Fox’s filmmaking reality competition On the Lot is in trouble. Its ratings haven’t been great, prompting the network to retool the show and knock it down from two nights a week to one. The problem is, the retooling has only made things worse, at least as far as the quality of the show. Now rather than being a task-oriented filmmaking show, it’s an American Idol-style exhibition show. After the first week, we haven’t seen any of the behind the scenes stuff, just the short films with very little introduction or explanation, we hardly know the people we’re asked to vote for or any of the parameters of the films they’re making.
Cinematical has a bunch of really good suggestions on how to fix the problems–go back to the task-oriented style, asking them to do different things and test their versatility and abilities; make us care about the contestants by showing us the obstacles they overcame in shooting their films; get guest judges who care about being there, or are at least less abrasive than Michael Bay was last week (I made the exact same comment Tuesday night that they did regarding Bay’s comment on film length); get a host who isn’t a moron; don’t lie to us like they did last week…those were their submission films, not films they did while on the show! The thing that’s strange to me is that the show was much more like this before they retooled. Does that suggest that nobody cares about seeing a filmmaking show? I find that highly unlikely given the popularity of DVD making-of special features and that sort of thing–but maybe I run in circles especially interested in how films are made. That’s quite possible.
Another frustration I have with the show is partially directed at the voting public, but also at the judges. These filmmakers are trying to be directors, right? I mean, the one that wins gets a deal to direct a movie for DreamWorks. And while I understand that writing and directing are closely linked, it seems that they’re being judged far more on their ability to write than on their ability to direct. The judges are constantly jumping on the writing or the story or the concept of the films, rather than the camerawork, the cinematography, the blocking, the set-up, etc.
The three filmmakers that got sent home two weeks ago certainly had problems with their films. Claudia’s film ended up terribly, with a blind date in a bathroom and fart jokes. But watch it and look at the cinematography and use of color in the first half and tell me she doesn’t have a great eye. I would have kept her around just for that. Similarly, the judges thought Phil’s film was derivative in its plot device, but the framing of the shots and use of contrasting lighting was excellent, as was the sense of comic timing. On the flip side, this film was voted one of the top three of the night, and while I thought it was rather inappropriately funny, there’s not much interesting in the directing, except some of the acting cues. Now, directing actors is important, I’ll give him that, but if you want to go that direction, he should have made a little more clear that his character is a nerd, not mentally handicapped. Here are two of the films I think should have gotten their makers eliminated: To Screw in a Lightbulb and Wack Alley Cab. The first one has basically two or three static camera angles, none of which is terribly interesting, and a bunch of actors cavorting chaotically in front of the camera. There’s no cohesion to either the direction or the scenario. The second one was just whack. Really. I have no idea what anything was or what it was doing there. But both these filmmakers are still here.
So, based on that frustration, I have another suggestion for On the Lot, which goes along with Cinematical’s #2, wherein they suggest showing what the filmmaking terms mean. Use the judging segments you have and the behind-the-scenes segments you’ve apparently given up to teach us what good directing is all about. Don’t conflate directing with writing–they’re related, but they’re not the same thing. Don’t tell me that someone who has written a good scenario with good dialogue is therefore a good director, or that a filmmaker who uses the camera, set, and actors brilliantly but doesn’t have the greatest story idea can’t be a good director. Help us as an audience learn, so we can vote appropriately. Because we can’t do it now, apparently, and some of the most interesting and talented people are going to get left behind because we’d rather vote for crazy people in a cab than good cinematography and mise-en-scene (i.e., the arrangements of actors and set properties within the shot).
Go ahead. Call me a film snob.