Let’s Stop Pretending Project Greenlight Is About Making a Good Movie

Effie Brown, left, Jason Mann, center. Photo: HBO

Project Greenlight was ahead of its time back in 2001. It aired before we knew that most American Idol contestants would be pop-culture footnotes, not megastars, that most Project Runway winners would never be major players in the fashion industry, that we'd never really see a top model from Top Model. So it seemed like an actual way for filmmakers to break into the industry — I mean, that's what Matt Damon and Ben Affleck kept telling us, and hey, they do make a movie on the show. But Project Greenlight was like all the other occupation-based reality-contest shows that came after it: It didn't really launch careers in a meaningful way. What it did was make a pretty good TV show about making a pretty blah movie. Its revival is more of the same. The human drama of it all, the personality clashes (oh, boy), the radical overestimating of one's creative value, the tension between getting things exactly right and getting things done at all — that's all there. What's not there is any suggestion that this season's movie will be any good, and maybe it's time for Greenlight to stop pretending that's the show's main purpose.

This season's breakout star isn't even the chosen director, Jason Mann. It's movie producer Effie Brown (Dear White People), who tried to push for behind-the-camera diversity in the season premiere, only to have Matt Damon excruciatingly whitesplain himself. Over the course of the season thus far, Brown's onscreen exasperation has grown, especially as Mann tries to — and sometimes succeeds at — going around her to get what he wants. So far, Mann has won most of the battles, except the battle for the audience's heart. Watching Anton Ego from Ratatouille rhapsodize with Ben Affleck about how great it is to shoot on film is just nowhere near as evocative as just watching Brown drive around and kvetch. It sets up this perfect narrative tension, with our artsy-fartsy rookie (Mann) squaring off against our seen-it-all seasoned pro (Brown).

Brown and Mann's tensions escalated on this week's episode on two fronts: One, the racial politics afoot, which only Brown seems aware of or concerned about, and two, their seemingly complete inability to communicate with one another. In the first episode of the season, Damon patronizingly told Brown that diversity happens on camera, not behind the camera — but guess what? There's no diversity onscreen in The Leisure Class, either. Brown is clear throughout the episode that she doesn't want the only people of color in the film to be service employees, and she's justifiably livid when the only black actor in the entire movie, including extras, is cast as a chauffeur. (The episode was also, inexplicably, titled "Hot Ghetto Mess." At publication time, HBO had not returned a request for comment on how that title came to be.) Brown prevails, getting a different actor to play the chauffeur, but fellow producer Marc Joubert gripes in a confessional that he doesn't want "spend a lot of time on unwanted drama." Well, whose drama is it when explicit, meaningful requirements set by the producer are blatantly ignored and then need to be corrected?

If Mann cares at all about making an all-white film, it's not mentioned in the episode. What Mann does care about is getting every single thing he wants, exactly the way he wants it, even when his own decisions — like dragging his feet on deciding on a location — preclude his dream scenarios. How will people understand that the film takes place during a day and a night, he wonders. The film has to include a car flipping over, even though HBO's Len Amato goes so far as to invoke the 2014 death of camera assistant Sarah Jones in explaining to the audience how crucial safety is on set. Mann's rigidity comes across as immature, but the only times Brown seems not to be direct is when telling Mann exactly what's feasible. The dynamic between the two is infuriating — triumphantly so if you're trying to make a television series about the difficulties of creative endeavors. Devastatingly so if you're trying actually to make a creative endeavor.

You can't blame Project Greenlight for casting a TV show, not making a film. (We can, however, blame them for picking five straight, able-bodied white men to write and direct its movies. Snooze.) Movie-making is a lot of sitting around, a lot of hurry up and wait, a lot of thinking and planning. Turning that into a TV show requires its own narrative, its own hero and villain, its own conflicts — Greenlight has that in spades. Watching a feature, I couldn't possibly care whether a scene hinges on a roller-skating sequence or a pillow fight. But on Greenlight, that switch feels significant, a sign maybe that Mann has severely underplanned, that he didn't understand the rules he had to abide by, that he wasn't as on top of things as he needed to be. The guy is good TV, glowing onscreen like a supernova made of entitlement. He has to do things his way! Which is why he … entered a TV contest.

Project Greenlight isn't alone on this problem. All reality shows are cast to be reality shows. Greenlight tries to convince its audience that it really is all about the movie, and that's all anyone cares about. But if they really just wanted to find the best unsigned filmmaker in America and document the process, they could all write a book. Greenlight's successor, last year's Starz series The Chair, pit two newbie directors against each other, which made for even better TV — in part because one filmmaker was so anxious you could almost feel your television jitter along with her, and the other was a YouTube star who made a name for himself performing in blackface and whose final movie included a homeless man eating shit. (That's the movie that won.) "No one involved with it should ever be allowed to work in the movies again," wrote the Times. Slightly stressed competence isn't enough for a good show: We need either dazzling excellence or romantic failure.

And Project Greenlight is a worthwhile television show. Like any compelling narrative, it has clear characters with strong wants and a comprehensible environment with appropriate obstacles. Hm, maybe the folks who make the show could take a stab at making one of its movies.