Reality series 'Lot' not ready for primetime

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Among hardcore film fans, movie directors have become the equivalent of rock stars. As "Transformers" lumbers toward boxoffice dominance next week, director Michael Bay's way with explosives is as much a draw as are the transformative robots themselves. This weekend, animation aficionados will be flocking to "Ratatouille" just because it's the latest film from Brad Bird, whose "Iron Giant" and "The Incredibles" are among the best of contemporary toons.

But even if a handful of directors have achieved rock-star status, that doesn't mean that a bunch of directing wannabes can be turned into the cinematic equivalent of "American Idol," as the current reality series "On the Lot" painfully demonstrates.

The ratings-challenged Fox reality series, executive produced by Mark Burnett of "Survivor" fame along with Steven Spielberg, has barely registered as a blip on the summer entertainment scene. During the week of June 18-24, "Lot" lured in just 2.5 million viewers, while its direct competition, NBC's "Gong Show"-derived "America's Got Talent," somehow attracted 12.5 million.

In part, "Lot's" failure is one of concept. Performers tend to have big personalities that translate to TV, but most of these aspiring but still insecure directors don't yet have the oversized egos that come with mastering a film set. Save for one, Marty Martin, who proclaimed his Spielbergian ambitions, saying, "I'm not here to make small, independent films," sparred with judge Carrie Fisher and was promptly voted off June 19.

But it's also a question of execution. As if taking a cue from "Idol," "Lot" started out as a veritable cattle call, trying to herd along 50 contestants. But unlike "Idol," which concentrates on the freaks and geeks in its early audition shows, "Lot" had a tough time sorting out the individuals -- though there is some diversity in sex and ethnicity, most of the aspirants seemed culled from the ranks of similarly minded mid-20s- to early-30s careerists.

"Lot" quickly began eliminating hopefuls en masse, cutting their numbers down to first 18, then 15. In the face of the faltering ratings, Fox also trimmed the show from two episodes per week to just one on Tuesday night.

Still, where the show seems to have gone astray is that it spends most of its time airing the two- to three-minute films the contestants shoot rather than focusing, documentary-style, on the work process itself. It doesn't offer any of the drama, however ersatz, that "Project Runway" and "Top Chef" feature as those shows follow young designers and cooks attempting to tackle challenges. It doesn't provide any of the nitty-gritty of casting, scheduling and getting the day's final shot done before overtime kicks in that "Project Greenlight" documented. As for the resulting film shorts, they are for the most part just not ready for primetime.

The judges don't help. They have begun to loosen up as the competition has progressed, but they shy away from Simon Cowell-esque cruelty. Occasionally, they almost seem to be at a loss for words.

Nevertheless, a few sparks of talent are emerging. Zach Lipovsky, a 23-year-old special effects editor from Vancouver, has emerged as an FX whiz. But he also displays a visual flair that has served him well whether he's telling a little fable about a girl who captures the sun in her hands -- it played like an outtake from Spielberg's "Amazing Stories" -- or his latest effort, "Die Hardly Working," in which some "Office"-like drones engage in escalating mock warfare.

"Lot" might ultimately serve a purpose, though: If studio guards print out the Web page that features the contestants' mugs and post it at the studio gates, it might prevent at least one would-be Spielberg from sneaking onto a studio lot.
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