In my last column I wrote about old school avant-garde filmmaker Jonas Mekas’ entrance into the hi tech world of downloads and Ipods. This time I’ll be covering the entirely opposite pole of cinematic production: Hollywood and its ever-growing reliance on the world wide web for promotion and access.
On the Lot, the current Fox reality television program in which aspiring directors vie against one another to ink a Dreamworks picture deal, is exemplary of Tinseltown values not just in its format and subject matter, but in the very aesthetics it rewards.
Executive produced by legend Steven Spielberg and reality show mastermind Mark Burnett, the trouble-laden show (due to slipping ratings it has scaled back to one episode a week) started with fifty directors and has so far accorded them filmmaking challenges to gradually eliminate the worst based on critics’ and viewers’ votes to eventually arrive at a winner.
Due to time constraints, the show must often exclude sizable portions of its contestants’ output, but the On the Lot site can allow its audience the chance to assess the quality of all the directors’ efforts and bypass the standard dramatics of reality tv.
So what can we learn from the site? I wish I could write that in On the Lot the visionaries are misunderstood and the hacks enabled, thereby proving Hollywood doesn’t know true talent, etc., etc. How much nicer to write that, for it would mean the show provides evidence that there are indeed young visionaries within Hollywood’s vicinity, ones unfit perhaps for the show but because of their exposure on it now armed with a chance for greater recognition.
Instead, On the Lot is a field of mediocrity—the majority of directors chosen for the show keep safely within conventional filmmaking parameters, and most of the ones that don’t aren’t very good. Venturing through the site episode by episode can be a dispiriting experience.
Granted, the show’s confusing, somewhat unfair format seems not to play to many of the directors’ strengths. In the first audition round, for example, 50 semi-finalists were given loglines they had to expand into a full story. In the next round, the remaining directors had to collaborate in threes to produce a short on the theme of “Out of Time”. And in the final audition round they were told to direct a page from a given script (to add to the general formlessness of the show, these last clips and their evaluations were not aired).
These are hardly conditions conducive to well thought-out creativity.
A victim of sloppy formatting—the byproduct of typical reality show emphasis of drama over craft—On the Lot is also calculated: it is making absolutely certain contestants play the Hollywood game of producing genre clichés and easy-sell pitches by forcing them to showcase, in what essentially amount to short commercials, their ability to pour new wine into old bottles.
Whatever the case, the films are in the same line as the bland results of the audition round: Will Bigham and Zach Lipovsky have deservedly emerged among the show’s “Top 3,” but in general the films have tended toward cavemen with sports cars, Jewish in-laws, nightmarish blind dates, action movie send-ups/tributes, and drunk aliens.
This isn’t to say that some of these films aren’t fine for what they are, but what they are is irredeemably slight, and that’s exactly what young, fresh-eyed filmmakers shouldn’t be.
Stripped of its runtime-padding histrionics, the On the Lot website offers its directors’ films without the unnecessary hoopla, hoopla that only serves to obscure the issue—that many of America’s next Spielbergs are without the imagination to properly assume that title.