HBO's "Project Greenlight" won't appeal to film fans as much as it will to movie business aficionados and wannabe movers and shakers. Want an insider's perspective on backbiting, bickering, ego trips and power in Hollywood? This is the show for you.
Ben Affleck, Matt Damon and producer pal Chris Moore team with Miramax Pictures to hold an online contest for aspiring screenwriters. The winner gets a $1 million budget to make a movie, and the process is chronicled in this 12-part HBO series.
Sunday night's premiere - two episodes air from 10 to 11 p.m. - plays a bit like The WB's band-creating "Pop Stars," only it's a million times more interesting than hearing teenage girls massacre Whitney Houston songs.
Plus, the contest part is over by the end of Sunday's well-edited, entertaining premiere.
Viewers see clips from video biographies of some contestants, including a mail carrier, who offers this reassurance: "Hey, don't worry, I'm not disgruntled. Not yet, at least."
After narrowing 10,000 entries to 250 finalists, the top 10 are brought to Los Angeles for a screening of a scene from their script that they shot on video. From there, the lot is reduced to three: A broad comedy, an edgy drama and another drama Damon describes as "so much like an 'Afterschool Special."'
Affleck and Damon chain-smoke through the multi-hour deliberations, which are peppered with HBO-OK profanities. It's fascinating to eavesdrop on the conversations and to watch as Miramax executives vacillate among the three projects.
"This is just like 'Survivor,"' Affleck says as the decision nears. "We're going to put out somebody's torch."
Stop reading now if you don't want to know who wins, though it's not a secret. (HBO announced the winner months ago and Sunday's "Project Greenlight" is edited with an eye toward showcasing that person.)
Although the Pete Jones script "Stolen Summer" comes off as "a little saccharine" to both Damon and Affleck, the judges are ultimately swayed by the sincerity and passion of Jones' pitch for his tale of a boy's search for a key to heaven.
"Project Greenlight" gets more juicy next week as pre-production on "Stolen Summer" begins (the film is expected to be released Feb. 22). Moore and his seasoned colleagues have to coach Jones on how to behave in meetings (it's a good idea to take notes), and it occurs to Jones that "everything you write has a cost to it."
Money is where "Stolen Summer" bogs down. Miramax executives claim they only agreed to spend $1 million on the film, but Moore, Affleck and Damon argue that a higher budget was discussed in the deliberations on what film to make, and the studio knew "Stolen Summer" would cost more.
Jones wants to shoot the film in his native Chicago and set it in 1976, as his script specifies, but both will push the budget close to $2 million, which the Miramax executives reject. In addition, Jones and Moore argue about the film's ending.
"It's the dilemma of experience," Jones says. "I don't have it, he does, but who's right?"
Miramax executives rightly worry that they'll look like the bad guys, and they often do. Even when they talk to the "Stolen Summer" production team off camera, some of those conversations get relayed to "Project Greenlight" viewers.
Not that Jones comes off as perfect. He threatens to cry in front of executives a little too willingly, and even film director Kevin Smith accuses him of being ungrateful. But mostly Jones is someone to cheer for.
That's especially true in the Dec. 16 episode when Affleck uses his movie-star clout to bypass the roadblocks set up by a Miramax executive, or, as Affleck says, he goes "right the 1/8 expletive 3/8 over your head, dude."
In addition to the behind-the-scenes battles, "Project Greenlight" also reveals the fakery that permeates Hollywood. When Affleck went on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" earlier this year and revealed the winner of the contest, he pretended like he was supposed to wait until the next day to spill the beans.
"You guys are gonna get me in trouble," Affleck said, fabricating the illusion that he was revealing a secret and throwing a wrench into PR plans.
In reality, the revelation was planned with precision.
Much is written today about the products that come out of Hollywood, but rarely do we glimpse the drudgery that's involved in bringing movies to life. "Project Greenlight" offers a rare and unvarnished glimpse at the friction-filled cogs and gears that drive the Hollywood machine.