The return of Project Greenlight to HBO has offered two critical opportunities to observe Hollywood at work. The first, and rightfully the most-attention getting, is Hollywood’s problem with diversity. The second has been the shift in reality television.
Resurrected after original star Chris Moore brought back the format with a twist, Project Greenlight is one of the all-time great formats, a guaranteed source of insight and entertainment. It’s a format that works. But as this season has proved, that format can also be distilled into something that’s unpalatable. Actually, to extend the metaphor, it’s more like a wine with a great initial flavor that has a bitter aftertaste.
What lingers of season four from episode to episode is not attractive.
The best decision that producers made this season was hiring/casting Effie Brown to oversee the film. (I say “hiring/casting” because these are inseparable for a production that will find itself on television.) She is a successful producer who also happens to be both black and conscious of Hollywood’s problems with diversity. She knows how to put a movie together, yes, but is also acutely aware of potential problems, like having the only black extra be a chauffeur. Instead of allowing an ugly stereotype to be repeated for no reason at all, she does something about it.
In addition, Effie has repeatedly described herself as the person who says no, and that makes for conflict—an important part of any story. It’s also inevitable for this format, as a director used to working solo finds themselves trying to control a massive machine.
Effie’s primary foil has been Jason Mann, the winner and director of the movie. Jason is frustration in human form, an insolent child. Early in the season, when he was offered something, he’d stomp his feet and refuse, and then magically produce what he wanted the whole time. He didn’t like the script—and lo, he has one he wants to make instead. Over and over again, he was given his way by the Project Greenlight powers that be—starting with their decision to cast him, knowing exactly what they were getting (i.e. good television).
Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, when faced with actual “no”s from Effie, he’d go around her, like he did with Ben Affleck so he could shoot on film. (Affleck and Matt Damon have been functionally absent from this season, but they were not major presences on earlier seasons, either—at least not once the actual production began.) He also tried do this with Peter Farrelly, leading to a conversation with Effie that was this season’s high point: a well-developed conflict with complications on all sides.
When Jason is faced with an obstacle or options, he furrows his brow and insists this is the first time he’s heard of this problem. Effie says no and expresses disbelief. Rinse, repeat.
Characters that make a good cartoon, not a good documentary
Here’s a test: Describe something you know about either Jason or Effie that doesn’t fall into those orbits.
It’s easy to suspect that, as viewers of four hours of television, we have a very limited understanding of Jason or Effie. There are hints that there’s more there: Effie talks about the diverse crew she’s hired and all the work she’s done behind the scenes; Jason is occasionally praised by people on set. But there is little evidence on our screens of his creative genius or of her efforts.
With all of this relentless focus on the two primary cast members, there should be time to develop them as characters and show them at work. Once the episodes began to focus on actual production, the focus has narrowed even more, ping-ponging between Effie and Jason’s various pronouncements and mini-conflicts.
But we keep getting the same thing over and over again. They’re moments that can fuel Twitter fights and social media outrage, but as a story, this season is failing. There is no growth or change.
Project Greenlight 4 is shallow, surface.
What has reflected off that surface are conversations that need to happen: about diversity, about white privilege, et cetera. It has given many thoughtful writers and critics fuel for eloquent essays and commentary about all the issues that have emerged throughout the season. This is an outstanding outcome—and it’s also unbelievable that it took a reality show in 2015 for some people to notice these problems. (It’s illustrative that when he allegedly apologizing for the events of episode one, Matt Damon instead claimed credit for starting a dialogue.)
So, if that’s all the fourth season has given the world, that’s enough.
But considering the three seasons that have come before Project Greenlight 4, and considering The Chair‘s exceptional achievement at telling a compelling story that also included conflict and conversation-starters, it’s hard not to feel like there’s unrealized potential here.
In a behind-the-episode segment that followed episode six, Ben Affleck says “Reality shows, they sort of goose people” because “conflict makes for drama.” He then insists, seriously, “We’re not looking for drama, we’re looking to more deeply understand filmmaking.”
Beyond Project Greenlight‘s conceit and context—a first-time director directs their first film, with limited budget and resources—there’s no real evidence that anything happened on set beyond the reality show crew following the action.
But what happened in editing was exactly what Affleck accuses reality TV of doing. There is no attempt this season to “more deeply understand filmmaking.” Rather, the editing suggests that all that matters is the drama, the flashpoints of conflict and nothing that comes before or after.
In that same post-episode feature, in a pretty typical soundbite for Jason Mann, he talks about how much “neglect” the production crew had for his “story” and calls it calls it “unconscionable.”
The irony is that it’s really the television show producers who are failing to tell his story.
A sensational edit has hurt Project Greenlight
The production company Magical Elves is back producing Project Greenlight; they took over in season two, when the show became slightly but noticeably more structured and less free-form. The company has consistently produced strong reality television from its earliest days, but has now found its way into a pattern and orbit that, based on the results here, seems inescapable.
Without the pressure of ratings or act breaks for commercials, what has been produced is still a very cable reality series. This is Top Chef on a movie set, except without the elements of a competition format on which to hang all the interpersonal conflict.
What’s left is a series of soundbites in search of a story.
With just eight half-hour episodes to work with, compressing the entire process must have been a daunting challenge for the editors. And this is the shortest season of the series ever: season one had 12 half-hour episodes, season two had 14, and season three had nine hour-long episodes (though, with commercials, that’s more like 40 to 45 minutes.) The Chair had 10 hour-long, commercial-free episodes.
Yet so much of what we’re seeing is repetition of the same conflict that the season would not have suffered if some of those moments were eliminated and others fleshed out—especially since nearly all of post-production has been saved for the finale. There was no need for this lurching from one flash of conflict to the next.
Even the people on the periphery of conflicts barely register. Marc Joubert, the producer from the company that resurrected the Project Greenlight format, Adaptive Studios, is one example. On screen, he wanders around in a perpetual state of aggrieved annoyance. During one episode he said, “We did what we could with the budget Effie said we had to work with.” But even that passive-aggressive accusation that Effie is being deceptive went nowhere; there was no story, just that line.
As reality TV has matured, networks, producers, and others have fled from the term. AMC, which said it was abandoning reality television, just announced a new “nonfiction series.” That’s how toxic the term has become.
What this fourth season proves, if nothing else, is that the genre’s label is irrelevant. Call Project Greenlight a documentary all day long but that doesn’t hide the fact that there’s no fundamental difference between it and The Real Housewives or Survivor—except that those shows develop their characters better, and find arcs to follow during their seasons.
In HBO’s previous two seasons of Project Greenlight, there was also a sense that more was happening beyond the episodes, especially as editors cut around key plot points to make sure the movie itself remained mostly unspoiled. While both of the first two seasons may be remembered for producing commercially unsuccessful films, and faced accusations that the TV show cast for drama, they absolutely had more depth. The directors were often frustrating, but there was also more to them than that, and by the end of their seasons, we understood far more about them than we know about Jason.
Both seasons had the benefit of working in the early days of reality television, when producers were still finding their way in this new medium. They followed their instincts instead of a formula, and the televised results were brilliant. It didn’t matter that the films failed.
Season four of Project Greenlight didn’t even need to produce a commercially successful film, since it’s being broadcast on HBO, so it was free of both that pressure and the pressures currently faced by unscripted television to be fast, cheap, predictable, obvious, and formulaic.
Yet what has ended up on screen is, unfortunately, typical reality TV.