Even though only fifteen years separates us now from the early 2000s, in terms of the production of film and TV, and the general media landscape, it seems like a lifetime in the past. In the early 2000s, we had an internet, of course, and many of the familiar signposts of it including eBay early versions of Amazon, but there was no “social media” as we understand it, other than topic-restricted message boards, and certainly the distribution of video on-line was in its infancy.
Movie making technology, and business methodology, was in a strange place in that era. This was the tail end of the “indie boom” of the 1990s in American cinema, giving rise to people like Richard Linklater, Quentin Tarantino, Sophia Coppola and Kevin Smith, but by the turn of the century, most of those people had graduated to bigger budgets and the more constrained kind of filmmaking that goes along with it. (Smith, for example, had moved from the edgy, grainy, black and white Clerks to the wide-screen, full-colour cartoon that was Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back and was about to make his straight-ahead Jersey Girl.) During that decade, in terms of technology, computers really made their mark, for example with the industry moving quickly away from old-fashioned film-based editing systems to on-line editing suites using computers. Digital effects came into their own, with the 1990s starting out with Terminator 2 and ending with The Phantom Menace and The Matrix. That’s serious progress in only ten years.
Consumer technology had reached a point whereby the average person could, if they had the patience and skill, shoot a movie on their camcorder, painstakingly digitize the footage, edit it on their desktop PC or Mac and then export it back out to video tape. Though it sounds cumbersome today, having that amount of control over home video production was unprecedented, and it opened up a new level of independent filmmaking. To contrast, in the early 90s, Kevin Smith had to max out credit cards to pay for expensive film, cameras, lights, sound gear and an editing system to make Clerks look like it was shot on a shoestring. Ten years later he could have done the same thing for a fraction of the price, using off-the-shelf technology. This availability of technology, combined with the lingering but fading “DIY” energy of the independent cinema boom of the 1990s, created a considerable population of amateur filmmakers honing their skills and seeking a way “up” to the next level.
That “next level” was invariably having the film play in movie theatres for paying audiences. Today that seems like a rather small target to aim for, as we have so many other exhibition venues and formats now. The idea of having an entity like Netflix not only stream shows but create their own seemed like science fiction. Today, it’s much easier for a filmmaker to reach an audience, through digital means, but back then that was a big problem. Enter that very peculiar artifact of the late 1990s and early 2000s, Project Greenlight.
“Project Greenlight is an internet contest,” intones the narrator at the beginning of the first season, from 2000. The idea was, in that first season, to beat the proverbial bushes in this growing underground culture of wannabe Hollywood writers and directors and pick a script and a director, give them $1 million budget (considered rock-bottom for a Hollywood film) and see what happens. Along the way, the whole process would be shot for a behind-the-scenes TV show, an early example of what we know now as Reality TV. The project was the brainchild of then-indie darlings Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, and they were able to draw from the Weinstein Company’s talent pool for actors, producers and crew. This included such personalities as Chris Moore, who became the focus of Affleck’s enthusiastic impersonation, Michelle Sy, Eli Hotlzman and Jon Gordon, all of whom are accomplished professionals, but for a moment became reality TV stars.
Greenlight was intended, for most of the contest, to be a peer-reviewed contest, in which screenwriters would rank each others’ screenplays, producing a top 10 list out of hundreds of entires. Those final top-ranked entries were screened by Affleck. Damon, Moore and other producers to select a winner, based partially on interviews with the writers. The top writers were then assigned to make a short film based on a scene from their script, using equipment the studio would lend them. A winning writer/director would be picked from these.
The idea of marrying writing to directing was a big problem that first season, as invariably they encountered great scripts from mediocre directors and vice-versa. But ultimately the compromise choice that first year was Chicago’s Pete Jones, a red-headed schlubby, good-natured sort who wrote a sweet and sentimental children’s story called Stolen Summer and was selected in a large part because his film was modest, easy to budget and uncomplicated in its shooting. Or so the thinking went.
The main problem with Project Greenlight became apparent almost immediately, and it had to do with a studio lagging behind the times while, ironically, trying to innovate. They used an ultra-modern technology to recruit their filmmakers, who were experienced working at the forefront of what’s possible in film production and distribution technology, and plugged them right into the same old studio system that had been in place since 1930. Jones, and his successors in seasons 2 and 3, came from the shoot-from-the-hip no-budget indie world straight into an environment where he had a union crew and professional actors with very limited shooting time and a formality about the process born out of a century of anxiety.
Films, especially they’re produced in Hollywood, are all about anxiety. For a very simple reason: they’re expensive. So a lot is at stake and the pressure is on everyone right from the start: the writer to produce a commercial script, the director to “make the day” and not go over-budget, and a phalanx of producers whose job it was to stand around and fret about how much money was being spent. That tense, horrible atmosphere has been reported so many times, from so many Hollywood productions that it’s actually a cliche. (Think of how it’s satirized in a movie like Tropic Thunder, which like most parody works because it’s so close to reality.) Indie film certainly had their share of anxiety, but those productions also had camaraderie and cooperation, and cross-training, with people doing whatever combination of jobs they’re best at. (That kind of thing is a big no-no for union productions.)
Jones was swept up immediately in fights over the two usual suspects: budget and schedule. There’s a saying that to make a movie one needs a lot of money and a little time, or a little money and a lot of time. But no other combination can be successful. On Project Greenlight, indie filmmakers were thrust into the gaping maw of the Hollywood corporate factory, given too little money and too little time and ridden like a plough horse for three straight months. All of that is captured on video by the Reality TV crew who, like any crew of that nature, is looking for conflict and drama first, success second. Given those circumstances, it’s no surprise that Stolen Summer was a lot less interesting than the show documenting its creation.
Season 2 of Greenlight changed the format and looked for a separate writer and director, acknowledging that while some directors are great writers, they’re the exception rather than the rule. They wound up with an intriguing angsty script, The Battle of Shaker Heights, and a directorial team, Kyle Rankin and Efram Potelle. Though Miramax spent money hiring a top-notch cast (this was the film that “discovered” Shia LaBeouf), the same problems arose, with inexperienced filmmakers thrown into a situation beyond the capacity of even a veteran to control. The resulting film is a lesson in the difference between directing a scene or sequence and directing the whole film. With wildly inconsistent tone, once again the making-of was more interesting than the film. But at least The Battle of Shaker Heights is a very typical early 2000s indie film, with quirky characters and oddities that other filmmakers would do better as the decade went on.
The third season of Greenlight was different again, with the circle now being completed and Affleck, Damon et al just trying to get a commercial film made. Dimension, Miramax’s “exploitation” subsidiary, was in charge this time and they chose a horror script titled Feast and a deeply strange director, John Gulager. Ironically, this most cynical season of Greenlight finally produced a viable product. Feast found its audience and yielded two sequels.
But the distance this project had come from 2000-2005 is remarkable, and telling. At the start, the studio seemed to be clumsily grasping at legitimacy by aping the indie film style and paying lip-service to its values while at the same time being extremely traditional in its production. By the end, Miramax wasn’t even involved and the project had become just another low-budget exploitation house, cranking out low-budget genre films that are proven to be profitable, if the budget is low enough. In its way, that style of B-movie making is as old as any other. (Greenlight returned last year for Season 4, which I haven’t seen.)
Compare this story, briefly, to Dogme 95, the timeline of which parallels everything discussed here. The films produced by that Danish film movement, explicitly adopting new technology and new production methods, gave rise to some of the most remarkable films in recent history and at least one bona-fide genius auteur (Lars von Trier). That’s how one moves forward in the film world: by making movies, rather than reality TV shows. By focusing on writing and directing rather than on fretting about producers and money and distribution and whether a director “makes his day”.
Today, we know that the long-form cinema is only one of a variety of storytelling outlets available to creative personalities. Direct digital distribution, specialty networks, Netflix, Crackle, YouTube and a million other places will show a film if it’s well made. And even the idea of making a two-hour film is fading in favour of miniseries, digital shorts and of course, comic books, which can reach just as many people and have just as much impact. Project Greenlight gives us a window into a world in transition, a century truly turning and a fascinating glimpse into why Hollywood often lags behind the rest of the cinematic world.