Non-pro scribe contest seems duplicitous, insiders say

Similar to the schadenfreude felt when Pop.com flopped, industryites have been snickering at “Project Greenlight,” an online screenwriting contest from Matt Damon and Ben Affleck’s Netco LivePlanet.com, HBO and Miramax.

Per the contest, non-pro screenwriters submit one script. After a winning script is selected, Miramax will pony up $1 million to make the movie and release it theatrically in January 2002. HBO has committed to a 13-episode series covering the making of the movie scheduled for fall 2001.

Damon, Affleck and LivePlanet CEO Chris Moore (co-producer of “Good Will Hunting”) will serve as executive producers of both the cable show and indie pic.

Along with starring in the cable series, the winner will be awarded $82,000; several thousand people have entered.

But since “Greenlight” went live in September, industry insiders have been whispering about the contest’s seemingly duplicitous and even unscrupulous nature.

First, Damon and Affleck’s participation is contingent on their availability, meaning to many that they are nothing more than glorified spokesmen and not the hands-on company co-founders they claim to be.

Big deal. Movie stars want to make movies instead of slogging away at a start-up.

More of an indictment, however, is the claim that the contest bilks 250 contestants who make the initial cut out of ownership of their scripts without any compensation.

On page 5 of the official contest rules which states that “each of the Top 250 and Alternates will be required to grant (or, as applicable, to confirm prior the grant of) certain rights (including, without limitation, intellectual property rights) to Miramax, HBO and/or LivePlanet Films…”

Despite the convoluted legalese, Gordon Einstein, an LA-based entertainment and new media attorney familiar with the contest, says “the rules seem pretty straightforward and fair.”

Einstein says as the winners are weeded out, contestants will be asked to sign undisclosed contracts at specific stages of selection, but the exact terms of those contracts aren’t included in the official rules.

“They may not have decided on all the details yet,” says Einstein. But as “Greenlight” progresses, “contestants have no idea what rights they’ll be asked to give up later on.”

LivePlanet declined to comment on the contracts.

In Einstein’s opinion, those contracts will probably be pretty short and simple. Contracts become complex when the talent involved can leverage better deals for, say, back-end dollars, because of their past projects or celebrity, he says.

“But these people entering ‘Project Greenlight’ are specifically targeted as amateurs,” says Einstein. “They have no leverage.”

Although it’s possible that those who make the contest’s early cuts, but aren’t the final winner, won’t retain the rights to their scripts, Einstein points out that entering “Greenlight” offers non-pros better odds of getting a script sold and a movie made than trying to peddle a project on their own.

“Amateurs are in a poor bargaining position,” says Einstein. “Writers get pissed on all day in Hollywood and amateurs suffer a whole different level of abuse.”

But ultimately, according to Einstein, contestants can opt out at any stage. “If the final contract stinks, they don’t have to sign it.”

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