'Project Greenlight': TV Review

Project Greenlight Still - H 2015
Courtesy of HBO
An entertaining look at how movies are made.

After a decade off the air, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon are back for a fourth season of 'Project Greenlight.'

Moments after Jason Mann is announced as the winner of Project Greenlight, he corners Matt Damon and Ben Affleck and starts making demands.

Mann’s reaction captures all that is great about this reality show, which returns after a decade off the air. “You can’t write that. That’s Hollywood,” Jennifer Todd, president of Affleck and Damon’s Pearl Street Films, says. “That’s what making movies is really actually like.”

Filmmaking is a narcissistic endeavor filled with egos, personality conflicts, endless script rewrites and seemingly impossible deadlines. Project Greenlight knows this and relishes in it. The series has been through several iterations and networks. In the first season, the show only picked a screenwriter. Later seasons picked a screenwriter and a director. For the fourth season, the series picks a winning director and gives him $3 million to make a movie for HBO.

Much has changed since Project Greenlight first came onto the scene. When the show premiered, contestants struggled with how to submit their movies on VHS. Now they are uploading their submissions to Facebook. The idea that you could enter a competition for your dream job has inspired everything from Project Runway to Top Chef. Last year, Starz had The Chair, a similarly themed competition that featured producer Chris Moore, who used to be on Project Greenlight. Pete Jones, who won the first season of the show, is back this season as the screenwriter assigned to work with Mann.

Damon and Affleck, who serve as executive producers, bring star power to the series. Fame and the passage of time don't appear to have impacted their friendship; the two continue to share an easy rapport. It’s exceedingly clear that they like making movies and giving unknown directors an opportunity. Finalist Arturo Perez breaks down in tears when discussing all that his parents have done for him. “Obviously that’s a very emotional thing. That’s okay. It means you’re alive,” Affleck tells him.

The premiere is rich with interesting contestants who all probably could be the star of their own Project Greenlight. Ashley Barnhill made her movie with her boyfriend. They broke up, and Barnhill submitted the video by herself. Now she’s trying to get her ex included in the competition. “We got the sense that there was a whole soap opera behind that one,” deadpans Damon.

After all the flash and buzz of winning has died down, the winner will work mostly with producers Marc Joubert and Effie Brown, who are tasked with keeping the movie's production on time and on budget. Brown is prone to saying things like, “I’m going to go eat my feelings,” and, “sweet Jesus,” and, “with love in my heart.” She a nurturing den mother who won’t take any flak from anybody. As she’s fond of reminding people, she’s been a producer on over 17 feature films including the recent Dear White People.

The best thing Project Greenlight does is choose Mann as the winner. He’s got a prickly personality that makes for good TV; he's like the Jonathan Franzen of directing. During his interview, he says, “I haven’t quite wrapped my mind around how to make this movie good yet.” Most people would be thrilled to win, but he worries that his artistic vision will be compromised. He has “trepidations about the way this movie could paint my career.” Peter Farrelly, who, along with brother Bobby Farrelly, will be producers of the final film, initially has no tolerance for Mann’s attitude. “Jason is pretentious as hell,” he says.

But Mann isn’t being difficult just to be difficult. He’s not a Real Housewife trying to figure out how he can land on the cover of US Weekly. He’s an artist who rightly knows that, from an industry perspective, he’s only as good as his most recent work.

By the second episode, the movie Mann is directing takes a surprising and unexpected turn. Will the final film be any good? Project Greenlight doesn’t have a history of churning out hits. But the process of making the film remains fascinating.