I have never watched Project Greenlight. When I got the assignment to write about it, I had only heard murmurs about it and had no idea what it was about. I was completely uninitiated and was going in completely blind. Starting any television show at the beginning of the fourth season might be difficult, but since it was a reality TV show I figured it wouldn’t be too hard to drop in. I purposefully did as little research as possible to see if I could view it with completely clear eyes.
Project Greenlight, for those of you who are like me two hours ago, is a reality TV created by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck in which filmmakers submit their short films to be judged by the two superstars and a panel of other industry experts. One winner is chosen from the hundreds of submissions and is given a script to direct over the course of the season. I tell you all of this because it was not obvious that this was the format until the last five minutes of the show. Perhaps I should have done some research so I would have been a little less confused going in. But it turns out it’s been off the air for ten years. So maybe I wasn’t the only one confused. Oh, well. Here are some thoughts.
1. For the uninitiated, the format is unclear
As I mentioned above, there was not any clear outlining of the format for those who had never seen the show before. I guess the assumption is that people watching would be familiar with the show and rehashing the format would be wasted space in an already overstuffed premiere. It makes for exceptionally interesting viewing. Almost every other reality TV competition show has a host who gives you the elevator pitch of how the show works at least twice an episode, and more on the premiere. But I guess this show is going for something a touch more highbrow than, say, Face/Off (which is an incredible show, for the record).
2. Of all the comedy teams, why the Farrely Brothers?
The script that is being produced is a broad comedy, which they go out of their way to mention over and over. The mentors for the project are none other than the Farrely Brothers, the comedy team behind such films as Dumb and Dumber and There’s Something About Mary. Granted, they are successful creators of broad comedies, if by successful we are measuring box office revenue. They are also the creators of such films as Shallow Hal, The Ringer, Stuck on You, The Three Stooges, Fever Pitch and Hall Pass. These are not exactly films to hold up as exemplars of good comedy. Why not go with somebody like Kevin Smith, a good friend of Affleck and Damon? Or Judd Apatow and Co.? Even Adam McKay and Will Ferrel? Or Christopher Guest! Okay, so some of these guys are not broad comedy directors, but they’re certainly better than the Farrely Brothers. Maybe I’m just being a snob…
3. A smart way to adjudicate winners
Each of the top ten contestants are given a script and have to produce it using their own unique voices. This is a very smart way to weed out anybody who would have an uninteresting take on a broad comedy and maybe just had a stroke of luck with their submissions. It’s basically asking them to do what they’re going to do for the rest of the season on a small scale. It’s a good idea. I just wish we, as viewers, could have seen more of what they made.
4. This is fascinating, but is it conducive to good TV?
I’m really glad this show exists. Often on reality TV competitions, drama and bravado are rewarded over substance. In this show, talent is king. Matt Damon goes out of his way to say this. The only thing they can judge on is their merit. This is great. But the format of the show is such that for the rest of the season, we’re going to be watching somebody tangle with the minutiae of filmmaking on a day-to-day basis. Is that really something compelling to people who aren’t involved with film?
5. The editing is not great
Speaking of people involved in film, the editing on this show is weirdly subpar. There are awkward cuts, people cut off mid-sentence, unresolved conversations. The few clips we get of the filmmakers work is maddeningly short and leave us wanting to watch that instead of watching the panelists talking about how great the films are. There are things that could have been left out, but the way it was edited, everything feels truncated and rushed.
6. This episode tries to do too much too quickly
We meet the panelists as they try to winnow down the hundreds of submissions down to twenty. Then they select the top ten of those. Then they meet all the filmmakers, who give them their elevator pitch. Then they talk about who they like the best. They each pick who they want. Then they come to a decision about the winner, who turns out to be the righteously snobby Jason Mann. Then he gets his award and the episode is over. They should have started with the top ten and gone from there. There was just way too much and it moved like lightning.
7. These aren’t reality TV stars
They are filmmakers. Who are just like people. Which is to say: they are all different. Some of the people we meet are less interesting than watching paint dry. Some of them are so awkward it physically hurts you. It’s very interesting to watch people on TV who are vetted purely on merit and not personality. Because some real mannequins can slip through the process. It makes for interesting psychological study. Not so much for gripping television.
8. The conversation about diversity was very well handled
During the selection process, Effie Brown, one of the panelists, makes the case for a filmmaking duo, one of which is a woman and the other a recent Indian transplant. She points out the necessity for diversity in the film world, but Damon quickly points out that while they might have an interesting and important perspective, they were not the strongest candidates. The show then goes out of its way to have an intense and deeply emotional conversation about the necessity of diversity in filmmaking, but not allowing the desire for a new or marginalized voice to outweigh the need for pure talent. Matt makes an excellent case for advocating for diversity during the actual filmmaking process, rather than for the purpose of the television show itself. It’s a conversation I never would have expected on a reality show. And I’m thrilled it’s there.
9. They are setting themselves up for a great deal of conflict…
The contestant they finally pick is Jason Mann, an auteur filmmaker who is more than a little bit of a jerk. During his interview with the panel, he consistently trashes the script and insists that he have complete creative control in re-writing the script. This does not go over well. But they still pick him because, as is consistently brought back up, he is the best filmmaker in the room. Based on the few clips we saw, he seems to have a Coen Brothers style aesthetic: drab colors and humor so dry it’ll turn to dust if you blow on it. He pulls Affleck and Damon aside immediately after he wins to basically give them a list of demands. Ho, boy.
10….But that’s the reality of the filmmaking business
Then again, it’s pointed out that filmmaking isn’t about hugs and liking everyone. It’s about having a vision and getting the vision on the screen by whatever means necessary. If that’s what they want, Mann is the man. It’s also no coincidence, I’m sure, that his brusque attitude and infuriating snobbery will make for extremely watchable television. Oh, well. I guess it was only a matter of time that HBO went the way of Bravo. I guess I should embrace it.
Tags: Ben Affleck, jason mann, Matt Damon, project greenlight