Why, Oh Why, Did They Resurrect ‘Project Greenlight’?

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It looked like Project Greenlight was going to get off easy, but now that NBC has pulled the plug on Coach (and seriously, what was that, a Clooney practical joke gone awry?), PG can get its full due as the least welcome/necessary revival of the new television season. And yes, I’m aware that Heroes Reborn exists — but at least that show had one good season back in its heyday, which is one more than Project Greenlight. What on earth possessed HBO to bring back this clunker?

When the series was first announced in 2000, it seemed like a good idea, or at least a marketable one: marrying the burgeoning reality TV genre with the indie movie scene, bolstered by the marquee value of producer Miramax’s golden boys, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. They would oversee the selection of a screenplay for independent film production; the series would detail the making of that film, which would then be a big indie hit, if for no other reason than the attachment of Mattfleck and the hours of free advertising on HBO.

That’s not quite how it worked out. Over 7,000 screenplays were submitted, and obviously Ben and Matt didn’t have time to do that kind of reading — but instead of a panel of judges, Greenlight put each screenplay through a bone-headed “peer-review” process. In other words, the fate of your script was in the hands of other people who wanted their script to win instead, and thus had no reason to vote for yours. (Full disclosure: I went through this process, because, as most filmmakers who get bad reviews suspect, some film critics are themselves failed filmmakers.)

Such a process, unsurprisingly, yielded not the kind of unique scripts that Miramax would normally pick up, but the sort of maddeningly generic non-personality storytelling that would be lucky to play a sub-Sundance festival, and then disappear. So Season 1 (airing from late 2001 through early 2002) ended up detailing the making of Stolen Summer, a twinkly coming-of-age drama from writer/director Pete Jones. And then the bitter, passed-over would-be filmmakers watched as Jones put himself through the incredible ordeal of making a movie for the chump change total of $1.8 million. (I imagined Robert Rodriguez watching those scenes and shooting out his television, Elvis-style.)

It didn’t make for a good movie — or a successful one. Stolen Summer never screened at more than the 13 theaters it opened in, grossing an anemic $134,736 domestically and closing in two weeks. And it didn’t make for particularly good television either, though some viewers enjoyed the tension between wormy Jones and producer Chris Moore, who became something of a Simon Cowell figure. But it apparently did well enough for HBO, which ordered up a second season, debuting in the (not-stolen, hahahaha) summer of 2003.

In an apparent attempt to learn a lesson from Season 1, this time the contest was split into separate writing and directing categories, and with the latter going to a duo, the jobs were thus distributed among three people (screenwriter Erica Beeney and co-directors Kyle Rankin and Efram Potelle). Once again, the results — in terms of the show and the film — were unexceptional; The Battle of Shaker Heights met with mostly bad reviews and box office. (Spin: it grossed twice as much as Stolen Summer!) And, most damning of all, it was one of the first leading roles for a young actor named Shia LaBeouf, a casting decision which is tantamount these days to a war crime.

By the end of Season 2, even HBO wasn’t feeling Project Greenlight anymore, and it took a rather steep step down to a berth on competition-TV haven Bravo. In an apparent attempt to put expectations in check, Season 3 (airing in 2005) was devised specifically for the creation of a genre film; they came up with the horror effort Feast, which did the best of the bunch: $688K worldwide with healthy returns on DVD, prompting two sequels. But the show was over — due in a great part, Moore later admitted, to the quality of the scripts. “We weren’t 100 percent sure discovering screenplays off the internet was really leading toward massively successful movies,” he recently told Vulture. “We did it in sort of that naïve belief that if Good Will Hunting had been out there and we had submitted it to Project Greenlight, then people would have gotten to watch us make Good Will Hunting… And, honestly, we never found the scripts that were as good as Good Will Hunting.”

And that’s apparently the Big Fix for Project Greenlight’s otherwise inexplicable return — this time around, they only hunted for first-time feature film directors, “to film a ‘Hollywood-vetted’ script with an experienced cast and crew.” No doubt this will result in a higher-quality final product; it also defeats the entire purpose of the show, at least if you were naïve enough to believe they were trying to discover new voices and new storytellers.

They’re not, of course; they’re doing a reality television series, where conflict is king, so a first-timer battling Moore, his “experienced” cast and crew, and a “Hollywood-vetted” script will surely result in plenty of tension (and some possibly inadvertent commentary on Hollywood’s white male privilege, but I don’t wanna spoil our recap!). Yet the point stands: if, at the end of its first three seasons, Project Greenlight never managed to convince viewers of any compelling reason for it to exist, its revival is even more of a head-scratcher.

Season four of Project Greenlight debuts Sunday.