Everyone with half an ounce of observation skill has probably noticed that most of the truly successful directors to release films in Hollywood have been filmmakers who have started in the Independent arena. If you look at the last thirty years, you’ll see a pretty good snapshot of the rise of the Independent director in Hollywood, starting with folks like George Lucas and his mentor, Francis Ford Copolla. (Although both of these came from film school, they created a power structure that wasn’t in keeping with the traditional Hollywood establishment.) In the ‘80’s, a semi-truck-driver-turned-director named James Cameron rose to prominence directing movies about robot assassins. Eventually, as we all know, he directed a love story on sinking ship that became the highest grossing film in history. Sam Raimi was a goofy Indie horror director that ended up helming one of the most successful comic franchises of movie history, while another Indie horror director set records with his interpretation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. These are just a handful of names and don’t even touch on the most common ones we all reference on a daily basis, like Kevin Smith and Robert Rodriguez.
With this in mind, it is in Hollywood’s best interest to always keep a steady supply of Indie filmmakers flowing through their gates. Unfortunately, employing Independent filmmakers is always like playing Russian roulette for Hollywood.
The most common way for Hollywood to recruit filmmakers to date has been through large film festivals like Sundance. Unfortunately, the problem with this method from Hollywood’s perspective is that directors have usually learned all sorts of bad, Independent habits by the time their films reach these big festivals. By the time most filmmakers have mastered the art of filmmaking on no-budget to the point that they’re successfully making high-quality, viable films, they already have an entire crew of no-budget people they have learned to rely on to do it. This means that, if Hollywood embraces filmmakers like this, it inevitably embraces the entire gypsy clan of crew and production people that come along for the ride. This clan of Independent cast and crew are then more likely to be used by this new director in his next film. This means that fewer Hollywood people are used in the film and the director feels less reliance on the studio system, even if the new film is funded by a studio. This sort of mentality leads to filmmakers who do not play the Hollywood game the way the studio system intends it to be played. Worse yet, as Robert Rodriguez and George Lucas have shown, some Indie filmmakers realize they don’t have to make their films in Hollywood’s locations and go settle in ranches far away. They realize that Hollywood needs them more than they need Hollywood.
So, then, how does Hollywood bring in Indie filmmakers who can act as new blood, yet not have them behave like Independent islands in the Hollywood ecosystem? Well, unknowingly, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck gave Hollywood a great sociology experiment. For Project Greenlight, they took a single writer and plugged him into a Hollywood setup as a director, but forced him to rely on all Hollywood people to make his film a reality. Unfortunately, the stress of learning to direct and learning to play Hollywood games for a feature he was passionate about was so great for him that the experiment proved to be a failure. For Season 2, they tried to bring in an Indie directing team with an Indie writer who could act as support from outside of Hollywood but whom they had done no previous work with. Unfortunately, while the directors knew how to direct on no budget they quickly became very distrustful of the Hollywood studios and, since they didn’t trust the Hollywood people around them, they even turned on their own writer, despite the fact that she was from the Indie world as well. Again, a failure at transfusing Indie blood into the Hollywood machine, this time nearly causing a hemorrhage in the system as a few of the Hollywood producers behind the show seriously considered getting out of the producing game because of it. Season 3 of this Hollywood sociology experiment never made it to DVD and is impossible to find now, which pretty much shows you how well this final experiment worked. (The only remnant of the show you can even find online after Season 3 are oath-sworn comments from the show’s creators that they will never attempt to resuscitate the Project Greenlight series again.)
Okay, so if I am the Hollywood studio system, what would the answer be? Well, I would find a way to get no-budget filmmakers to compete in a show that allows current Hollywood directors to focus their efforts to make more commercially viable work. Along the way, I would make them work with Hollywood production teams to create short films on a suicidal schedule with no sleep. The harder they work and the less they sleep, the more they would absolutely have to rely on the production crew put around them in order to stay sane. By the end of the show, the pressures of such a system would have conformed at least three to five ready made directors that know exactly how to work in the Hollywood system without making ripples. Maybe they retain their Indie uniqueness, maybe they don’t, but they certainly will have forgotten how to make movies without the studio system, which means that they are the perfect blood transfusion.
Plus, I would cherry pick the producer of the original competition reality show, Survivor, to oversee things on the show and team up with the network that created the wildly popular American Idol to distribute the show. Then, at the end of the show, the American people would have helped choose these directors, which means they would be more likely to shell out $9-$10 in the theaters to see these directors’ films. And, even though only one filmmaker “officially” wins, the top five or six are easily a safe bet for I and my fellow studio execs to give some of our smaller films. What’s more, even though these five or six directors now know how to make films seamlessly in the Hollywood studio system, they still think that a million dollars is a lot of money. This means that I have Hollywood trained directors who don’t believe they’re entitled to $200 million to make their next film.
What do you know? My hypothetical scenario for creating a seamless blood-transfusion for Hollywood bears an uncanny resemblance to the setup for On The Lot.
Well, does that mean that I think that On The Lot is a scam or a bad idea? Actually, no. Believe it or not, I’m not against it. I do believe that some of the most creative elements of filmmakers have the potential to get worn away by the process On The Lot seems to be using, but some of the biggest stumbling blocks can get sanded off, as well. After all, many of the comments that the panel of directors and producers they’ve chosen to judge the show make are very valid points about film cohesiveness and knowing who your potential audience is.
With that said, if you understand what you’re trading for an American Idol-style success in movies, then trying out and participating in the show is a calculated risk. If you don’t make the cut to the top 50, you probably will be no worse for wear and will probably have learned some valuable tips along the way. (Additionally, a contest like this can serve as a good motivator to make a short film you’ve wanted to. One of our extremely talented readers ended up making an entirely new short film in six days to prep for the show.) If you make it to the top five or six spots, you probably have a good shot of making in the Hollywood studio system and will probably have made enough of an impression on the studio system that they will give you a shot, at least with a smaller film. (Considering that the grand prize is only a $1 million film deal from Viacom/Paramount/Dreamworks, it’s quite conceivable that the “losers” of the show could get a small film of just $10-$20 million from another studio conglomerate!)
However, the group of filmmakers that make this such a calculated risk are the ones who fall just shy of the top five or six spots. These filmmakers could easily find that they’ve been ruined for no-budget filmmaking because they’ve gotten used to the Hollywood studio way of doing things, but have not proven themselves to be enough of a safe bet for Hollywood to want to give them a shot on directing a film. And of course, the other calculated risk, at least for Season One, is whether or not the Hollywood studio system will show as much support for winners and high placers of this show as the Record Industry has for winners of American Idol.
From my perspective as a filmmaker, my suggestion is that we let the first couple of seasons show us what these filmmakers are being taught and where their careers go after that. (Especially since with record numbers of show cancellations in recent years from many TV Networks—like CBS’ popular show Jericho—a few seasons are necessary to make sure that there is a Network commitment to the show, as well.) Once that information is more firmly in hand will we know just what effect this new social experiment could have on us as filmmakers and whether it’s the sort of experiment whose likely results are worth the risk.