There’s a degree of irony in the ample time devoted to the art of pitching creative ideas in “On the Lot,” since it’s hard to imagine this ill-conceived Fox reality show was sold on anything more than the “Steven Spielberg meets Mark Burnett” marquee billing. This awkward mish-mash owes as much to Burnett’s “The Apprentice” as to the little-seen “Project Greenlight,” and the premiere’s weak opening ratings, despite an “American Idol” lead-in Tuesday, don’t bode well for a boffo network run.
Unwieldy in both template and execution, “On the Lot” is another competition formula that began with a staggering 50 contestants and whittled them down by only 15 or so over the first hour. The sheer tonnage prevented developing much interest in any of the hopefuls or gaining a sense regarding what about their film shorts earned them a “trip to Hollywood” among 12,000 submissions.
Instead, we saw them loaded onto a bus (if only the damn thing had to go faster than 50 miles an hour) and taken on the Universal Studios tour (whoopee), where they were briefed by host Chelsea Handler before being handed over to judges Garry Marshall, Carrie Fisher and Brett Ratner.
What, Spielberg couldn’t be troubled to say hello at least? It’s not like he has a long pedestrian commute from Amblin.
The introduction gave way to a sort-of audition process pitching a variety of predetermined script ideas, before splitting into groups to produce short films in — get ready, “Apprentice” fans — a mere 24 hours. The last survivor will receive a $1 million development deal at DreamWorks, or roughly the craft-services budget on “Transformers.”
Frankly, the judges’ banter is the show’s only semi-distinctive element, but the whole exercise begins from a flawed supposition — that people are so fascinated with the moviemaking process itself, they simply can’t get enough. There’s also something slightly off-putting about the level of self-aggrandizement underlying the premise — the reminder that Hollywood isn’t quite as simple for silly, star-struck novices as it might look.
Even with tougher-than-usual “Dancing With the Stars” competition, the precipitous drop in the second half-hour suggests viewers pounced for the remote like a raptor in “Jurassic Park.” And while summer ratings expectations are relatively modest, unless ratings improve or at minimum stabilize quickly, Burnett’s latest twist on the dog-eat-dog competition format could saddle the genre with another high-profile failure.
The looming question, then, is how long Fox will sit tight before it either yells “Cut” or moves “Lot” from TV’s multiplex to its arthouse circuit. Given the producing stars involved, that backstage jockeying may actually be the best drama this show can muster.