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Project Greenlight is back with new sources of tension and drama—including itself

Project Greenlight is back with new sources of tension and drama—including itself
Meko Winbush on set directing Gray Matter, a genre film produced for Project Greenlight season 5 (Photo by Max)

Project Greenlight: A New Generation has a subtitle that suggests it has handed off the torch, left its past behind, and in some ways, that is blissfully true: gone are Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, Chris Moore and his temper-tantrums.

The ghost of HBO Max floats through the series, as the studio is called “HBO Max” throughout despite its recent rebranding. Executives from HBO Max are featured even though they didn’t last through Warner Bros. Discovery’s cost-cutting purge.

Although Max is calling this Project Greenlight season one, new mentor and executive producer Issa Rae and others reference previous seasons. Given frequent attention is how Project Greenlight previously hired four white male directors, so only female directors are considered this season.

“We want to make sure that ours is actually a great film,” Issa Rae says, casting shade upon the previous output. Later, she says, “If the movie’s trash, I don’t even want the show to come out.”

It’s not just the films. The last season was a mess, too, from Matt Damon mansplaining diversity to Effie Brown, the film’s Black producer, to Project Greenlight itself giving an episode a racist title.

Alongside Issa Rae are mentors Kumail Nanjiani, an actor, and Gina Prince-Bythewood, a director, as mentors.

As is usual with Project Greenlight, the mentors are not around all that much; after all, they’re doing actual work, like filming the Barbie movie in London and editing The Woman King.

Besides the director, the series’ main characters are the Hollywood executives from Issa Rae’s company, Hoorae, and CatchLight, the producers of the film, who are there to guide the director through the process.

Three people sitting on a couch, holding notebooks, looking forward
Project Greenlight 5 mentors Issa Rae, Kumail Nanjiani, and Gina Prince-Bythewood interviewing directors (Photo by Max)

What remains from Project Greenlight’s earlier seasons is the genius of the documentary’s format that was established back in 2001: a first-time director being introduced to the realities of Hollywood.

The tension comes from all directions: the abbreviated timeline, the small budget, the presence of a reality TV crew filming everything.

This season, it’s especially the reality TV crew. The production designer insists it’s “unreasonable” and “slightly disrespectful” to be filmed for Project Greenlight, after agreeing to be filmed.

There’s a surprising amount of conflict between the television production and the film production, or at least, it’s surprising that we’re seeing so much of it. One of the 10 episodes is even titled “PGL vs Gray Matter Problem.”

In the preceding episode, when there’s an audio issue, Project Greenlight’s audio is blamed. The TV show’s audio mixer, Joshua Chavez, even appears on screen. “I think that there was a lot of tension between the two crews because so much money is spent every day of production,” he says.

Behind the scenes, the producers have not changed: Magical Elves’ Jane Lipsitz and Dan Cutforth, who produced the first four seasons, left that company, and now run Alfred Street Industries, which is producing this season.

And, of course, there’s the first-time film director, who’s the central character. While the chosen director isn’t revealed until the end of the first episode, her name and image are all over promotional material for the series and film, Gray Matter.

A person sitting on a soft teal chair, leaning forward, hands together and holding a notebook
Meko Winbush interviewing for the Project Greenlight 5 director role, which she won (Photo by Max)

Hollywood’s fascination with genre and IP has led to Project Greenlight deciding its director will direct a genre film, though with original IP: its sci-fi with a psychic main character.

There’s no script contest, just a script commissioned by the film’s producers that is not in great shape. Director Meko Winbush just wants to sit and think through its problems; no one has time or patience for that.

It’s clear from the first interview Meko does with the producing team that, while her work is excellent, she has no interest in expository dumps of introspection, and her strengths are not in a kind of type-A leadership.

Her inspiring speech to the cast and crew on day one is, well, not. “I think there’s a world where we come out of this not hating each other, and hopefully come out of this with some new friends,” she says, quietly. “Let’s do good work.”

Yet Meko’s persona is is a refreshing change from Project Greenlight’s past parade of egos. She’s not performing for the cameras or anyone, and she’s clearly capable of excellent work.

Her approach and style, however, fuel most of the season’s frustration. The producers are annoyed, repeatedly, episode after episode, with her lack of communication and clarity about her vision for the film and its script.

In Project Greenlight’s telling, the executives are more than happy to tell the reality show’s cameras how disappointed they are that Meko hasn’t answered questions or isn’t living up to their expectations, but they don’t speak as directly with her. This is such a baffling choice, and one that seems designed to set Meko up to fail.

“There are not a lot of people of color making genre films,” Issa Rae tells us at one point. “There’s this mentality that if one fucks it up, they fuck it up for everyone.” An unstated question is whether Project Greenlight fucking it up for Meko, either because of the producers’ lack of support for her or just the builtin challenges of making a film like this.

It’s not until episode six that Hoorae’s Montrel McKay has a direct conversation with Meko. And it’s not until they’re on set that the various producers realize there’s tension among themselves.

Jeanette Volturno, CatchLight, tells Hoorae execs, “Sometimes it’s perceived that instead of trying to help her get to that point, it’s more of a device for the show.”

Montrel says, “It’s not in our best interest to do a damn show and sabotage the first woman director on Project Greenlight. That is ridiculous. Nobody’s thinking like that.”

Montrel later tells Meko directly: “there is never a world where the show is coming before your movie,” and adds, “we want to challenge you.”

Moments earlier, he told the other producers, “This is how we create an institution and get a movie made every year with a new filmmaker. We don’t get better, amazing people next season if we’re here to sabotage people. Meko’s got to understand that this show is why she’s here. Nobody’s looking for Meko before this show.”

That’s just one instance where the question of power, and who has it, arises. Earlier, HBO Max execs reject the lead actor that Meko chooses. “How much do a say-so do I get?” Meko asks. The casting director says, “You can’t just say no. They’re the studio; they’re paying for this.”

All of this makes for great television, though the choices the TV show makes are sometimes questionable. Project Greenlight gets off to a slow and frustrating start.

The first episode, when the producers pick a director from a pool of 10, has a challenge in it: Each of the finalists must direct short, three-minute scene from the script. They have just $5,000 and three weeks.

That’s a challenge that mirrors the premise of the Project Greenlight offshoot The Chair, which was outstanding in part because it showed two directors’ opposite approaches to the same script.

But the first episode leapfrogs over that challenge, and keeps the focus on people talking, not showing us what they’re talking about: the scenes themselves. There’s a point at which the show shows flashes of the same dialogue from a few of the directors’ scenes, and there are a few other disjointed clips shown, but that’s all.

Why not show us the three-minute scenes of the top contenders? Or more of the scene that disappoints everyone? (The 10 full scenes are available as extras on Max.) Meanwhile, episodes repeat several minutes of the same footage that we just saw, as if this was an HGTV show.

After that, Project Greenlight has some pacing issues. Filming on the movie doesn’t start until episode seven, yet it still manages to jump past major milestones in the production. We go from the aftermath of an awkward table read to a set full of people, for example.

We’ve spent so much time on Meko’s alleged intransigence that the production apparatus appears from nowhere. Was this her and her team? Who’s done all of this work?

Despite these flaws, Project Greenlight is still captivating television, thanks to its glimpse into the process of both making a film under tough constraints and filming a reality TV show at the same time.

Project Greenlight 5: A New Generation

The TV show’s editing issues and the film’s mentoring issues ultimately don’t get in the way of a great season of television. A-

What works for me:

  • The core format
  • The demonstration of Hollywood’s challenges, especially for first-time directors
  • The show’s transparency about conflict between it and the film

What could be better:

  • The balance in the editing of the episodes
  • More actual mentorship from the mentors and producers

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About the author

  • Andy Dehnart

    Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means.

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Sunday 16th of July 2023

I like your summary and perspective of the new season.