Pop Culture

Rookie directors vie for Spielberg reality show

Aspiring filmmakers from around the world are vying for one of 16 slots in Steven Spielberg and Mark Burnett’s “On the Lot,” a reality series that Fox will launch in May toward the end of the “American Idol” season.

Ahead of next Friday’s deadline, thousands of filmmakers — from 13-year-old YouTube amateurs and skateboarders with hand-held cameras to a 54-year-old black grandmother in Florida — have posted their shorts at http://www.onthelot.com, which had logged 8 million page views before “Idol” promos boosted traffic sixfold, “Idol” producer David Goffin says.

The ultimate prize: a $1 million development deal with Spielberg’s DreamWorks banner.

Anyone can enter, just by registering on the site, uploading a short less than five minutes long and mailing a DVD copy along with a 45-second intro bio to the show. The rest of us can all participate in this process by watching and reviewing the shorts, awarding them one to five stars, blogging about them and adding friends, MySpace-style, within the “Lot” community.

As she has for Burnett’s reality series “Survivor” and “The Contender,” casting director Michelle McNulty is conducting what Spielberg calls “an exhaustive worldwide search,” which in this case will “give a lot of filmmakers a chance to show us who they are.”

But it’s not just sheer talent they’re looking for, says “Lot’s” co-executive producer Darryl Frank. “We need great personalities for the show and great filmmakers. They have to be both.” Right now, McNulty’s team is narrowing thousands of submissions down to hundreds. Once a month they send a compilation reel to Burnett and Spielberg, who give back notes.

The show might start with more than 16 contestants, Frank says, and then whittle them down in the first three episodes to four teams of four. Each week each team will produce a film in an assigned genre, with one member selected as the director. Once a week there will be a one-hour “Premiere” episode followed the next night by a “Box Office” results show.

‘Idol’ for filmmakers?The producers are hiring two permanent judges from the motion-picture industry, a series of guest judges and a real-life moviegoer to critique the films each week. But the Fox viewers will do the voting on which movies make the cut.

On the “Box Office” show, the losing director will be sent home, leaving that team with fewer people to produce the next movie. As the show nears its climax, the surviving filmmakers will be left to create their shorts alone.

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McNulty’s casting team has created a MySpace page, placed ads in Filmmaker Magazine, reached out to film schools and festivals and distributed fliers at January’s Sundance Film Festival. But the Web site has played an unprecedented role in the casting process. At the beginning, says Frank, the site was “focused on helping us find contestants, but it will grow to have multiple phases,” he says. “It will grow into a community.”

The contestants can live anywhere in the world, but they must speak English. “We have gotten films with subtitles,” Frank says. The volume of submissions, well into the thousands, with more arriving every day, has shocked the producers. And so has their quality. “We expected a lot more YouTube stuff,” McNulty says. “I’m so impressed by what we’re getting in. It’s everything from definite film school students and people who’ve had films in festivals to first-time filmmakers. I’ve been blown away by the first-time movies. Some are beautiful and touching. They’re way better than I thought they’d be.”

Some of the filmmakers come from commercials or music-videos. “We’re more focused on storytelling and narrative filmmakers,” Goffin adds. The 45-second intro bio pieces are as essential to the selection process as the films themselves. “We’re checking off who we like and who we don’t. We’re making sure we cut through a wide swath of filmmakers, not unlike ’American Idol.”’ A broad range of contestants is important, says Frank, who is looking at “the type of films they make, their ages, ethnicity and gender.”

Few women appliedWomen clearly have an advantage because so few of them have applied. “I wish there were more women filmmakers,” McNulty says. “It’s male-driven. It’s like ‘The Contender,’ trying to find the Great White Hope.” Adds Frank, “We have found some great women.”

Actress-writer-cartoonist-filmmaker Michele Seipp hopes she is one of them. She first heard about the show from the Filmmakers Alliance and started calling Fox, DreamWorks and Burnett before Fox launched the Web site. As soon as it went up, Seipp’s comedy short “The Instant Nostalgia Club,” in which she stars and which has aired on IFC, AMC and WE channels, was uploaded almost immediately, she says. (It now takes many weeks for shorts to go up.) “Club” has been watched by 918 people, averages a four-star rating, and Seipp (called Susy Sue on the site) boasts five pages of friends.

The 40-ish Seipp admits that she has no MySpace page and hasn’t done much to publicize herself: “I’m not as computer savvy.” She can’t even stream the “Lot” shorts on her computer; she uses her boyfriend’s. She blogs and networks and has set up two lunches with some of her new Los Angeles area friends, including drag queen Michael Yeah, whose live-action/animated comedy short “Popcorn” has been viewed 5,924 times. “I gravitate toward the best writers, the ones with humor,” she says. “The actor-directors are sometimes the best directors.”

By contrast, San Francisco Realtor John Meredith’s “Boy Trouble” boasts 10,777 views and 15 pages of friends. Meredith has even given awards to his rivals on his blog. He includes his own film on the list, naturally.

While McNulty is assembling a long list of candidates, no final decisions have been made. “Every single film that comes in is watched and reviewed,” she says. “We’re narrowing down all the way to the deadline.” She watches all the movies, which include one cell phone short and several multimillion-dollar shorts starring and/or directed by name actors and reads the blogs, which reveal potential conflicts for the show. Goffin insists the blogs are taken less seriously than judging the filmmakers as storytellers, many of who have already made names for themselves on the Internet. “It’s the next generation of talent,” he says.

Christopher Coppola, brother of Nicolas Cage, is one “Lot” aspirant who has generated controversy, according to Seipp, who says that folks on the site are either trying to suck up to him or knock him down. Many are debating, she says, whether his celebrity family name will make him a controversy magnet for the show.

McNulty declines to discuss any contestants. But she was wowed, she admits, by one guy whose intro included a giant UFO in the sky behind him. “He grabs a bazooka and blows the spaceship out of the sky,” she says, “and then says, ’Here’s my movie.”’

After enduring background checks and in-person interviews to prove that they express themselves well, the selected contestants will be flown to California for indoctrination, Goffin says. “They’ll learn the rules of this wild ride to film stardom.”

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