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Spielberg adds star power but little inspiration to 'On the Lot'

The "On the Lot" finalists must write, direct, and edit a 2 1/2-minute movie during the audition process in Fox's new filmmaking competition series, which is co-produced by Steven Spielberg. (SAM EMERSON/MBP/FOX)

I don't know why I thought "On the Lot" might be something special. I guess I was hoping Steven Spielberg , who co-produced the film making competition with reality-TV pimp Mark Burnett, would bring a vital something or other to the table. Maybe he'd bring more than his brand name and a chance for prime-time viewers to be reminded of the monumental greatness of DreamWorks, the studio Spielberg cofounded (but no longer runs).

Silly me. "On the Lot," which premiered this week on Fox, adds absolutely nothing new to the TV-contest formula. It's a Mad Libs-style reality series: There are film-directing terms -- instead of dancing, cooking, singing, business, or designing terms -- written in all the blanks. The show is yet another iteration of "The Apprentice," which is already near-dead itself, a wrinkled helium balloon hovering a millimeter above the ground. "On the Lot" does what every knockoff reality contest does -- three judges, a lot of humiliation, a little bit of triumph, some product placement -- and it doesn't do it well.

So you know the drill. Fifty people are selected (from 12,000 submissions!) to come to Hollywood (OMG, Hollywood!) to vie for an office at DreamWorks and some production money. One guy is doing it for the folks back home; another sees the contest as his last chance out of obscurity; another has dreamed of directing since he was a baby -- no, wait, since he was a fetus! They go to the Biltmore Hotel (once home to the Oscars!) and stand before the judges, who are Garry Marshall (he's a genius!), Brett Ratner (he's a double genius!!), and Carrie Fisher (she's not a genius, but she's Princess Leia!!!), and they are given instructions for the first challenge: Pitch a movie.

Naturally, we are privy to the worst pitch meetings given by these wannabes, including an excruciating one in which a guy named Mark has a panic attack while Fisher, Ratner, and Marshall wait impatiently for him to find his words. I loved the way the editor of the footage made the painful silences long-longer-longest. Another hopeful decides to wow the judges with his hyperactive presentation, confiding to the camera, "I've got the thunder in my back pocket and the lightning in my front." He winds up making his pitch like a comic bombing at open-mike amateur night. At the Holiday Inn. In Kansas.

We also get to witness two successful pitch challenges, both of which are presented with confidence. But neither of them -- one an animated buddy movie about a rat and a mouse, the other about a priest and his vows -- deserved the kudos lavished on them by the judges. Anyway, Burnett and his team clearly understand that success is less entertaining, and they focus more steadily on the nervous presenters and the nutcases.

I kept wondering if Burnett saw "Project Greenlight," the now canceled moviemaking competition from Ben Affleck and Matt Damon that aired on HBO and Bravo, and envied it. Maybe he said to himself, I'll show them, I'll snag Spielberg and blow viewers away with prestige. Ultimately, we don't know what led to the creation of "On the Lot," but we can safely assume it wasn't inspiration.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at For more on TV, visit


On the Lot

On: Fox, Channel 25

Tuesday, 9-10 p.m.

A new episode airs tonight, 9:25-10