Synopsis by Josh Ralske
Project Greenlight is an ambitious and unique reality program. The series was a joint venture of Miramax, HBO, Sam Adams, and LivePlanet. The executive producers of the series and the subsequent feature film, Stolen Summer, were actor/screenwriters Matt Damon and Ben Affleck and producer Chris Moore (American Pie), who are co-founders of LivePlanet. The first season aired on HBO beginning in December of 2001, but it all began with a screenwriting contest announced in September of 2000. The winner of the contest would be able to direct their film, with a one-million-dollar budget and theatrical distribution supplied by Miramax. Over 7,000 entries were received through the Project Greenlight website. Using a peer review process, the entries were narrowed down to 250. These 250 contestants were each asked to make a three-minute personal video to pitch their project and themselves. These tapes were reviewed by Damon, Affleck, Moore, and executives from Miramax, who narrowed the field down to the top 30. The 30 screenplays were read and evaluated, and ten were selected to move on to the next stage. Each of these ten contestants was given digital equipment to shoot and edit a three-minute scene from their screenplay. They were then flown to Los Angeles, where their scenes were publicly screened, and then Damon and Affleck announced the three finalists. After interviewing the finalists about their scripts, and debating amongst themselves about the relative merits of each project, Pete Jones was selected as the contest winner for his script, Stolen Summer. All of this was shown in the first episode of Project Greenlight. The television series then went on to follow Jones through the preproduction process. The novice director immediately runs into trouble because he's written a period film, set in Chicago, with two young boys in the lead. Producer Chris Moore repeatedly runs down the problems with doing such a complicated shoot on such a small budget, while fighting alongside Jones to get more money from Miramax. Eventually, they get enough money to shoot a period film on location in Chicago, but they're on a very tight schedule. Jones offers key roles in the film to Sean Penn and Emma Thompson, who turn it down. Eventually, Aidan Quinn and Bonnie Hunt are cast instead, with Kevin Pollak in an important supporting role. The series captures the grind of low-budget filmmaking as the production begins. Jones' inexperience, combined with the reluctance of co-producer Jeff Balis and line producer Pat Peach to interfere with the director's vision, leads to a lot of stress on the set, as poorly conceived and elaborate shots lead to several long, disastrous days. There's a tremendous amount of pressure on the production team to "make the day" -- shoot every shot scheduled for every given day -- because the production is on such a tight budget and can't afford overruns. Jones is often forced to cut dialogue and simplify scenes, not just to save time, but to get the performances he wants from his two young actors, Adi Stein and Mike Weinberg. Several mistakes are made early on, and Moore begins to worry about where the shoot is headed. Peach, meanwhile, in what seems like a power play, complains both to Moore and to people at Miramax about Balis' inexperience. Moore considers firing Balis, over the objections of Jones, but is dissuaded by a vote of confidence from Miramax exec Michelle Sy. More conflicts arise as the production team feels that Jones is giving too much power to director of photography Pete Biagi, who seems to be more concerned about "making his reel" than telling Jones' story. Eventually, the strenuous production wraps. A couple of episodes are devoted to the sometimes painful editing decisions that Jones has to make during postproduction. On the last episode of the first season, Stolen Summer premieres at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival. The crowd at Sundance, having seen the earlier episodes of the show, is surprised to see how well the finished film turned out. While Stolen Summer garnered its share of positive reviews, it failed to do much business at the box office. In addition, several of the people involved in the production complained about how the television series portrayed the shoot, claiming that the show's producers went out of their way to make minor problems and conflicts look more dramatic than they actually were. Kevin Pollak wrote disparagingly of the program (though he did admit it was entertaining) on the Project Greenlight website. Nevertheless, when it was all said and done, plans were in the air to hold another contest and produce a second season of the television program.