PROJECT GREENLIGHT - Complications Ensue
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Saturday, July 16, 2005

I watched the first episode of Project Greenlight (episode 1.01). It was, I dunno, kinda creepy to me. Why? Lemme think.

The whole premise of Project Greenlight is to give people a chance to direct a picture without going through the long hard slog that almost everyone has to go through in Hollywood -- unless they're born into it, went to school with people who were born into it, or are preternaturally sexy and charming. They write a movie that can be made for a million bucks. Shoot a bio video. Shoot one of the scenes in their script. Your fellow writers grade your script -- that gets ten thousand scripts down to 250. Industry pros judge the bio videos -- that gets you down to ten people. Then it's up to Ben and Matt and Miramax.

The weird thing about Project Greenlight is that, contrary to the "you have to know someone" rap, there are ways into the biz. First of all, you don't need a sale to get an agent. You need a hook to get an agent to read your script. You have a great script, you'll get an agent. The reason most people can't get an agent without knowing anybody is they don't have a great script.

(Arguably, it is very hard to write a great script without working in the biz. But it is not that hard to work in the biz. You just have to put up with a huge amount of crap for low wages, and be really dedicated. My first job was with a real screamer. Fortunately I'm arrogant enough that I never took the screaming much to heart. I figured it was, y'know, his problem.)

What Project Greenlight is about is a great script that can be shot for one million dollars (insert pinkie into mouth). It is extremely hard to write a good million dollar script. Unless you're going the genre route, which is not going to win you any prizes from your fellow would-be writers, you're in the land of cheapass comedy (Clerks) and people-talking-in-rooms drama.

Again, if you had a hysterically funny comedy script that can be shot for a million dollars, you can get it set up in about two seconds. And land yourself a gig on a sitcom in the next two seconds. It is very, very hard to be hysterically funny on paper.

That leaves people-talking-in-rooms drama. Which is not usually what Hollywood is looking for. But there are fleets of independent producers looking for a drama that will attract talent for less than their usual whopping fee. When I was a development executive, Lord knows I would have read any script that came my way if it (a) had a hook and (b) could be made for a million bucks. Many actors won't go below their quote, but just as many successful actors divide their careers between big things-go-boom movies and roles they can shine in ... because they really do want to act, and because agents and producers and casting directors watch small budget dramas to see who can act without a gun in their hand. If you have a name actor, you can finance a million dollar picture. Half a name, even.

So what niche is Project Greenlight trying to fill, exactly? Are the odds any better in Project Greenlight than sending query letters to agents?

I can tell what dream Project Greenlight is selling. The contestants are people who mostly aren't in Hollyweird already. They have day jobs. They write their screenplays at night, in Middle America. They have kids. Project Greenlight could jump them past all the assistants and receptionists and messengers beavering away in LA trying to make their own break. Project Greenlight is the Big Lucky Break. Don't spend ten years in LA until you can walk the red carpet. Walk it now.

Exciting. Moving. It makes great television. But I'm sort of tempted to quote the French military attaché watching the Charge of the Light Brigade: "C'est magnifique. Mais ce n'est pas la guerre."

Hollywood is not really about a newcomer getting to direct their first script. It's about people honing their craft. Robert Rodriguez was making one cheapass short after another before he made El Mariachi. Just read his book, Rebel Without a Crew. Spielberg's short Amblin' made a big noise, but he'd been making super-8 movies since he was 8.

The guy I felt was onto something wasn't the winner -- I haven't seen that part yet, though I read that the movie he made wasn't specifically too amazing -- but the guy whose script Miramax was interested in. Whether he sells it or not, he'll get to hone his craft.

Hollywood is about a newbie director getting to direct her fifth produced script -- after she's seen what other directors did to her first four scripts... or it's about a not-so-newbie getting to direct his first feature-length movie based on the five hundredth script he's read, which he managed to option, after doing ten or twenty shorts, some of which won awards. Woody Allen was a tv writer, then an actor, then a director. Billy Wilder was a writer first, then a director. You have to be crafted at one thing before you can jump to doing two things.

Most people can't do two things well, anyway. I wouldn't hire me to direct anything. One of these days I may write a million-dollar movie, and you can bet I'll insist on directing, 'cause hell, I went to film school, and I've directed five or six shorts, but who knows if the results will be any good. It would certainly be a better movie with someone else directing... and I haven't even written the script yet! The script I care about most, I want my buddy Erik Canuel to direct. I know story. He's got an eye.

Directing is not something you can do right out of the box. You can write on your own. Very hard to direct on your own. None of the Project Greenlight writers seem to have directed anything before. So they're practically guaranteed to fail in the director's chair.

And that's fine. But what's creepy about Project Greenlight is the fanfare. These people are given the red carpet before they've really earned it. When Kevin Smith got the fanfare for Clerks he'd earned it and he was ready. But what's creepy isn't the likelihood of losing. It's the consequences of losing. When you get the fanfare and you've earned it, and then fail, you can always fall back on whatever got you there. If you're an actor or writer directing your first movie, you can always go back to acting or directing. If you're a commercial director you can go back to commercials. To bring these folks to LA and then send them back to their day jobs at K-Mart, for Pete's sake, seems kinda cruel.

But hell. That's showbiz, Punky. Right?

UPDATE: Moviequill, I agree about the break. My problem is it's a fake break. No one's going to hire these people to direct. It would be a better contest if you took the directing out. Have people vote on each other's scripts and the winning script gets shot by, say Jonathan Demme. I think that would be a better contest.

UPDATE: Really great comment by Dave Fogerson below, breaking down the details of the show.

6 Comments:

hi there,

i watched that a long time ago and what i found to be poorly organized
was how on the first day of shooting nobody,not even Chris Moore notices how they will have sound problems due to the fact they're standing right under a TRAIN TRACK!!
So on the first day of shooting,trains pass by every 10 minutes.If memory seves me right,they shot stuff MOS that day right?
and i agree with you about how these people are given the golden ticket to bypass much of the learning filmmaking comes with.The Quebec equivalent would be Star Academie.

I did think his film Stolen summer was ok though.

By Blogger benweaver, at 9:14 PM  

In lots of ways you are right but then Hollywood is not a risk taking machine and so it is but natural that everything is dictated by money.

They throw money to cover up their stupidity for most part {not always} instead of thinking properly and sorting out a movie logically. Pre-production is everything but even the best can make mistakes - i guess.

Who knows what natural talent is when half the people's definition of 'talent' is connected to who you know. All a round circle to chase one's own tail...

By Blogger Amit, at 5:45 AM  

most people writing in Hollywood today all got a break somewhere along the pipeline... Project Greenlight is just one more way to give a break to someone. How many writers living and working in LA were born and raised there? I am going to guess less than 10%, so they all came from all over the place. Us poor schlubs writing up in Buttsville or ElbowRoom (insert State here) are waiting for OUR break, our invite to set up shop in the 9 zipcode area. I commend Project Greenlight for allowing someone's dream to come true, and I'd rather have this kind of reality event happen to me than get my house remade or find a date for my mom

By Blogger The Moviequill, at 8:37 PM  

The crazy thing about Greenlight to me is how wired for failure it is. In the first round, writers are voting on the scripts they are competing against. It behooves them to vote for crap they believe they will be able to trounce.

By Blogger JJ, at 1:12 PM  

Greenlight, more than anything else, is a setup for a reality show, which explains why they were looking for movies to make on the cheap. But some of the winners did wind up getting into the system. Others, sadly, did not.

First season, they had the same poor schmuck writing and directing. Four years later, he's nowhere to be seen, though I heard he's finally shooting another movie.

Second season, they had two contests, one for the screenplay and the other for the director. Much better approach, and in the process of the show, it's revealed that the writer (Erica Beeney) scored an agent because of the notoriety she got from the contest. Since then she landed at least one relatively high-profile assignemnt that I know of (writing the GIDGET movie).

Third season, they delved into the genre waters, specifically asking for horror scripts. Most of the show reveolved around the eccentric director, though it was mentioned that the writers scored an agent and an assignment to write the next HIGHLANDER movie.

AS for the resulting movies, STOLEN SUMMER made about 50 bucks at the boxoffice, I think, and can bee seen in occasionally heavy rotation on the family oriented cable channels.
THE BATTLE OF SHAKER HEIGHTS, which turned out to be a pretty good vehicle for it's star, Shia LeBouf, did a little better, but still went into obscurity.

This was, no doubt, the motivation for the Greenlight people to decide to go into the genre market. A halfway-decent low-budget horror film can make money not just in the theater, but in the video markets as well.

Ironically, FEAST, which is scheduled to hit theaters in January, may be the biggest theatrical hit for Greenlight, but the TV show, having moved from HBO to Bravo, had miniscule ratings. As such, Chris Moore, in his final blog entry for PGL3, speculated that Greenlight is probably dead.

Just read where PGL has been nominated for an Emmy in the Reality Show category. Depending on the outcome of the Emmys, and how well FEAST does in the theaters (one Weinstein Company exec said there was "good franchise potential for FEAST), I wonder if PGL is really dead.

By Blogger Dave Fogerson, at 5:50 PM  

I do know that Moore has dissolved his partnersip with Affleck & Damon and is moving on to directing now...he made the step up. Perhaps the collapse of their production team means the end of the series?

By Blogger The Moviequill, at 1:19 PM  

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