Aspiring auteurs get dose of reality

Spielberg scouting for fresh talent with Fox skein

Steven Spielberg, whose big break came directing the TV movie “Duel,” is turning again to the small screen in an attempt to find the heir to his helmer throne.

Fox has greenlit the reality competish “On the Lot,” from Spielberg, Mark Burnett and DreamWorks TV. Series will pit undiscovered filmmakers against one another as they attempt to win a studio development deal at Paramount-based DreamWorks.

Spielberg won’t regularly appear in “On the Lot” (except for some possible cameos), but he’s already at work sketching behind-the-scenes details for the show.

“All through my career I’ve done what I can to discover new talent and give them a start,” Spielberg said. “This opportunity … allows all of us to reach out directly to open a much wider door.”

The network and show producers were quick to warn that “On the Lot” shouldn’t be described as “The Apprentice: Steven Spielberg.” If anything, the show will be more like “American Idol.”

Sixteen contestants will be split into four teams and given the resources to produce a short film. Each week will focus on a different genre, including comedy, thriller, drama, romance and sci-fi.

For each film, teams will pick a leader to serve as a director. On the first episode of the week — tagged the “Film Premiere” — a panel of judges (including a studio exec and a film critic) will critique the shorts in front of a live studio audience, with viewers ultimately voting for their favorite.

Results will be revealed on the next night’s half-hour “Box Office” episode, and the losing short’s director will be eliminated. Burnett and Spielberg have built in the possibility that an eliminated director can make a comeback at some point in the show.

Competition will continue until there are just two wannabe helmers left. They’ll have to work individually to score the ultimate prize: a meeting with Spielberg and a new office at DreamWorks’ HQ, along with a “healthy discretionary fund.”

Skein continues the relationship between reality maven Burnett and DreamWorks TV, which also collaborated on Sylvester Stallone boxing reality entry “The Contender.” It also appears to erase any lingering bad blood between Fox and Burnett/DreamWorks — which sued each other in 2004 after Fox launched a competitor to “The Contender,” “The Next Great Champ.”

“That seems like ancient history now,” Burnett said of that onetime feud.

Fox is aiming for a first-quarter 2007 launch and likely will use “Idol” as a promotional pad. Burnett said he pitched the show around town, but Fox quickly stepped up to the plate. It helped that Spielberg is said to be a big “Idol” fan — and that the exec producers saw “On the Lot” as a companion piece to that smash singing competish.

“It was a show with great levels of authenticity and purity and love of film, just like the elements that work in ‘Idol,’ ” said Fox Entertainment president Peter Liguori.

Features that come out of “On the Lot” will be produced through DreamWorks, but 20th Century Fox TV has first crack if any of the concepts go into development for the tube.

“To have Mark and Steven Spielberg associated with this, it should be huge,” Fox reality guru Mike Darnell said. “I think movies are very relatable, and most Americans not only have a love for film but think of themselves as movie critics.”

Speaking from France, Burnett said he plans to open up the competition internationally, allowing filmmakers from all over the globe a shot.

“Look at the top films of the past 20 years, and a number of them are not from America,” he said.

The show also will boast a large online component, Burnett said, with voters likely able to review the competition’s shorts. The producers aren’t yet accepting applications, but Burnett said he expects to see a wide swath of contestants, from film school majors to people making movies on the Internet.

“There are so many people creating their own movie content now; it’s far more accessible than ever before,” he said. “At the same time, I foresee the competition to include people who had a bit of a career but never made it. It’s an incredible second chance.”

“On the Lot” comes from Burnett, DreamWorks TV and Spielberg’s Amblin TV. Burnett and Spielberg exec produce, while Darryl Frank, Justin Falvey and Conrad Riggs co-exec produce.

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