Project Greenlight Is Great TV About Making a Not-Great Movie

Photo: Jessica Perez/Max

The last time Project Greenlight appeared on television, nearly a decade ago, it was a wildly compelling disaster. The show, then on HBO, was conceived as a combination of competition and behind-the-scenes reality series: A panel of Hollywood experts selects a contestant from a group of eager first-time filmmakers, and the season follows that young director attempting to produce, shoot, and edit their first film. The movies were never great, but what Project Greenlight was best at (perhaps unintentionally) was depicting the messy, sublimated tensions that play out in a production ecosystem around issues like race, privilege, aesthetic quality, and whose ideas are allowed to matter.

Project Greenlight: A New Generation, the ten-episode revival series now on Max, is an attempt to break away from the biases and fault lines of the show’s earlier years. Before, the show’s mentors were mostly white men; now, the advisors are Issa Rae, Kumail Nanjiani, and Gina Prince-Bythewood. The opening mood is warm and smugly celebratory: Hollywood used to be broken, Project Greenlight suggests over and over, but now it’s a place where women and people of color can make movies. Unfortunately for the people involved — but very fortunately for the Project Greenlight audience — it turns out that making movies is still a nightmarish process full of pitfalls and obstacles and enough passive-aggressive meetingspeak to make a stone break out in stress hives. Some things have changed about Project Greenlight, but the fundamentals are exactly the same: An attempt to show off young Hollywood talent becomes an unwitting document of deep and pervasive fractures across the industry.

Each episode of New Generation begins with the same footage of Nanjiani, Rae, and Prince-Bythewood explaining that this season, Project Greenlight will be about a woman director, something that’s never happened on the series’ four past seasons. Unlike some of those previous iterations, the screenplay has already been decided — a genre movie called Gray Matter, about a mother and daughter with superpowers. The script is designed to carefully align with the intended message of this Project Greenlight season as a whole: It’s a vaguely sci-fi film about women of color pulsing with the pride of boundary-breaking representational politics. Throughout the season, executives from multiple invested companies explain that their primary goal is to enable and support the career of the season’s chosen director, a quiet Black woman named Meko Winbush. Project Greenlight is about building a pipeline of young, driven directors. It’s about finding the best person for the job and making sure to look outside the usual list of white male candidates. It’s about change.

The problems appear almost immediately. There are so many of them, in fact, that the season’s episode titles steer into the skid: “The Script Problem,” “The Casting Problem,” “That’s a YOU Problem.” Chief among them, at least as emphasized by the way Project Greenlight is edited this season, is that Winbush has been given a script she didn’t write and is now responsible for fixing. As the series continues, it becomes more and more evident that the issues with Gray Matter are largely related to this script, and Winbush is either not confident enough, not interested enough, or simply not given enough time to rework it adequately. In meeting after meeting, executives tell her that the script’s problems have not been resolved, but there’s little sense that Winbush or anyone else is capable of seriously addressing the major storytelling flaws. There are other dilemmas, most of them tied to the classic twin traps of not enough money and not enough time. Production falls behind schedule, and more than once, Winbush goes away for the weekend with Gray Matter left waiting for her return. Her most frequent line throughout the series is that she is tired. Where is her coffee? When can she sleep? Meanwhile, executives bubble around her with endless energy and feedback.

Project Greenlight gradually becomes about Winbush’s inability to hear the notes she’s being given from all quarters — from Issa Rae’s company, Hoorae; from the movie’s producers at CatchLight; from Max (which was still called HBO Max at the time this was filmed); from her mentors. It’s not a complex arc, and because of it, Project Greenlight should by all rights be stultifyingly boring; a big chunk of the series is just footage of people sitting around conference tables or staring into Zoom screens and saying things like “as we mentioned in the previous meeting,” or “it’s really about executing a vision,” or “we’d love to hear more from you.” At several points throughout the season, there are even dramatic flashbacks to previous conversations, reinserted in black-and-white, but the tenor of the show is so low-key and well mannered that these smoking guns are never more shocking than someone tactfully suggesting an alternate idea.

But all that corporate politeness and input from stakeholders and just-circling-back language is riveting. Project Greenlight’s newfound insistence that this be a supportive, nontoxic workplace means that all tensions and frustrations are buried six feet deep, and the season vibrates with the repressed energy of a hundred people trying to conceal their emotions. In a glorious late-season development, the production team for Gray Matter nearly goes to war with the production team for Project Greenlight itself, accusing them of prioritizing good TV over making a good film. It never escalates beyond some intense huddles and a few strong gesticulations, but one angry conversation feels like a volcanic eruption.

There’s the unmistakable sensation of a balloon deflating by the end of the season, created by an underwhelming movie and a young director who’s meant to be heroic but instead comes off as checked out and uninsightful. This too is compelling. What happens when all the good intentions in the world still result in a bad film? In one telling scene in the finale, Nanjiani is giving a talking-head interview clearly designed to be full of feel-good puffery about the power of cinema. It’s edited into the episode right in the middle of the scene set at the Gray Matter premiere, and your ear expects Nanjiani’s quote to finish with something about “great movies, like this one we’re all here to celebrate, Gray Matter.” Instead, he winds up to “a really, really wonderful movie,” and then pauses before adding, “like The Woman King,” the feature Prince-Bythewood is finishing during Project Greenlight production. He’s speaking to her at the time, but the sharp turn from Gray Matter is hard to miss. This season is full of seething politeness, and the ending feels like a collective decision to politely look away.

If this were all Project Greenlight offered, it would be plenty: a production that nearly eats itself alive on camera, a director who cannot rise to meet her moment, and everyone trying to applaud the creation of a movie that, in the end, only manages to garner praise like “It’s a film. The way you shot it was great.” Next to all of that, though, there’s a ghost of what this season is simultaneously depicting, surely without wholly meaning to. Winbush is scolded more than once for her lack of work ethic, and the people around her accept that actually, she should be working on this movie every single waking hour of her life, with no breaks, for months. She’s also told she was chosen in large part because she is a “writer-director” and the studio hoped she could entirely rewrite the script as well as direct it. When it proves impossible for her to rebuild a movie from the ground up and be a first-time director and star in a reality show about the whole experience, the universal response is disappointment. At no point does Project Greenlight suggest that perhaps rewriting is enough labor to warrant more time or more money for Winbush or the project. Nor are there any voices chiming in to suggest that perhaps it’s not a dereliction of duty to take a weekend off. In the middle of massive Hollywood labor actions, the gulf between expectations and human reality could not be wider. It’s Project Greenlight being true to its legacy despite every apparent effort to change.

More TV Reviews

See All
Project Greenlight Is Great TV About Making a Not-Great Film