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Behind the scenes in Hollywood

In Project Greenlight, HBO follows Matt Damon and Ben Affleck as they select a novice filmmaker, then help him make his first Hollywood movie. It's reality TV meets the movie biz.

By ERIC DEGGANS

© St. Petersburg Times,
published December 1, 2001


Want to know how tough it is to get a movie made when Hollywood doesn't know you?

Check out advertisements for HBO's newest documentary series, Project Greenlight, featuring executive producers (and Oscar-winning screenwriters) Matt Damon and Ben Affleck cold-calling movie studios to pitch ideas without divulging their identities.

"Just about every studio told us to -- pardon the French -- but to f-- off," said Damon, explaining his adventure to a roomful of TV critics in California last summer.

"They said, "Go get an agent.' And we called the big agencies, and they said . . . "Call a lawyer.' So we called the lawyers and they said, "Well, (you've) got to get referred by an agent,' " said the actor, who won his Academy Award in 1998 with childhood pal Affleck for co-writing Good Will Hunting. "There has to be some way in which people's voices are heard."

That's why Damon, Affleck and producing partner Chris Moore dreamed up Project Greenlight, a contest with a nifty grand prize: $1-million from Miramax films to make a movie, with Damon and Affleck's LivePlanet company on board as producers.

Along the way, the lucky filmmaker was trailed by cameras from HBO, which assembled a 12-part documentary on the entire maddening process, to air in HBO's showcase Sunday prime time lineup, where The Sopranos and Six Feet Under have previously flourished.

Think that's too much pressure? Ask Pete Jones, whose Greenlight win came just as he considered abandoning his nascent movie career, five years after quitting an insurance salesman's job in Chicago to pursue his Hollywood dreams.

"There (were) trying times, when you're just thinking that being an insurance man in Chicago ain't so bad," said Jones, 31, who already had a wife and child before production started on his film, and learned that his wife -- yes, her name is Jenny Jones -- was pregnant early in the process.

"You go from, "Thank you, you gave me the chance of a lifetime,' to (saying) "I wrote a script. I believe in it,' " he said. "I mean, you've got an instinct, but then you've got professionals that have done it before. (There's a) balance of trying to figure out what you've got to stay true to and the advice you need to heed."

In four episodes sent to TV critics, Project Greenlight does an admirable job of exposing the wheeling, dealing, ego battles and nonsense that go into making a film with even a $1-million budget -- far below the $50- to $60-million industry average for movies these days.

The first hourlong installment outlines the contest itself, showing how LivePlanet set up a Web site in September 2000 to solicit entries, eventually receiving more than 10,000 applications from aspiring filmmakers.

The fans themselves, who continue to network in an online community created by the company, helped winnow down the submissions to 250 hopefuls.

In a format familiar to anyone who's seen Survivor or The Real World, HBO moves quickly through the qualification process: The 250 semifinalists are asked to make a "biography video"; executives choose 30 and then 10 semifinalists, who are given equipment and told to film a scene from their movie; those 10 finalists are flown to Hollywood, where three finalists are chosen.

Eventually, after giving an emotional speech about his passion for making a good movie (and after seven hours of deliberation by LivePlanet and Miramax executives), Jones was selected to make Stolen Summer, the story of a Catholic kid who befriends a dying Jewish boy and helps him figure out how to get into heaven.

All of this is Reality TV 101 -- the typical setup episode used everywhere from the WB's Popstars to MTV's Tuff Enough. But something happens toward the end of the first episode that hints at the greatness to come.

Affleck and Damon decide they want to make a big splash in announcing the contest's winner, so they arrange a last-minute appearance on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno. After a brief conference with Jones to figure out what they will say, Affleck goes onstage with Leno and pretends that bringing the young writer/director onto the show is an off-the-cuff decision.

It's a small moment: Who hasn't suspected that the "impromptu" appearances by some celebrities on such shows aren't highly scripted events?

But it also hints at the tremendous Hollywood currency Affleck and Damon bring to the table: a star power great enough to get Leno or Miramax co-chairman Harvey Weinstein on the telephone in a New York minute.

And it subtly reveals the layer of hype and nonsense needed to grease the wheels of Hollywood's dream machine.

"It was an amazing process for us . . . (because) Hollywood is its own little animal, and we wanted to show some of that," said Moore, who made his mark producing Good Will Hunting. He also produced American Pie, American Pie 2 and Reindeer Games.

"The thing that people don't usually do is guys like me or Miramax studio executives don't usually want the camera turned on them," he said. "They don't want people to see what it is that really gets decided in the back rooms or how people really talk about it."

And that's what truly sets Project Greenlight -- named after the industry term for the moment a studio commits to financing a movie -- apart from its reality TV brethren.

Like HBO's late, lamented Larry Sanders Show, Greenlight's best moments reveal the unique mixture of backbone and B.S. required to get a movie made.

In one such moment from episode three, casting director Joseph Middleton suggests that Jones write a new scene showcasing a character they've asked Oscar-winner Emma Thompson to play. "I'm not saying it will remain in (the script)," Middleton notes diplomatically. "But it's something, creatively, we should consider."

Wrangling over the budget begins almost immediately. Moore and Damon insist Miramax was aware that Stolen Summer would cost twice the advertised $1-million, mostly because it centers on child actors (who can work only about five hours per day) and is set in '70s-era Chicago.

But Miramax production vice president Jon Gordon -- whose equivocating about costs and taste for Hollywood-style power politics marks him as a villain early on -- insists that $1-million is the limit, forcing Affleck to call Weinstein and pressure Gordon into approving an additional $500,000.

By the end of episode four, Sean Penn and Thompson have passed on the project, leaving Aidan Quinn (An Early Frost, Legends of the Fall) as the biggest name still considering a role (Gillian Anderson, Allison Janney, Marcia Gay Harden and Joan Allen also would pass by the end of episode five).

Concerned about Jones' inexperience, Quinn insists that they spend five more days shooting the movie than planned, incurring a $250,000 cost Miramax's Gordon doesn't want to absorb.

"I felt like he (Jones) was given a tremendous opportunity," Gordon said during the show (he later reveals to Affleck that Miramax is concerned the complex drama won't make money overseas). "And to be consistently whining that somehow the process wasn't to his liking or decisions weren't being made on his timetable . . . that's not how it works."

Which points out the real reality of reality TV: that even pros can forget the camera is on when things heat up.

"You're so much more consumed with what you're doing that you really don't have time to play to the camera," Damon said during the California press conference. "Pete (is) trying to direct a movie on a shoestring budget. He's in Chicago, and he's got child actors and Aidan Quinn and Brian Dennehy and people like that. I think the last thing on his mind was probably, "How do I look for the camera?' "

Even in unconscious ways, Project Greenlight reflects Hollywood reality: Among the seven people choosing who would get the $1-million deal, just one was female (Meryl Poster, co-president of production for Miramax). Also, there were no people of color, not among the semifinalists nor the decisionmakers.

But Project Greenlight's biggest drawback is unavoidable. Viewers can't see the script -- we only see a few moments of the scene Jones filmed to earn finalist status -- so it's tough to know what's at stake as he balances art and commerce (Jones' script and scene are posted on LivePlanet's Project Greenlight Web site, projectgreenlight.liveplanet.com). In the end, Quinn agrees to join Stolen Summer's cast (after getting his extra days from Miramax), along with Dennehy (The Fighting Fitzgeralds), Bonnie Hunt (The Green Mile) and Kevin Pollak (A Few Good Men). Shooting took place in Chicago from May 18 to June 21, with plans to release the film this spring.

And as Project Greenlight's HBO debut approaches, a question looms: Will TV viewers care?

Despite its status as a critical favorite, Larry Sanders drew a fraction of the viewers a hit like The Sopranos brings to HBO. Fox's highly touted satire of the movie biz, Action, also died within weeks in 1999.

Is it possible, after all this effort, that viewers won't really care for all the gory details of how a Hollywood film gets made?

"All these movies that we've done -- between Chris, Ben and myself, 30 to 40 movies -- there was always some kind of drama just inherent to the process . . . that we thought would make fascinating television," Damon said.

"Hopefully, (Project Greenlight) can change the way things are done -- prove that there's plenty of good material and plenty of talented people out there," he said. "The system just has to make room for them."

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