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soylent greenlight: it's made out of people
the ongoing failure of project greenlight
by jael mchenry (@JaelMcHenry)
pop culture

Jael McHenry's short story VICES will be featured in LET THE EVOLUTION BEGIN, the first book from Intrepid Publishing.

Democracy is a great way to run a country, but as a way to make art, it sucks out loud.

The Battle of Shaker Heights, the second movie from the unholy alliance between Miramax, HBO, and Matt & Ben (now with bonus Jen!) has just hit theatres. A couple of theatres, anyway. For those who aren't familiar with the setup, here it is: a contest is held, a script and director are chosen, a movie is made, and the process of making that movie is filmed for broadcast on HBO.


Good question.

Because I think the project has failed on pretty much every level. If it was supposed to produce a great movie, it failed. If it was supposed to separate the wheat from the chaff, it failed. If it was supposed to prove that amateurs could do just as well as professionals given a chance, it failed. If it was supposed to be another ratings juggernaut for HBO... let's see... oop... NO. Failure. (Lost 1 million viewers between its season opener and finale this time around.)

Here are the three basic reasons why the Project Greenlight process has failed so far and will, should it continue to exist, fail one more time.

The Peer Review Process

Many screenplays and scenes submitted by hopeful amateur writers and directors can still be found on the Project Greenlight website, the nerve center of Project Greenlight's first phase. Screenwriters who enter the contest are required to read and rate four other screenplay entries, using a detailed 8-page questionnaire. The director's contest is similar, substituting 3-minute movies for scripts. The scripts and scenes with the highest numerical rankings move on to the next round. Everyone else, buh-bye.

Here's the rub: the vetting process, the whole judge-jury-executioner elimination of scripts, would theoretically eliminate all but the finest scripts.

Surprise. It doesn't.

The Top 10 scripts are a varied lot. One of my working theories was that the peer review process would eliminate anything interesting, anything that actually aroused feelings in the reader, since these feelings might very well be negative and get the script a bad ranking. But that theory wasn't correct. These scripts are interesting after all.

And some of them also happen to be terrible.

My favorite, by which I mean the one that yielded the most unintended laughter, was a 127-page epic set in Medieval Romania, packed with battle gore, historical mayhem, and truly awful dialogue.

"No! I'm in good health except, for the beating on my face. I was made to tend the horses of Ottomans that spy your army. Please knight!"

([sic] all over the place.)

A process of elimination should get rid of the worst. When you're cutting from 10,000 to 10, only the strongest should survive. And I know from reading scripts as part of this process that there were some gems in there. I read a hilarious script called When I'm 64, about a 64-year-old man from a family where all men die during their 64th year. If I ever get famous and have any clout whatsoever, that is the script I would make. Not any of the top ten. Not the profanity-laced strip club heist comedy (more or less Ocean's Striptease) or the white trash Beverly Hills nanny picture where the first 10 scenes average four lines each. Not the claustrophobic director-in-jail metaflunk (Phone Club, or Fight Booth?) or the one about the Chinese kidnapping ring.

And certainly not the one where the amnesiac married to the Holocaust survivor turns out to be, no joke, Hitler.


(Okay, I might make The Rebound Guy, which kept me chuckling throughout. But for all the others? See above... and did I mention HITLER?)

These 10 scripts may be no worse than the majority of entries, but they were certainly no better.

So where did it fall apart?

I carefully laid out this argument for a friend last week, as he had been watching the TV show but was unaware of the selection process that preceded it. His response: "Sounds like they do it wrong because doing it the right way would cost too much."

That's part of it. But there's more. It's a noble goal, this jury-of-your-peers party line. But when so many of your amateur screenwriters are in it to win it and not to give meaningful feedback, the elimination process becomes a joke, and you lose brilliant scripts like When I'm 64 in favor of the crap-o-rama that puts both Dracul AND Dracula on the front line against the Ottomans.

They could have picked 10 scripts out of a hat and saved themselves the trouble.

TV Needs Vs. Movie Needs

So once they got down to a small heap of scripts and directors, they removed The Great Unwashed from the process and put it in the hands of the producers (mostly Affleck and Chris Moore, popularly known as Shouty McShout.) Here was the opportunity for one more mistake. And yes, they made it. Because Project Greenlight was also "Project Greenlight," and they needed to make choices that would make good TV.

They chose the most inexperienced directors, hamstrung them with an unnaturally low budget and tight shooting schedule, and put them in front of cameras that rolled all day every day.

The Heisenberg uncertainty principle states that the act of observing something changes it. (Strangely, after a conversation about this principle as it applied to "Project Greenlight," I found a solid definition of it in... one of the top ten scripts from Project Greenlight. Not, however, the one about the amnesiac named Shalom [yeah] who turns out to be Hitler. Have I mentioned that?)

So they created an artificial environment guaranteed to produce conflict, and waited for the sparks to fly. Heisenberg all over. A TV show about a pleasant, enjoyable process wouldn't do very well (not that this one did either, but it could have done worse.) They struck rock against flint, shoved the lens right up to it, and started the clock.

Hell, I'd like to see Steven Soderbergh put out a decent movie under similar conditions. Oh, wait, he did. It was called Full Frontal. It did miserable business and garnered almost exclusively negative reviews. So how could these tyros be expected to do better? With all (okay, some) of America watching?

It's Still Hollywood

Even after all this, it could have been a good film. Regardless of what the rest of the Top 10 scripts looked like, Shaker Heights was workable, and even inexperienced directors with immense egos can put together a decent product. I've seen the film, and the first half-hour of The Battle of Shaker Heights is an enjoyable piece of work.

And then it falls apart so quickly, so thoroughly, my whole row of the theatre got whiplash.

According to a source who watched the entire season of "Greenlight" (thanks, Sheinkin!) the test screening process is what really destroyed this movie. They showed a cut to an audience, and came back with a miserable score of 40-something on a scale that goes to 100. The Miramax execs said they wouldn't release a picture that scored so low. The Miramax execs said they wanted the movie to be funnier, lighter, more entertaining. The directors went back to the editing room. The "fixed" picture wasn't tested again, mind you: if it had been, the score probably would have been even lower.

And what sort of product came out of this whole crazy process? That depends on who you ask. Rottentomatoes.com, a compendium of movie reviews from all over, gives this a "Fresh" Rating of 45%, meaning that just over half of the reviews were negative. Not bad. Box-office champ Freddy vs. Jason has a 41; Seabiscuit, 80; the first Lord of the Rings, 94.

(Gigli, 7.)

But who's rating this flick? The positive reviews are from FilmBlather, E!Online, CitySearch, about.com. The negatives? The New York Times. The L.A. Times. Entertainment Weekly. Premiere. The Hollywood Reporter. You know, magazines and newspapers. Not that I'm one to knock the online market, but folks? I do consider Elvis Mitchell's opinion a bit more weighty than that of "TV Guide's Movie Guide."

And as I said before, I saw it. First half? Funny. Good. Shia LaBeouf is an excellent actor with a bright future ahead. Nice pace, nice humor, nice storyline. After reading the script, I was puzzled as to why they changed some details that didn't seem to be motivated by budget, location, or other grounded issues, but the movie was still fun to watch.

But then it took a turn for the worse and never came back.

In the script, the focus of the story is Kelly's family life, with a detour into his interactions with the Bowland family. His father gets stomach cancer, they reconcile in the hospital, he gets revenge on the school bully, he kisses his friend's engaged sister and then watches her from a distance as she goes to her wedding.

In the movie, Kelly's family life is shunted off to the side while the Bowland story takes center stage. His father's illness is unexplained, the reconciliation scene is cut short, he tapes a humiliation of the bully but then destroys the tape, and after kissing the sister, humiliates himself further by jumping into her limo just before the wedding starts and forcing her to explicitly reject him.

It's like Proof of Life, which I hated. Not because of the much-vaunted but seriously invisible chemistry between Meg Ryan and Russell Crowe. Not because it criminally underused perennial second banana David Morse. But because you could tell they'd shot a lot more than they used, that there was a great big movie out there but you were only allowed to see a very small part.

And in that sense, I guess Project Greenlight is a smashing success.

It took an original idea, a fresh approach, and a noble goal, and magically combined them into exactly the same tired, soulless, and thoroughly predictable tripe.

Ah, the magic of Hollywood.


Jael is tired of being stereotyped as just another novelist/poet/former English teacher/tour guide/"Jeopardy!" semifinalist/bellydancing editor-in-chief with an MFA who was once an overachieving oboe-playing alto newspaper editor valedictorian from Iowa. She was also captain of the football cheerleading squad. Follow me on Twitter: @jaelmchenry

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by jael mchenry
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tracey kelley
9.4.03 @ 1:49a

I believe another reason the movie fell apart is that the directors' manipulation of the script because it didn't suit their "vision". The holes you speak of were created during shooting, and although the director boys had a tendancy for melodrama, they prided themselves on their "comedic sense" and ability to communicate their interpretation of the script on-screen. They pushed for this - often. One of the primary reasons the plot frittered away from its original course.

One of the main "differences" for this PGL this year was to allow the screenwriter to write and the director(s) to direct. These directors, having been independent for so long, considered themselves experts on everything, right down to editing (So much so, they had to literally edit the piece themselves, while the primary editor sat on the back couch most of the time). Such is the challenge on this type of venture, and the age-old question: if the director's vision doesn't interprete the script the same way the writer wrote it, who's right?

After testing, Miramax had to find something to salvage in order to keep it from going straight to video. There's no way you can change the -entire- tone of a movie in editing. But that's what they tried to do.

robert melos
9.4.03 @ 2:17a

Jael, you're brilliant. PGL managed to take good workable material, and waste it on an HBO show so boring even J-Lo couldn't revive it.

Of course given how you tore apart Medieval Romania, I would fear having you read my novel or any of my scripts. BTW, a new furniture store opened in my neck of the woods. The Ottoman Empire. Foot stools fit for a Emperor.

erik myers
9.4.03 @ 7:24a

Sounds to me like most of the problem was probably the peer review process -- I mean... you're reviewing your competitors, right? So what's to stop you from giving all the scripts you think are great really horrible ratings so that you (might) have a better chance?

And then how many people shunted on actually reviewing the stuff, just filled out the forms and went to the bar?

I would have loved to see a film set in Medieval Romania. Goddamn that sounds funny.

Course, it may have already been made, in a sense... just Rutger Hauer isn't quite Romanian, is he?


jael mchenry
9.4.03 @ 9:54a

Erik, they threatened people with disqualification if they punted on the reviews, but I think they would only know if the writers complained. Or if they gave straight 1's. A smattering of 2's and 3's, no comments at all? That would be a "valid" critique.

The Medieval Romanian war epic script is still on the Project Greenlight site. It's called The Order of the Dragon. I urge you to giggle over its silliliciousness.

jeffrey walker
9.4.03 @ 10:33a

Here's what I hated about the show: More behind the scenes on making a movie, and less personal interaction between the idiots (like Tracey discusses above). I don't car about the director's car drama, or 15 minutes of the directors and writers inability to communicate with each other. Show me the guys pitching roles to the actors. Show me the gaffer, the foley artist! Show me the real stuff; If I want to see people who can't behave, I'll watch Ricki.

tracey kelley
9.4.03 @ 10:51a

Yeah - they went a little 'reality tv' this time.

The directors were quoted in some rag recently stating they didn't watch the series because they felt they were depicted too negatively.

I'm thinking they would have been better off not saying that. It makes them sound pouty. How 'bout promoting the movie, talking about the overall process, etc? The screenwriter has an agent, and is working on a tv pilot - what are you boys doing?

Since we're all gluttons for punishment, check this out: Pilot Project

jael mchenry
9.4.03 @ 10:57a

How did they know they were depicted too negatively if they didn't watch the series?

tracey kelley
9.4.03 @ 11:34a

See? Pouty.

russ carr
9.4.03 @ 11:41a

No HBO this year, so I didn't see a lick of the series. But Tuesday morning I had on the Wayne Brady show (yeah, yeah...) and he had on Amy Smart, who played Tabby in the movie. What stuck out in the interview, though, was, she said that after all the filming was done on the movie, she watched the series unfold on HBO, She had no clue that there was "so much drama" going on.

Based on all the commentary here, Smart's cluelessness seems more believable now -- I'd be willing to bet that on the other films/tv series she's been in, there wasn't that level of "drama" because there was no need to concoct it.

jael mchenry
9.4.03 @ 3:31p

But how useful is the drama? Apparently it's not keeping viewers, it's making the participants miserable, and it all seems so unnecessary. Would less drama actually mean better ratings?

russ carr
9.4.03 @ 3:41p

But the thing is, Greenlight is nothing more than reality TV. And despite Matt and Ben's explanation last year that they just wanted to give someone a leg up sort of like they got with GWH, that's all it was last year, too. Outside of the realm of film geeks, I don't think most people are interested in the day-to-day struggles of making a movie. I know I really didn't learn anything last season; I already knew that there are plenty of people out there waiting to screw me, and that I can't always get what I want.

I hope they don't do this again. If they ditch the "drama" then they've alienated a good chunk of the audience. If they leave it in, then they're just another reality show, and there seems to be at least the beginning of a backlash against those. Either way, it strikes me as lose-lose.

jeffrey walker
9.4.03 @ 4:24p

Russ has a point. Although, as I said before, I'd like to see the subtleties of filmmaking, most people do not. Most viewers don't care about how anything actually happens; if they did, PBS and the History channel would be getting the high ratings. The average American doesn't like actual reality; they want contrived reality.

Unfortunately, PGL offers too little of either to hold viewers' attention, creating a dismal show for everyone involved.


jael mchenry
9.4.03 @ 4:34p

I would love a good how-to show. And it's just a shame that it's theoretically about helping out the poor schmo with a great idea, but the finished film could also be used as evidence that the poor schmo out there can't make a good film, idea be damned.

jason siciliano
9.5.03 @ 1:37a

I have a feeling this question is going to go over like a turd in a punch bowl, but did anyone else watch Temptation Island 3 tonight? TI3, as the kids like to call it?

Now that's quality television.

I'm just...I can't even...but then I still...


erik myers
9.5.03 @ 3:01p

Yep. That's a floater.

jael mchenry
9.5.03 @ 4:02p

Clearly not a lot of people have opinions on that one. Or they're too ashamed to say....

russ carr
9.5.03 @ 4:09p

TI3 is tease without titillation. It's dangling the treat just out of range, never letting people have it. Once people catch on that there will never be a payoff, they'll switch it off and go back to renting porn (titillation without tease).

ETA: I had the opinion, and no shame, but was resisting comment since it didn't have anything to do with PGL.


jael mchenry
9.5.03 @ 4:28p

Well, it's probably just as "real" as Greenlight, which is to say, not at all.

Anyone seen Stolen Summer? Was it as awful as they say?

jason siciliano
9.5.03 @ 6:46p

Sorry for derailing the PGL train, Jael. It was late when I posted that message.

You know, one positive about PGL is that it gives viewers a sense of just how hard it is to make a good movie. Or, how easy it is to make a bad one. There are so many variables, so many ways to screw up.

That said, it sure would be nice to see a seriously original idea win - a great script that has no hope of being greenlighted in Hollywood. Maybe something like Blair Witch, something without a script. Not that Blair Witch was all that, but it was an original idea.

And, bonus, wouldn't that be more fun to watch on HBO?

k j
9.6.03 @ 7:52p

Pairing writers and directors willy nilly is stupid to me too, but I wouldn't place the blame entirely on the directors.

I agree BoSH was intended to be a drama with comedic overtones but I think the script had holes in it from the start. Bart, Eve and Abe were all under-defined and confusing characters. The co-dependent aspect of Eve needed to be established, if only in a short scene. Because of that, it would have been hard to get a drama to resonate since we were never exactly sure what Kelly was responding to at home. As Affleck noted, Bart's motives needed to be explored too but never were and no one bothered to explain why (I love continuity don't you?).

Other obstacles included an abundance of cliches -- all minorites offer gems of wisdom. Example : in the end the old war vet shows the young whippersnapper what's what. If there's any doubt about Beeney's "inside the box" thinking, consider how she describes female characters -- Sara [paraphrasing] : not pretty now but will be when she knows who she is... and Eve : the kind of mom other kids think is hot. Did Eve really need to be anything more than average? Pretty Hollywood standard. Then there's the conveniently stupid teacher -- a cheap device to make the potagonist smarter.

I also thought the tone was at war with itself, in fact "whiplash" was the very word I used to describe my reaction to the script. The bully revenge high jinks plot (no wonder she and Moore hit it off) and the Dad with luekemia (which was lightened in the revision to Abe"falling off the wagon"), didn't really reconcile.

Attempts were made to push the directors toward a more serious tone. Remember producers continually bitching their concerns about K&E's obvious humor (though why they gave them a project they didn't trust them with is beyond me)? Anyway I sincerely think they tried to comply. Not surprising (well not to me anyway), the final product didn't work and they were sent back to essentially pull a *true* comedy out of their asses b/c not enough comedic material had been shot. However I think it might have been the only way to go b/c I'm not convinced the dramatic elements were sufficient w/o a re-write.

The NY Times critic said Beeney ran out of interesting ideas after the reenactment concept. Personally I'd give her credit for some interesting dialoge, (for Kelly mostly). The Chinese laborers might have been more intrigueing if Eve was grounded better. As is, that thread was somewhat confusing. One baffeled critic even thought Eve might be a tad nuts.

On another matter, I wasn't aware of the selection process. In addition to intentional sabotage, it occured to me that out of the 4000 submissions it's very possible that many of the authors sucked and would'nt know a solid script from a dime store novel.




jael mchenry
9.8.03 @ 9:39a

Good points all, kj. Especially interesting perspective on needing to go comedic because the drama wasn't truly there.

And for the selection process, it's true. Judging by what they wrote, many of the people judging scripts were unaware of most rules of good scriptwriting, such as three-act structure, high stakes tension, and proper use of the English language.

k j
9.8.03 @ 5:53p

Thanks jael mchenry.
FYI -- it was revealed that the most damning scene -- the infamous Lawrence inteview -- never happened. It was acheived thru patchwork editing to put the directors in the worst possible light. In any case I think your point about the futility of heightening drama to goose ratings is true. Although Affleck claimed PG2 had 8 million viewers, the actual reported number for the finale epi was 2.58. If you say it lost a million from start to finish that doesn't even put it at 4 mil in it's finest hour. And I did noticed the numbers seemed low throughout the run, *despite the buzz* (not even in the top 15 cable shows). But I've also noticed the media uses their own buzz to create the illusion of numbers. "Alias" is also referred to as a "HIT!".

The "Sundance Channel" has a show called "The Anatomy of a Scene". This show breaks down the process of making creative choices for actors and directors as well as things like acheiving overall visual style -- also "indie" oriented I think. They leave the politics off camera mostly but of course it captures some tension. Much more detailed and informative.



jael mchenry
9.9.03 @ 10:31a

I've seen Anatomy of a Scene -- it's pretty cool. I think it was the restaurant scene from You Can Count On Me. Where has Mark Ruffalo gone, anyway?

K, what's the Lawrence interview? Sharon Lawrence? I remember hearing she was up for the mom part, but I don't know. I did hear they cast Christopher McDonald as the dad but then got rid of him, but I don't know why. I think it's funny that they brought in William Sadler, who worked with Shiri Appleby on "Roswell." Wonder if that was a coincidence.

mike julianelle
9.9.03 @ 11:32a

Shiri Appleby is in Shaker Heights? She's cute.

Ruffalo was just in the indie XX/XY, about 90s dating or something. He's coming out in Jane Campion's racy new movie with Meg Ryan. I've never been more convinced that an actor can't change feathers than I am when watching Meg Ryan's career unravel.

k j
9.9.03 @ 12:39p

Yes I was referring to the Sharon Lawrence interview. It was actually part of Caryn Manheim's interview (who asked not to be on the show unless she was cast), spliced together with Lawrence's with some slippery sound editing.

The cast and crew of last year's PGL.. Adian Quinn, Hunt, etc... panned the show for that very kind of thiing.

Several other potential Abes passed or had scheduling conflicts before they went with Sadler (who Miramax didn't want b/c he --didn't have a big enough name). The directors liked Sadler's reading and wanted him from the start. Yeah I'm assuming the "Roswell" connection is a coincidence.

jael mchenry
9.9.03 @ 2:24p

Sadler was a great Abe. He just seemed so... tired. Exhausted? Hopeless. In a good way, or at least in the right way for the role.

k j
9.9.03 @ 3:39p

Well if you're interested, you can tell him how you felt about his work. Below is the link . If you scroll to the bottom of the board, you'll see a rather lengthy comment Bill posted about his reaction to the show. I warn you, it ain't pretty. But he seems like a genuinely nice guy.


k j
9.11.03 @ 3:19a

I don't know if this will be any better but...
from "Variety"

IFC goes back to 'School'

Cabler IFC and "The Kid Stays in the Picture" filmmaker Nanette Burstein are going back to school with the 10-part reality series "Film School."

Burstein, series' creator and exec producer, will train her sights on her alma mater, New York University. Show will follow second- and third-year grad students through the process of creating their films, from finished screenplays to final product.

In the NYU program, second year students create 10- to 30-minute-long shorts, while third-year students produce theses. Each year concludes with the NYU Film Festival and awards competition. Program has a long roster of indie alums, including Jim Jarmusch, Ang Lee and Spike Lee.

Burstein brought the idea to IFC and NYU as a veteran of the experience. (Her pic "On the Ropes" was her second-year project, and she expects to submit "Kid" as her thesis film.)

"What separates the graduate film school at NYU is that it is designed to create the auteur independent filmmaker," Burstein said. "Everybody makes a movie, whatever their vision is. But you have to find your own money and use a crew that is also still learning. Every obstacle is against you, and from this chaos, you learn."

Appeal of "Film School" for all parties was the built-in drama and reality of the situation. Unlike more contrived reality programming, and even similarly themed "Project Greenlight," the film school process would still exist regardless of whether filming was taking place.

Series, now in production, will follow an entire school year. Casting, still in progress, ultimately will follow the experiences of three students in the program.

"People realize this is a chance to get publicity for themselves and their films," said Burstein about student response. "It's a really small crew with a mini-DV camera, so it's not intrusive. Having a camera around always changes things, but sometimes for the better."

Project will be the first shepherded at IFC by director of development Debbie DeMontreux. While at former sister net Bravo, DeMontreux developed and exec produced "The It Factor" and brought in "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," co-exec producing the pilot.

"Nanette is a huge reason for our doing this," DeMontreux said. "She herself lived the story. She's a visionary and influential -- not just in the industry, but with movie lovers. The project fits perfectly with our brand, and to have her follow 'Kid' with this at IFC is a huge coup for us."

Jordan Roberts ("Kid Stays in the Picture," "Say It Loud") will produce the skein, set to debut in late 2004.


russ carr
9.11.03 @ 10:31a

Those Variety writers never took an English class, did they?

jael mchenry
9.11.03 @ 10:55a

Very interesting. Now that I think I could watch. If I get the right channel. Is it on IFC? It sounds like it must be.

k j
9.11.03 @ 8:23p

Hi jael, yes it's on IFC (The Independent Film Channel).
(edited b/c my post sounded strident though it wasn't intended to be)


jael mchenry
9.24.03 @ 6:28p

I didn't think it was strident, kj. I'm still trying to remember if I get IFC, though. They either took away that or the Sundance Channel. But at least I know I get Bravo, which will be useful, now that I've caught up on the back episodes of Queer Eye from a friend's tape.

jael mchenry
1.7.04 @ 3:43p

Picking up right where we left off...

interesting that Bravo is where PGL3 will end up. Will it do better there, riding the buzz from Queer Eye? Apparently they expect to get more viewers by doing a horror or thriller script instead of a coming-of-age story. Not sure that will help.

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