Wednesday, May 23, 2007

A Lot To Take In....

I watched Fox televison's ON THE LOT last night, out of nothing less than morbid curiosity to see who made it to the top 50 contestants on the show. For those of you who haven't seen the promos on air and on the web, ON THE LOT is a "reality television show" (quotes mine) from Director Steven Spielberg and reality television king Mark Burnett (who has given us SURVIVOR and GLOBAL FREQUENCY).

The premise is quite simple: out of 12,000 contestants who submitted short films - 50 directors were chosen to come to Hollywood and participate in a series of challenges to determine the winner of a million dollar development deal with Dreamworks studios. The challenges consist of conceptualizing, writing and producing a short film every week to be judged by celebrity Hollywood judges Brett Ratner, Carrie Fischer and Garry Marshall.

For the most part, the tone was deadly serious by both the contestants (at least in their interviews) and the show's presenter (who read her lines with all the gravity of a death sentence punctuated by striking tones of music. Who said melodrama is dead?). All of the contestants, from various parts of the globe realize this is an opportunity for them to show their craft to "important" Hollywood decision-makers. Now all we need is a leading lady tied to some railroad tracks or a lumber mill's planking saw and we'll be set for a summer serial:

Chapter One:
"The Pitch of Doom!"
.....
Okay, okay. I make light of this, but the fact is that there were a few lessons to be learned by everyone from last night's "adventure." So let me go over what I took away from last night's episode as it relates to my own experience in the industry.

1. You don't always get to pick and choose your projects.

3-4 loglines were handed out to the 50 contestants who were told to come in with their movie pitches the next day. The directors , at first seemed a little flustered at the idea that they wouldn't be pitching their ideas, but someone else's...but hey, that's life. What the judges were looking for was the director's take on material they already own, and the judges were quite specific about the fact they knew the directors had talent, they just wanted to see if they had confidence.

2. You are not the only game in town.

Notice how there were multiple pitches of the same material/concept? Happens all the time, even in the trenches of D2DVD. The judges were looking for the best take on the material - the one that made them want to see the movie. Sometimes your take on it is the one they want, and other times it's the other guy's (or gal's), or sometimes it's a combination of both.

3. When you go in to pitch, they are rooting for you:

Executives want to be "wowed." They want to be impressed by your sensibilities and your talent. They also want to have the confidence to send you up in front of their bosses - because it makes them look good and that's their job. So relax, be prepared and...

4. Know your story:

It was so painful last night watching that guy from Indiana (or that guy from Sanata Monica) fumble the ball because he - a) wasn't confident, b) wasn't prepared, and c) saw the judges as apart from him. He didn't know his story well enough to move it forward and as a result he got stuck in the mud. It was painful to watch because so many of us have been there, wallowing in the swamp of indecision. Take a note card in with you. Refer to it like a roadmap so at the very least you can get your story out of your mouth and into their heads.

(And let's be clear - that's the minimum. You want to get the story out of your mouth and into their hearts and their imagination. That's when the story pitch is sold - when they can "see" the movie you're telling)

5. Keep it simple:

When the director came in and quickly and easily pitched his take on the logline: A catholic priest about to take his vows falls in love with a woman and questions everything (paraphrased obviously). He gave us backkground, characters and a second act in under three minutes, then he gave it a third act crisis that really propelled the movie forward. In five minutes he told a complete story with all the elements required...and more.

There were other contestants who stumbled over themselves trying to put not only their kitchen sink, but their neighbor's into their pitch. It was a confusing mess and again, very painful to watch. I actually had sympathy for the judges at this point. (Insert mad pulp bastard joke here)

It was clear the difference a good, clean, simple pitch makes in communicating what the movie is about. The judges smiled and truly thanked the guy for coming in to pitch. Garry Marshall held out his wallet, indicating he would buy that pitch. I am going to troll later today to see if that footage is up anywhere so I can post it. It's worth looking at.

So, as much as I am loathe to admit it, maybe there are some lessons to be taken away from this show. They are currently into the "film politics" phase of the game where everyone wants to be chief. It will be a good train wreck to watch and learn from...

But understand, this is television and not "reality." Your mileage may vary.

8 comments:

Roger Alford said...

Bill, great take on the show. I cringed when that first guy blew his pitch, and then they just kept getting worse. Like Garry Marshall, though, I was practically cheering when that one guy hit it out of the park. I want to see that movie, too. W

Looking forward to more episodes. So far, I'm liking this set-up a lot more than Project Greenlight where they were set up to fail and have Chris Moore chew them out when they did.

wcdixon said...

Yeah, good take...but felt a little over the top manipulated to 'create' conflict and intensity (or maybe it was just the overuse of dramatic music and quick cuts)...I know its a reality show so ultimately is trying to be entertaining but it seems telling when my daughter who was sitting out of sight of the the tv screen but could hear it asked..."Is that Amazing Race?" I say no. "Survivor?" Again I say no...she shrugs and says..."Sounds like it."

And she didn't come over to watch...

Bill Cunningham said...

Well, Will - to paraphrase the great fictional hero Bruce Wayne, Hollywood is a self-important meldramatic lot...

The drum stings in the music are hilarious and emphasize just how much pomposity you can work into a reality series without even trying that hard...

Here's an idea:

Every time a self-important music sting punctuates a scene, take a drink. You'll either be drunk or running to the bathroom before the first break.

Bill Cunningham said...

Edit to say:

"...a self-important, melo-dramatic lot."

Danny Stack said...

Thanks, Bill. Don't know if it'll be shown here in the UK but I felt I got a good taste of what it was like, plus your insights were great.

Jutratest said...

I totaly dug the show.

Kelly J. Compeau said...

I'm not much into film. Short indies, especially, so I passed on this "reality" show. Thanks for the rundown though, Bill.

John Oak Dalton said...

Hi, Bill;

I blogged it to, and came away with a lot of the same feelings:

johnoakdalton.blogspot.com.


John