Matt Damon and Ben Affleck's exercise in competitive glad-handing.
Project Greenlight, the latest guilty pleasure from HBO Original Programming, was intended as a corrective but ends up a delicious exposé instead. The premise of the show is as follows: Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, along with their producing partner from Good Will Hunting, Chris Moore, sponsored a Web-based screenplay contest. The competition was peer-reviewed—to enter your own screenplay you had to read and rate three others; to demonstrate directorial competence, everyone had to submit a homemade video. Tens of thousands of applicants were winnowed down to 10 semifinalists, who were then subjected to rounds of interviews and pitch-style meetings with Damon, Affleck, Moore, and the development mucks from Miramax. The winner received $1 million to direct his or her script, with Miramax guaranteeing distribution. HBO filmed the whole process reality TV-style, from the competition through to the winning film's première.
Project Greenlight was designed to give "access" to someone who, thanks to Hollywood's byzantine system of corporate patronage, presumably couldn't get it otherwise. Throughout the series opener, Damon and Affleck refer to "the Business" like old mobsters grousing about "the Life," implying Hollywood too often green-lights a project for the wrong reasons: to satisfy, oh, nepotism, cronyism, deference, payback, or autocratic whim. If only Hollywood were less clannish and arbitrary, the thinking goes, if only it didn't require such an enormous quantity of Machiavellian guile, dumb luck, or "connections," then more interesting, more offbeat movies might result.
So, who wins Project Greenlight? A thirtysomething white male already living in Los Angeles, trying to make it as a screenwriter. But his film must be pretty cool, something to shatter the expectations of the multiplex? Actually, Stolen Summer is about a 7-year-old boy with cancer, searching for the keys to heaven. Surely this reflects the quality of the pickings, right? They took the best the talent pool had to offer?
Not really. The choice for the winner comes down to two candidates: first,Brandon, a graphic designer from Atlanta with a sweet, slightly diabolical glint in his eye and a T-shirt that read "Shuck Me, Suck Me, Eat Me Raw." Virtually everyone in the room agrees, Brandon's video and script are not just the most original and interesting but also the best: He is the only person to demonstrate competence as both a writer and a director. Pete Jones, meanwhile, is an apple-cheeked family man who has moved from Chicago to Los Angeles to try to make it as a screenwriter. Everyone seems to agree the material Pete has submitted is disastrously "saccharine," filled with one mawkish pothole after another.
So, how do they end up picking Pete over Brandon?Matt Damon is passionate in his support for Brandon, but when he admits his script—a "multilayered story interweaving the lives of a magician and a deaf girl"—is "cerebral" and "distant," you know Brandon is road-kill. OK, so uncomfortable with the unfamiliar or ambiguous, Hollywood green-lights movies that are formulaic and manipulative, that will "react well," in the Pavlovian jargon of market research. We suspected that all along. But that's not the problem: Greek tragedies and Elizabethan sonnets are the products of rigid formulas, too. The real mystery isn't why there aren't more Eraserheads and Last Year in Marienbads, but why there aren't more Cluelesses and Sixth Senses, movies that embrace conventions with ingenuity and delight, then reap the benefits at the box office?
To be fair, there's no recipe for making a good film: You go through three directors and still get Gone With the Wind. Faye Dunaway tosses a cup of warm urine in the director's face, and you still end up with Chinatown. But instead of courting the wild intangibles that make for great film, the Project Greenlight committee gives in to the same weakness for showboating smoothies, the same inanity of overcaution as its putative villain, the studio system. As Robert Altman's The Player had it, a searing look at capital punishment, whose credo is "No stars! No happy ending," inevitably ends with Julia Roberts being rescued from the gas chamber by Bruce Willis.
Can this cliché really apply to a new, sophisticated Hollywood, one that grew up delighting to Altman's masterpiece? Enter Pete Jones. "It's about making the best film," Pete tells Damon, Affleck, et al., leaning forward, starting to mist up. "I'm getting a little emotional, and I shouldn't be—it's about making the best film. It's about you guys screwing the studio system and saying, 'Let's make the best film.' Market the film? Fuck you, who cares. We're making the best film." Project Greenlight reveals one final twist: In a post-Sundance Hollywood, the Establishment is always someone else.
Stephen Metcalf is Slate's critic at large. He is working on a book about the 1980s.
Photo of Ben Affleck, Pete Jones, and Matt Damon by Fred Prouser/Reuters NewMedia Inc./CORBIS.