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‘Project Greenlight’ Set Up Rookie Director As Fall Guy

For all the obsessing he did over the small details of his movie, director Jason Mann missed a rather large and obvious one regarding the series about its filming, “Project Greenlight” – namely, that he was being set up as an object of derision, the guy viewers were supposed to dislike.

Although that seemed evident from the get-go, Mann’s casting as the newbie director/resident punching bag became more transparent as the program progressed. Despite the lip-service paid by those in charge to admiring his quirky, uncompromising vision and talent, the young filmmaker gave away in the interview process – during which he essentially expressed disdain for the planned film, ultimately pushing to go with a script he had written – that he would be the most likely to make sparks fly in reality-TV terms.

What’s really irksome, given all that, is how HBO and the star producers danced around that fact, continuing to insist that they were really invested in this endeavor for the love of movie-making. Because when all was said and done, premiering the movie (titled “The Leisure Class”) on the pay channel eliminated past concerns about opening weekends, box office or even DVD sales, allowing those responsible to focus squarely on the TV show, with the movie as what amounted to a side dish, amortized in part by its sister production.

Mann, certainly, played the role of the entitled, clueless artist to perfection. Seemingly as oblivious to budgetary restrictions as he was to how he would come across on camera, he kept “obsessing over what I would consider minor technical issues,” as HBO Films chief Len Amato put it. That image extended to the finale, when he locked a mediocre movie that had been whittled down to 85 minutes, after saying he hoped he wouldn’t have to deal with pesky collaborators on future projects.

Throughout the series, it fell to producer Effie Brown to do everything but shake him by the lapels, while the rest of the crew reacted with grumbling and eye rolls. In the last episode, Mann weathered a barrage of notes from practically everyone who had lent their names to the exercise, including Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. The two stars seemed happy enough to sporadically parachute in for a quick hug, while once again letting the filmmaker they had so nobly championed at the outset become the foil for the unscripted drama.

With the benefit of hindsight, the strangest aspect of this “Project Greenlight” revival is the resistance that the show’s rescuer/production company, Adaptive Studios, caused by seeking first-look deals with the finalists in the competition. Because based on the way this exercise was structured, the company’s interest in making movies with any of them appeared secondary to producing a relatively inexpensive reality show. (As with many Hollywood contracts, the language likely had to do more with defensively covering one’s flank than developing young filmmakers.)

To be fair, Mann might be every bit as myopic as portrayed. But the truth is reality shows seldom offer an unalloyed view of reality, in much the same way that this series wasn’t produced or cast with an eye on what was best for the movie. So while one can understand why novice filmmakers would eagerly jump at such an opportunity, even a cursory viewing of this fourth edition of “Project Greenlight” should provide a big flashing warning sign – alerting any future participants to the potential trap into which they’re walking.

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