strongly consider enrolling in law school.

For most of the dreamers, that’s the reality, however appealing it might be to watch contestants from “Survivor” or “The Bachelor” breeze past the velvet ropes.

And while Potelle echoed many a reality contestant by alluding to his “journey” in the latest “Greenlight” episode, shortcuts remain elusive along a road invariably littered with far more also-rans than idols.


Brian Lowry’s column appears Wednesdays. He can be reached at