Built for Bad Movies

Project Greenlight

After more than 10 hours of Project Greenlight — at about the halfway point of the second season — Chris Moore’s chair collapses.

If you’ve never seen Project Greenlight, this means nothing to you. But if you’ve had the experience of watching this degraded Bill Clinton clone (he’s missing the libido, the smoothness, and about half the intelligence), you know this might be the funniest thing ever captured on film or video. It’s America’s Funniest Home Videos, yes, but with context: You’ve suffered through his boorish behavior delivered through chummy drawl and marveled at his extreme incompetence as a movie producer and a person, and as a result grown to loathe him as a human being but love him as a character. So when he gets his comeuppance — however small — it’s fucking hilarious.

Best of all, it really happened. And, miraculously, Moore is so oblivious to the antipathy he breeds that he never even considers the possibility that somebody rigged the chair.

Moore is one of the main reasons to watch Project Greenlight, the ingenious, addictive little show that HBO trotted out in conjunction with Miramax in 2001. (The third season is slated to air on Bravo in 2005.) Aspiring filmmakers are given $1 million to make a movie that Miramax will release in (roughly six) theaters.

The caveat is that they have to follow the studio’s standard business practices. The downside is dealing with Moore, who seems to relish inflicting psychic pain more than making movies. The oft-stated (and obviously fallacious) stakes are that Miramax needs the movie to be a financial success for the studio to continue bankrolling Greenlight. The unstated reality is that Project Greenlight will never produce a decent movie until it drastically changes the way it operates.

The main reason is that Chris Moore, beyond being a jovial asshole, doesn’t have the first clue about what would make Project Greenlight movies artistically and commercially successful.

In the 2001 season, writer/director Pete Jones won the contest with his screenplay for Stolen Summer. In 2003, contest bigwigs Moore, Matt Damon, and Ben Affleck recognized that a writer/director home run is a long shot, so they hired screenwriter Erica Beeney for her script The Battle of Shaker Heights, and then tapped the directing team of Efram Potelle and Kyle Rankin.

Stolen Summer was awful, and although I haven’t yet seen the end of Greenlight’s second season or The Battle of Shaker Heights, the first eight episodes are not encouraging.

Chris Moore would have you believe that bad films are a function of a bad script and bad directors. But the problem with Project Greenlight — as an ostensibly altruistic give-struggling-filmmakers-a-break endeavor — is the way it operates. It makes for great television — and wonderful documentary storytelling — but it’s not designed to produce good movies.

Where does it go wrong? Where doesn’t it? From beginning to end, the deck is stacked against quality cinema. An incomplete evaluation:

The selection process. The first Greenlight suffered mostly from the delusion that a talented writer/director is born rather than shaped through practice. Writing and directing are two very different skills, and it is the rare person who does both well. Credit Moore, Affleck, and Damon for figuring that out after a few weeks watching the ineffectual Jones.

But their solution was problematic. For the second go-around, the contests for writing and directing were held concurrently, without much consideration to the fact that the “best” director(s) might not be a good match for the “best” script. Having the directing finalists each film the same vague, de-contextualized scene was a stroke of genius, but a better test would have been to have them film a scene from the winning screenplay. That, of course, would require conducting the writing contest before the directing one.

The studio system. Making backyard movies is a lot different that shooting a film — even a low-budget one — for a studio. At home, you typically don’t have a casting director, a director of photography, an editor, or producers, let alone professional ones. Amateur filmmakers obviously understand the concept of collaboration, but they’ve likely never experienced it in a system with such a defined division of labor. In reviewing The Battle of Shaker Heights, Roger Ebert suggested that Project Greenlight simply give the filmmakers $1 million, and let them spend it how they see fit and do the deed the way they’re used to. That’s one approach, but I’d suggest giving the writers and directors a proper education instead.

No crash course. On the first day of shooting The Battle of Shaker Heights, a crew member called for the second team to leave the set and the first team to come on. One of the directors didn’t know what the “first team” or “second team” was, and that’s because he’s a shoestring filmmaker who’s never worked on a proper motion picture. One cannot reasonably expect respect from cast and crew if one doesn’t even know the terminology.

Project Greenlight needs to give its winners an intensive course in studio filmmaking, laying out their roles, the process, their powers, their limitations, the expectations, and the repercussions for failing to meet them. This might sap a lot of the drama, sulking, and whining out of Project Greenlight, but Project Greenlight would be much better for it.

Jeff Balis and Chris Moore. This dysfunctional duo makes me wonder how any movie gets finished. Balis, the on-set producer of both Project Greenlight movies to-date, looks to be a decent person, and he would be fun to hang out with. As a producer, however, he sucks. He lets the directors flounder without giving them guidance or assistance, and he seems afraid to take decisive action. With such inexperienced writers and directors, he needs to be the movie’s boss. Instead, he leaves that to Moore, who has so little rapport with the winners and spends so little time on the set that his directives merely foster contempt and bitterness.

I offer these observations earnestly, even though I suspect that the people behind Project Greenlight have already considered them. My guess is that they know that it’s easier to make a compelling “unscripted drama” — to use the politically correct term — than a good movie.

That’s a cynical way to look at Project Greenlight, but this is Hollywood and this is Miramax and this is Chris Moore. They’ve earned my skepticism.

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