How good is Steven Spielberg, really, for a young up-and-comer’s career?
Ask Will Bigham, winner of the 2007 Fox reality show “On the Lot,” who counts Spielberg as a mentor and Paramount chief Adam Goodman as a “big fan.”
Bigham’s TV triumph earned him a two-year development deal with DreamWorks, then owned by Paramount, worth $1 million. It also led to the founding of his own production shingle, Shamrock Motion Pictures.
Yet five years later, Bigham, a 36-year old Texan with a wife and two kids, is just now directing his debut feature, the teen comedy “The A-List,” on a shoestring budget of less than $1 million.
“I had stars in my eyes after that show where I thought, ‘Sure, I’ll be directing a feature soon,’” he told TheWrap.
Bigham had reason to believe “On the Lot” would be transformative for his career. Spielberg, Mark Burnett and David Geffen executive produced the show. Similar to Ben Affleck and Matt Damon’s 2000 series “Project Greenlight,” “On the Lot” tasked the contestants with writing, casting, filming and editing short films in a matter of days.
Bigham beat out 17 other aspiring filmmakers in the competition, and at the end Spielberg and Goodman, then president of production at DreamWorks, were waiting for him.
The filmmaker behind “Jaws,” “Schindler’s List” and the “Indiana Jones” franchise had this to say about Bigham at the time:
“Your first feature film, when you get it all ready, you're going to think it's a cakewalk compared to what you've been through. I loved the films you made. I saw of course all the films you made … you've got wonderful craft, you've got a great sense of comic timing, and I think … you're just a real filmmaker.”
That’s when Bigham’s troubles started.
In spite of its impressive pedigree, almost no one watched “On the Lot.” Fox canceled the show after a season — in spite of its attempts to use the network’s most successful shows to promote it. “On the Lot” debuted after “American Idol,” then aired after “So You Think You Can Dance” and later screened before “House.”
The short-lived reality show elicited laughter or confusion from many Hollywood executives, though there are those who remember it well.
“Half of America couldn’t understand it because it was such an inside industry show,” Doug Draizin, Bigham’s manager, told TheWrap. “But I thought he did a great job.”
So did Spielberg, Goodman and several others — which is why Bigham thought he had it made. Both Spielberg and Goodman were unavailable to comment for this story.
DreamWorks, then owned by Paramount, awarded him that two-year development deal, and ICM took him on as a client. He had $1 million for his own salary, his staff (of one) and overhead. He also had discretionary money to pursue projects for his new company, Shamrock.
Belying the suggestion of luck in the name, the launch of Shamrock was beset by poor timing and misfortune.
Bigham’s arrival at Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment facility all but coincided with the writer’s strike, and for several months he was stuck in neutral.
“I couldn’t pitch any projects to DreamWorks because they couldn’t buy,” Bigham told TheWrap. It did, however, give him time “to explore the town, meet people and get to know the system better.”
It wasn’t just bad timing that plagued Bigham. Being an inexperienced filmmaker thrust into an awkward position as a producer for a prestigious studio didn’t help either.
“The first year he was still in shock,” Draizin, who manages Bigham with business partner Val McLeroy, said. “It’s the equivalent of winning the lottery and moving into a rich neighborhood, trying to go to the tennis club and fit in.”
Then, as Bigham started to acclimate himself, poor timing again reared its ugly head.
Not long after the writer’s strike ended, DreamWorks negotiated its exit from Paramount. Spielberg and company took a few deals with them, but the rest stayed at Paramount — including Bigham.
Paramount eventually optioned one of Bigham’s pitches, an offbeat romantic comedy titled “Honeymoon First.” But it remains “in development” and would need both a substantial rewrite and a major actor to sign on before it can exit Hollywood’s equivalent of purgatory.
Bigham said the greatest benefit of “On the Lot” was the doors that it opened. While he says none of those doors have closed, Bigham had to take editing jobs to pay the bills while writing and looking for projects to direct.
“I couldn’t put anything up on its feet,” Bigham said. “I was desperately searching for something with my sense of humor that I could run with.”
That day finally came this year with “The A-List,” which 26-year-old screenwriter D.J. Halferty first wrote a draft of seven years ago.
Halferty and his fellow producers were speaking with Draizin about a different script, but when he, Kevin Callies and the others (pictured left) locked up more than $600,000 in financing for “The A-List,” he sent the script to Draizin.
Draizin immediately suggested Bigham, closing the deal within two weeks.
The film chronicles a high-school big shot brought down to size by a guidance counselor, who forces him to perform various activities in order to graduate.
“It’s very satirical,” Halferty told TheWrap. “It parallels Hollywood because in my opinion, Hollywood and high school are the same thing.” But, he added, “We’re not calling out Hollywood but people, whether in Hollywood or anywhere, who care about status.”
Bigham signed on because he was drawn to the offbeat tone of Halferty’s script. Though he said his immediate goal is to elevate the teen comedy genre, his success in doing so cold be the deciding factor in elevating his career as a whole, netting the directing jobs that seemed imminent five years ago.
“D.J. has a slightly twisted sense of humor that matches mine exactly,” Bigham said. “I knew I could take this ball and run with it. I could take something normally just big and broad and brash, and look at it from a different lens.”
"The A-List” still faces an uphill climb, needing some play at film festivals and positive word of mouth to secure theatrical distribution. If not, it’s likely headed for some kind of digital outlet, an increasingly popular and logical option for independent fare.
Whether it strikes gold, Bigham has broken through a major Hollywood hurdle — a first feature.
“For any director there’s a stigma if you haven’t directed a feature,” Bigham said. “After this I’m no longer a first-time filmmaker and I’ll have that in my back pocket.”
Before Bigham headed up to Portland he emailed Spielberg, who was “thrilled.”
“He continues to give me advice,” Bigham said. “He’s an amazing guy, and that’s by far the greatest prize I’ve had.”