you're Steven Spielberg and Mark Burnett, I'm pretty sure you don't even need to pitch a network your idea for a reality show. The executive on the other end of the phone simply tells your agent, "Whatever it is, it's 'Yes!' " But were they to pitch "On the Lot" to Fox, it would no doubt have sounded close to this: "OK, babe, here's the deal: 'Project Greenlight,' right? Been done. I know. 'American Idol,' huge huge smash hit. Already on Fox. Big. Big. Major. But 'Greenlight' and 'Idol' ... nobody's ever tried to merge 'em. No one. Ever. Except instead of singing really badly, the people we get do horrible project pitches that we cringe over, that whole Simon Cowell thing. Then when we come to the finalists, rather than doing songs, we have them directing scenes. Omigod, baby -- perfection! We've got art. We've got commercial. We've got the whole shebang."
Again, Spielberg and Burnett are such superstar names that they could have proposed a show about homely women who get plastic surgery and then compete in a beauty contest and Fox would have ordered it. (Oh wait, Fox has already done that one. Never mind.) As it stands, the premiere of the new summerlong, twice-weekly "On the Lot" on Tuesday night was predictably, sometimes distressingly derivative in spite of its creator/executive producer pedigree of Spielberg-Burnett. It was akin to, "I'll take one of those and one of those and a little bit of that, too -- with extra urgency, please. And toss 'em for me, will ya?" The opener played like a highly caffeinated "Survivor," if that iconic Burnett series were transferred from the exotic jungle of Malaysia to the concrete equivalent of Universal Studios. The music in the opener was driving and constant, the situations and interaction contrived, the payoff altogether questionable. But it also is just getting started, so it still could turn into something more intriguing and original. Not that this is terribly likely. The familiar gambit on "Lot" is to uncover an artistic diamond in the rough, a great amateur filmmaker lurking in the shadows upon whom to bestow a $1 million DreamWorks development deal and ultimately the chance to direct a feature. You might recall that a similar strategy from Miramax didn't work out so well on "Greenlight," its winning writers and directors crafting low-budget, low-return theatricals that quickly disappeared (assuming they appeared at all).
Things get started with 50 hopefuls (out of a claimed 12,000 submissions from 33 countries) gathered at the Biltmore Hotel -- because it's where they held the first Oscar ceremony -- and then to Universal to learn log lines that will form the crux of their first story pitch. The logs include stuff like, "A mouse is abducted by a pharmaceutical company as a lab rat and must plan his escape" and "A slacker applies to the CIA as a joke and gets accepted." The resulting pitches in front of incredulous judges Garry Marshall, Carrie Fisher and Brett Ratner are mostly lame, of course, making it easy to weed out the first dozen or so would-be Spielbergs. One guy freezes up completely. Another screws up and is reduced to tears. Welcome to Dweebs on Parade.
The survivors form teams of three to write, shoot, direct and edit a 2 1/2-minute film in 24 hours. Cue music. Cue conflict. Cue meltdowns. We can see the tension already building as the contestants head out to attempt something almost no one does anymore: shoot a movie in Los Angeles. And there will be lots more minimovie tests, we're assured. "Lot" appears sufficiently different from "Greenlight" to distinguish it as something more than a simple rip-off, focusing at the outset on the clashing personalities rather than the process of filmmaking. Yet we're left wondering why Spielberg in particular would be inspired to toss his hat into the reality TV arena at all. For an Oscar winner with unrivaled industry power and clout, doesn't this qualify as slumming?