Perfect Pitches

Hollywood Dreams: Neophyte director Pete Jones and two child actors in Project Greenlight.Photo: James Bridges

One of the luckier contestants in Project Greenlight – that is, one of the 10,000 hopefuls who subjected their screenplays to the savage online criticism of their peers; who advanced to the second round of 250, where their work was looked at by professionals; who survived a dreadful winnowing-down to the toughest 10, each of whom got a gift box of software, the wherewithal to shoot a single video scene, and a plane ticket to Hollywood to meet Good Will buddies Ben Affleck and Matt Damon; who made the final cut down to 3, one of whom will win $1 million to produce his film; and who then got to pitch their scripts in person before being sent back to wait in their hotel rooms while Ben and Matt and a clutch of Miramax executives did what they do best, which is take a very long meeting – this contestant, full of passion, declares to his interlocutors and the HBO cameras that he isn’t interested in making something as wimpy as an after-school special. Nor a mere Sunday-night movie. He aspires to the Holy Grail itself: a feature film.

Ben, Matt, and Miramax didn’t get into the screenwriting lotto business just to come up with an HBO series. They wanted to give something back to the creative community after the hard time they had selling their script for Good Will Hunting. They sought to “democratize” the process. Project Greenlight, a serial account of that process and its messy aftermath, kicks off with two half-hour episodes that choose the winner and then follows the producing of a film that will open next March. You will not be surprised to hear that the camera on Sunday night finds the winner as he awakens his sleeping wife to deliver the wonderful news.

Of course it’s prurient. Hollywood is its own dirty little secret, and there’s nothing Hollywood likes more than tattling on itself. If you’ve ever looked at the “B roll” and the self-interviews of the actors, producers, and directors that accompany the trailers and selected scene snippets on every promotional reel for every new big-budget movie – conveniently packaged so that TV shows won’t have to practice any sweaty journalism – you already know that these people go on like a bunch of serial killers about their stricken conscience, their arduous craft, and their inspiring triumph over inhibiting standards of intelligence and decency. And if you actually have a friend who has pitched a film or even an after-school special to the decision-making suits, you will be pre-acquainted with what it takes to satisfy a high tribunal of lamebrains, hypocrites, and thieves. Perhaps the closest literary approximation of such a process is the classic Chinese novel The Water Margin, in which 108 bandits wander around the wetlands looking for a fight.

Nevertheless – or maybe I should say therefore – Project Greenlight is wickedly absorbing. For the ten contestants who make it to Hollywood for the mass screening of their video scenes, the limo and the carpet and the hands-on celebrity greeting are almost enough, one of them says, to make them feel “you were somebody important.” Never mind that Ben and Matt joke too long on the stage before announcing the three finalists. Never mind those finalists’ having to sit through a cross between a criminal interrogation and a frat-boy hazing. Never mind that even the winner, an eager and affable guy by the name of Pete Jones, is likely to discover that the high point of his life was a couple of minutes on The Tonight Show, being joshed by Jay Leno, before he had to go out there and really make a movie.

At least Miramax has promised to distribute Jones’s forthcoming Stolen Summer, about the coming-of-age of an 8-year-old, with Aidan Quinn, Bonnie Hunt, Kevin Pollak, and Brian Dennehy. (How a first-time writer-director got such a cast will also be revealed on Project Greenlight.) The worst is then to come: Linda Yellen spent more than two years looking for a distributor for her lovely little movie The Simian Line, only to see it disdained in five-minute reviews by after-school critics.

Project Greenlight
Documentary series about the making of an independent movie, executive-produced by Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, and Chris Moore, and produced by HBO, Miramax, and LivePlanet. Sundays, starting December 2, 10 to 11 p.m.; HBO.

In Brief
Ruby’s Bucket of Blood (December 1; 8 to 10 p.m.; Showtime), with Angela Bassett as the proprietor of a Louisiana-bayou juke joint in 1960 who falls in troublemaking love with white-boy singer Kevin Anderson, is based on Julie Hébert’s adaptation of her own play. While Bassett, as usual, is splendid, it really should have been an opera.

Brian’s Song (December 2; 7 to 9 p.m.; ABC), a remake of the 1971 TV movie about the white football player who befriends his more talented black teammate before dying of cancer, stars Sean Maher instead of James Caan as Brian Piccolo, Mekhi Phifer instead of Billy Dee Williams as Gale Sayers, and Ben Gazzara instead of Jack Warden as coach George Halas of the Chicago Bears. It’s just as much a weepie now as it was then, and just as sweet too.

The Lost Battalion (December 2; 8 to 10 p.m.; A&E) stars Rick Schroder as the young Army major, a Harvard-educated New York lawyer, who led slightly more than half of his men out of the Argonne Forest in World War I in spite of the military command that left them there almost on purpose. Trench warfare shot through a khaki-colored lens.

Call Me Claus (December 2; 8 to 10 p.m.; TNT) puts Whoopi Goldberg in charge as a producer at a home-shopping cable network who is more surprised than we are that she’s been destined since childhood to take over for Santa Claus (Sir Nigel Hawthorne!) when, after 200 years on the job, he at last reaches mandatory retirement age. With Brian Stokes Mitchell and Victor Garber also trying a little too hard.

Jim Henson’s Jack and the Beanstalk: The Real Story (December 2 and 4; 9 to 11 p.m.; CBS) would have us believe that when the original Jack stole the treasure and killed the giant, he helped establish the family fortune that would finance a multinational corporation indifferent to the safety of its workers, the health of the environment, and the betterment of the race. His great-great-great greedhead grandson, Matthew Modine, will have to pay the price for this, even if that price includes Mia Sara, Vanessa Redgrave, Richard Attenborough, Daryl Hannah, and (with a sort of German accent that tips us off to his evil agenda) Jon Voight. Mixed messages – blood guilt and revenge fantasies – but you’ll have a moderate amount of fun sorting them out.

Perfect Pitches