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Who needs the stress? He does.

Tampa native Jeff Balis, who played the role of evil producer in HBO's first Project Greenlight series, returns for season two. It was a chance he couldn't reject.

By ERIC DEGGANS, Times Television Critic
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 22, 2003

In show business, as in life, you don't usually go where you're not wanted.

So why did Tampa homeboy Jeff Balis sign up for another edition of HBO's reality TV show about the making of a feature film, Project Greenlight?

Fans of the first edition, which documented the process of making the independent film Stolen Summer, know that Balis often came across as the butt of the production. He was constantly criticized for decisions that seemed to imperil the future of the tiny movie.

Developed as a contest sponsored by film stars Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, Greenlight (named for the moment a studio "greenlights" a film's creation) hands novice filmmakers more than $1-million to make the movie of their dreams.

But the first series documented a nightmarish production, in which Balis was embroiled in a power struggle with another producer and was briefly fired.

It made for compelling behind-the-scenes TV. But it also made Balis look so bad that when Miramax executive Meryl Poster was told that he was returning for the second go-round, she reacted frankly:

"I think it's nuts," she tells the camera next Sunday in the third episode of Greenlight's 13-show run. "I can't believe it."

With that kind of welcome waiting, why do it again?

"Half the people I talked to said, "You'd be crazy to go back.' The other half said, "You'd be crazy not to,"' said Balis, a 1993 graduate of Berkeley Preparatory School, who was raised in the Temple Terrace area. "As much as I took it on the chin, it was my first time producing a movie ... and a lot of people recognized that. (And) I'm not at the point where I can turn down a chance to make a multimillion-dollar movie."

Greenlight returns tonight with an improved formula. This time, instead of picking one person to direct a script he has written, Affleck, Damon, executive producer Chris Moore and a panel of industry types pick a separate writer and director.

Drawn by the buzz of last year's Greenlight, the contestants are even more talented. As proof, HBO peppers tonight's episode with clips of the directors' application reels: Contestants cobbled together daring, often funny short films from a page of nonsensical dialogue provided by Affleck and crew.

The best thing Project Greenlight has done is reinforce the reality of Hollywood's dream factory for a TV public that thinks it knows everything about movies thanks to DVD extras and Entertainment Tonight.

In last year's production, executive producer Moore became the voice of that reality, shattering aspiring filmmakers' (and the audience's) beliefs about what was possible onscreen with cold-hearted assessments of what creativity on film costs in time and money.

In the process, he beat up on Balis - "Not f--- up that bad is not what I'm looking for," Moore angrily told Balis just before pulling him off the Summer production - leading to another question: Is Balis stuck doing this job because no one else wants it?

Nope, said the producer, noting that the two found a better way of working together while making a non-Greenlight film, Speakeasy.

"Chris recognized a more collaborative way of working. ... He stopped trying to attack every minor decision to the point where it was hard to communicate with him," Balis said. "He didn't undermine my authority the way he did on the first (Greenlight) film."

Curiously, Stolen Summer isn't mentioned much during this edition of Greenlight, though Moore seems to make a few dismissive comments during tonight's episode. Balis said he keeps in touch with director Pete Jones, who is making another movie with much of the crew from Summer.

Critics generally thought that Stolen Summer wasn't as bad as Greenlight made it appear. Balis said that the movie's biggest problem was that it didn't open until months after Greenlight's run had ended.

"Literally, millions of people watched the show and didn't know when the movie was coming out," Balis said, noting that this run's movie, The Ballad of Shaker Heights, has an Aug. 24 release date (which coincides with the series' conclusion). "I think we were all disappointed. It was not a box office triumph."

Once the writer and director were chosen this season, the steamroller of pressure began.

Think pitching your idea for a movie while Affleck-squeeze Jennifer Lopez looks on is pressure? Try hiring a film crew, casting and polishing the script for a million-dollar movie in seven weeks, a timetable required by the strict release deadline.

Balis, who last stopped by Tampa a few weeks ago for his 10-year high school reunion, thinks that he and the new film come off better in this Greenlight.

"I think people are going to be impressed when they see it," he said. "It's definitely the kind of movie I would go see myself."

AT A GLANCE: Project Greenlight begins its second season tonight at 10:30 on HBO. Grade: A. Rating: TV-MA (Mature Audiences).

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