Bad Film Hunting 

HBO’s Project Greenlight may never produce a great movie, but the comedy is priceless.

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News flash: Thanks to a slew of under-performing dogs this summer—Paradise Hotel, For Love or Money, Cupid, Fame, Big Brother 4, Who Wants to Marry My Dad?, Pick a Skank Any Skank, et al—the intelligentsia attending the Television Critics Association press tour in Hollywood this month have collectively declared reality TV dead.

And this just in: Some people still can’t program VCRs.

Sure, this could devolve into yet another treatise from The Only TV Column That Matters™ on what a staggering waste of time and money TCA tours are. That any article hacked out by your local newspaper TV critic leading off with “HOLLYWOOD” could just as easily been written from a press release (as they do the rest of the year) and contains absolutely no unique or timely information for readers in return for the thousands of dollars their corporate bosses piss away on a two-week Cali vacation. But, since the enlightened followers of True TV are already hip to such bullshit machinations, we’ll just leave it at that.

Besides, reality TV isn’t dead—it’s just risen to a higher art form on cable. Take Project Greenlight (HBO, Sundays), the Ben Affleck/Matt Damon/Chris Moore contest series for aspiring filmmakers to win the chance to write and direct a $1 million Miramax movie with a guaranteed theatrical release. While the first season was a stone bore that reportedly produced an unpolishable turd (reportedly, because Stolen Summer’s “guaranteed theatrical release” was hella limited, and no one’s dared rent the video at Blockbuster), the current Season 2 is a blast.

The difference this time around is that, instead of picking a single auteur (like Season 1’s Pete Jones), Project Greenlight split the competition into separate writing and directing categories. From over 7,000 submitted scripts and demo reels, Affleck, Damon, Moore and Miramax chose Ohio writer Erica Beeney’s coming-of-age story The Battle of Shaker Heights. Moore thought it good but unmarketable, à la Election or Rushmore, but went along anyway. They’d even the mass-market odds with the directorial choice, right?

Not quite. The gig went to Los Angeles team Efram Potelle and Kyle Rankin, a pair of clowns who somehow managed to slap together a killer presentation for the competition but now seem as passive-aggressively clueless as a two-headed Alan Smithee when it comes to making a real movie. Good Will Hunting’s Ben and Matt they ain’t—try Ren & Stimpy.

Making matters worse, the script that was sooo amazing at the Project Greenlight Sundance announcement party now had to be rewritten within an inch of its life in L.A. pre-production. Beeney seemed either up to the challenge or on the verge of tears/anti-depressant dependency/suicide. It was difficult to tell, but at least her hair looked nice.

On top of that, Potelle was demanding a new car from Miramax because “Erica got one” (a loaner BMW) and then missed a crucial casting meeting because he was busy fiddling with his new ride’s knobs. And, nearly every actor in Hollywood passed on starring in a low-budget contest movie made by amateur filmmakers and the studio visionaries who oversaw Stolen Summer.

Despite it all, a cast is finally in place and the actual filming of Shaker Heights has commenced—now the real comedy begins. Moore, his right-hand man Jeff Balis (whom some may recall Moore heatedly fired in the middle of Greenlight’s first project) and pretty much everyone at Miramax thinks the prizewinners are idiots, and the idiots haven’t offered much evidence to the contrary. Affleck and Damon have no opinion/concern because they wisely made themselves scarce after Sundance, the privilege of being Executive Producers.

Beeney, Potelle and Rankin are at least interesting, talented people committed to pursuing what they love—qualities completely absent from most reality shows—but the filmmaking farce of Project Greenlight is funnier than any given episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm. The conspiracy theory: If The Battle of Shaker Heights is a box-office bomb (which seems all but guaranteed), Moore is sure that Miramax is less likely to fund a third season of the contest than Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back Again, so he’s determined to at least deliver an entertaining show to HBO. Man, has he delivered.

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