‘Project Greenlight’ Season 4 Premiere Recap

Did we need another season of Project Greenlight, the reality show where Matt Damon and Ben Affleck give some white dude a bunch of money to make a movie that will inevitably turn out terrible? No, we probably did not, but thanks to HBO, we’ve got one anyway — and Flavorwire is here to recap it, in all its frustrating addictiveness. Hey, maybe we’ll learn something about the way movies are made (and maybe each revelation will be more depressing than the last)!

Before we get into Season 4, some Project Greenlight history for those who didn’t follow it the first time around: The show debuted on HBO in 2001 as a collaboration between Damon, Affleck, their production company LivePlanet, producer Chris Moore, and Miramax. A call for screenplays resulted in thousands of submissions, the team chose Pete Jones’ Stolen Summer, and the show documented the making of that film. Subsequent seasons tweaked the formula slightly, with Greenlight moving to Bravo for its horror-themed third season. Notoriously, the series never produced even one decent film — though it was something of a reality-TV groundbreaker, setting the stage for Project Runway (also a Miramax creation), which in turn inspired countless great (Top Chef) and awful (Top Design) creative competition shows on Bravo, many helmed by key participants in Greenlight.

The big change ten — yes, really, ten! — years later, aside from the show’s return to HBO, is that for Season 4, Greenlight skipped the whole screenplay competition and limited its search to up-and-coming directors, one of whom would receive a $3 million budget to make an already-scripted film under the dubious guidance of the Farrelly brothers. Also, because this is 2015, the preliminary rounds involved Facebook. (Remember: when this series last aired, both that site and YouTube were in their infancy.)

Perhaps the first sign that this season of Greenlight was going to be a bit anemic came when HBO shortened the length of last night’s premiere from an hour to just 40 minutes. As it turns out, this brief episode begins by wasting some time behind the scenes of a PG promo shoot, which doesn’t exactly bode well, either.

In fact, much of the premiere is just a series of introductions. We meet the Greenlight team, which includes a few women this time (Pearl Street Films President Jennifer Todd is joined later in the episode by veteran producer Effie Brown, most recently known for Dear White People), along with the Farrellys, Adaptive Studios’ Marc Joubert, and HBO Films president Len Amato. And when the 13 finalists have been selected, we see them arrive in LA and learn their stories: Bosnian-born Marko Slavnic  seems to be your classic cinephile; Chris Capel has a pregnant wife; Ashley Barnhill is here with her ex and filmmaking partner, Kirk Johnson, who she, um, meant to include on her application but, whoops, forgot; etc.

Interspersed with all of these introductions — which feel a bit excessive, considering that we’ll know who our Season 4 director is by the end of the episode — are clips from the movies under discussion (though we’ll see more of those later, when it’s time for the contestants to meet Mattfleck and the suits) and snippets of the committee’s reactions to them. These videos are maddeningly short, so it’s hard to understand what makes Matt Damon see a film called “Beanie Bros,” which really is about a group of bros who all show up wearing beanies, and decide, “I would put that guy in the top ten.” As for the rest of the movies, well, a few look decent… and a few look like Instagram accounts brought to life. The only one that truly catches my eye is Jason Mann’s “Delicacy,” which seems to combine gross-out humor with patient, confident directing and a strong visual style.

Once Mann and the other finalists arrive in LA (and have had a few drinks), each having shot the same brief test script on a $1k budget to help the committee further narrow their options, there’s another fun surprise: Pete Jones is back! Thirteen years later, the writer-director’s IMDb page looks like this, and so Greenlight has hired him to serve as the film’s writer, tasked with rewriting the existing script to reflect the director’s vision.

Speaking of that script! In the premiere, we learn that this season’s director will have the honor of calling a Farrelly-style “broad comedy” his feature-film debut. Apparently titled Not Another Pretty Woman (sigh), it’s about a man who gets left at the altar (sigh) and ends up marrying a prostitute instead (I think I’m going to be sick). And if that isn’t trope-ridden and potentially sexist enough for you, it comes out that the sex worker character, Harmony, is a black woman with a white pimp. Hey, what in the world could go wrong? (Also: does this sound like an HBO original movie to you?)

As the contestants begin their interviews with the Greenlight team, it becomes clear — because Brown, who’s apparently the sole voice for racial or gender diversity here, is forced to make it clear — that what we have is a handful of largely male, largely white directors competing to make a movie whose success may well depend on whether they’re able to portray Harmony’s character in a way that isn’t deeply exploitative.

There probably isn’t much hope for Adriano “Beanie Bro” Valentini on this score, though he gets dangerously close to the director’s chair, coming away with Matt Damon’s assessment that he is the strongest writer in the competition. Brown advocates for the duo of Vietnamese-born stuntman Leo Kei Angelos and YouTube video maker Kristen Brancaccio, the latter of whom said she would make efforts to avoid “slut-shaming.”  (Like Brancaccio, all three female finalists are part of mixed-gender team. Looks like no solo woman filmmaker was up to snuff.) But Matt Damon isn’t convinced by Brown’s argument that the team should prioritize diversity behind the camera. “You do it in the casting of the film, not the casting of the show,” he says, insisting that the choice should be made solely based on — you guessed it — “merit.” In his defense, most of Hollywood probably agrees with Matt Damon that casting a black woman in a lead role as a prostitute totally makes up for ignoring the gender and racial makeup of the crew.

The wildcard is Mann, who everyone seems to feel is the most talented filmmaker. The thing is, he’s prickly and artsy and brutally honest in his assessment of this probably-quite-stupid script. “I feel like the movie would transform if I directed it,” he says. “I haven’t quite wrapped my mind around how to make this movie good yet.” His attitude annoys Peter Farrelly in particular, whose creative integrity has guided him through such masterpieces as Shallow Hal and two Dumb and Dumber movies.

In the end, Brown and Farrelly both lose, probably as much because an exacting auteur directing a Farrelly brothers comedy makes for good TV as because Mann truly is the most talented contestant. “I just pitched them what I think is the least commercial version of the movie,” Project Greenlight Season 4’s director tells us, visibly surprised, upon discovering that he’s won. And then… Mann pulls his new collaborators aside and tells them he wants to shoot the movie on film, not digital. Oh, also? He’d like to fire Pete Jones and hire Andy Bienen, who he mentions wrote Boys Don’t Cry.

And with that, goddammit, Project Greenlight has done it: the show has created a juicy enough setup to reel me in for a full season. Will Hollywood prejudices and power structures be reinscribed? Definitely! Will there be casual sexism and racism? Sure thing! Will difficult, egotistical men fight petty battles? Well, of course! Will Effie Brown be the sole voice of reason for this whole damn season? I’m counting on it! Will a bullheaded rookie filmmaker be beaten down by the pressures of creating “product”? More than likely! And will the resulting film be nigh on unwatchable? Hard to imagine it won’t be… but, yes, obviously, I am going to stick around long enough to find out. Sigh.