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Review: ‘Project Greenlight’ returns a decade later, still addictive

Senior Television Writer
09.10.15 21 Comments

HBO

The thing about bad movies (and bad TV shows, for that matter) is that almost all of them are the product of just as much sweat as the good ones. Few people set out to make a bad film, nor do most creative people (at least, those not involved with the “Entourage” franchise) decide to put in the minimal amount of effort to get it done. When you talk to writers and directors about their failures, they'll often tell you that they worked even harder on those than on the successes.

In its original three seasons (two on HBO, one on Bravo) back in the early days of the century – and the reality TV boom that came with it – “Project Greenlight” was responsible for three bad movies. (“Feast,” the horror film made for the Bravo season, has its defenders; the other two do not.) But in demonstrating how good intentions – from star producers Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, from their red-faced producing partner Chris Moore, and even from the four men (including a directing team) chosen to make the films – can be trumped by bad choices, worse circumstances, and the unrelenting grind of making even the smallest and simplest of movies.

It was addictive then, and it's addictive now, as the series returns after a decade-long hiatus. (The new season debuts Sunday at 10 on HBO.) Reality TV has changed, as has the process of both making movies and discovering talent, but the fundamental appeal of watching smart people steer themselves into a slow-motion car crash remains enduring.

Moore is gone, having set up his own entertaining “Greenlight”-esque show, “The Chair,” over at Starz. The rise of online video sharing platforms, not to mention the way improvements in technology have radically changed what an amateur filmmaker can accomplish with very little money, changes not only the application process, but the caliber of the submissions the show gets. And because the economics of the film business have changed so radically, the winning movie is being made to air on HBO, rather than to get the token theatrical release bestowed on “Stolen Summer,” “The Battle of Shaker Heights,” and “Feast.”

But the basics are the same: Matt, Ben, and their less famous (but more frequently appearing on this show) colleagues select an undiscovered talent, hand them the keys to a film, then step back and act both dismayed and surprised when problems arise.

With Moore gone, the breakout star this time is line producer Effie Brown, an indie film veteran – drink every time she tells someone that she has produced over 17 films – who recently worked on “Dear White People.” In a roster where too many participants – including season 1 winner Pete Jones, who is improbably brought back to help this year's winner rewrite the script – act like overgrown children, Effie's job is to be the grown-up. Ordinarily, this might be bad for a reality show, but much of the series' entertainment comes from watching her gradually lose her patience with all these fools. Early on, she's putting on a happy face as each new terrible decision is made, opening her rebuttals with some variation on “With love in my heart…,” but eventually the smiles turn to scowls, until she's conditioned by so much of what's happening around her to assume everyone else is acting in bad faith, and to make a potentially film-ruining mistake as a result.

(There's also a fascinating scene in the premiere where Brown – the only person of color involved in picking the winner – points out the relative lack of diversity among the finalists, leading to a lot of squirming and then a passionate rebuttal from Matt Damon. It's a brief but revealing window on the ways in which a predominantly white industry struggles to change itself.)

The series isn't entirely made up of moments where you want to smack your head against a desk, of course. The winner is clearly gifted, if stubborn and clueless about the realities of the low-budget film, and there's pleasure in watching Brown and other members of the production team not only practice a craft they know so well, but try to work around the many conflicting, seemingly irreconcilable forces at play.

The sense created not just by this franchise, but by almost any candid making-of documentary, is that projects both good and bad come not only from a lot of work, but often from a lot of turmoil, even when everyone seems to be on the same page.

At one point, Jennifer Todd, the head of Damon and Affleck's production company, considers an argument she just witnessed and says, “That's Hollywood. It's never just, 'a bunch of nice people get together and make art.'”

And that's why “Project Greenlight” can take 10 years off, return to a wildly changed landscape for both film and television, and feel just as vital and addictive as ever. The details change, but the fundamental impulses of the business called show remain the same.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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