“Project Greenlight” returns to HBO after a lengthy hiatus, and begins with a great big fib. Producers Ben Affleck and Matt Damon say the show, which chronicles the production of an independent film under a novice director, is “about what it really takes to make a movie.” But in actuality, the show is, and always has been, devoted not to the art of filmmaking, but to the commerce of reality television. The movies — the mission in which these reality players are engaged — are, frankly, an afterthought. As a consequence, the reunited star power merely yields a display of premium-tier self-aggrandizement.
For starters, the educational component of the show is mitigated by the fact the movie being made will be shot for HBO on a $3 million budget. Just to put that in context, that’s the equivalent of about one-and-a-half Hallmark movies, perhaps a quarter of one of HBO’s prestige movies, and the craft-services tab on a major studio release.
As for all the artsy talk and lip service paid to the filmmaking craft, that’s strictly secondary, in commercial terms, to the process. And while the “winner” has been known for months, we’ll skip past that — the “reveal,” such as it is, comes at the end of the premiere — and note only that the choice was seemingly motivated less by a desire to make the most viable movie than simply to maximize the drama of the show surrounding it.
Indeed, in what amounts to a callback to the program’s roots, the producers enlist the winner of the first “Greenlight,” Pete Jones, to work as the movie’s writer, which seems as much because he knows the reality-TV drill as anything else.
The history of the concept is, at this point, far more interesting than the series itself. Damon and Affleck introduced it, along with producer Chris Moore, in 2001. After a second season, the program shifted to Bravo, then sat dormant for roughly a decade, while Moore went off and produced “The Chair” — essentially a “Greenlight” knockoff with a competition element — for Starz.
The ostensible goal this time around is to produce a comedy, with the Farrelly brothers, Peter and Bobby — best known for raucous movies like “There’s Something About Mary” and “Dumb and Dumber” — participating in the endeavor.
Ultimately, though, most of the action surrounds the front-line producers (Marc Joubert, Effie Brown) charged with keeping the production on track, while HBO movie exec Len Amato appears periodically to impose seemingly arbitrary deadlines. As for comedy, the biggest laugh comes when one of the Farrellys greets Affleck by pointing out how bulked-up he looks — a byproduct, no doubt, of his “Batman” role, where one suspects nobody is fretting about the budgetary implications of shooting on film as opposed to digital.
Mostly, once you get past thinning the contestant pool down to a victor, “Project Greenlight” becomes any task-driven reality show, and less a primer on the movie business’s machinery than just another case-study of big egos and personalities under pressure. In fact, the extent to which HBO is unfettered by box-office concerns, as Amato notes, renders the show even less illuminating about customary studio priorities.
So will the chosen filmmaker compromise enough to put the envisioned product on screen? The better question, frankly, is should we care? In the production notes, Affleck proclaims that “Project Greenlight” was “ahead of its time,” and that’s likely true. But now it seems very much of its time. While that might result in reasonably dramatic TV, in keeping with the conventions of the reality genre, it’s also the sort of dime-a-dozen project that hardly screams “HBO.”