'Here's $1 million - make a movie'

By , Arts and culture correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

If you are one of those people who complain about the quality of the movies at your local multiplex, and think you could do better, then HBO has a series for you.

"Project Greenlight" is the concept of two Hollywood wunderkind, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, who won an Oscar for their joint film "Good Will Hunting" in 1997. The duo sees "Greenlight," being presented as a 12-part documentary on HBO (Sundays, 10-11 p.m.), as a way to give the same opportunity they had to other newcomers.

Based on an online contest that solicited new material, as well as online evaluations of the material, the team financed a project by first-time filmmaker Pete Jones. Filmed over five weeks on location in Chicago, the HBO documentary follows the trials of the former insurance salesman as he puts together his first movie with professional actors on a shoestring budget of $1 million.

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"This is not about a bunch of people stabbing each other for $1 million," Mr. Affleck says. "This is a documentary, hopefully showing people what it's really like to make a movie. And also, at the same time, provide the opportunity for somebody who was on the outside of the Hollywood power structure" to get their movie made.

The project began - and still exists - as a website (projectgreenlight.com) that solicits new material and evaluates it. "We saw it as a kind of democratization of the process of deciding who gets to make a movie," Affleck says, "because it was a peer-evaluated contest on the Internet."

The desire to open doors to new voices came out of Affleck's and Mr. Damon's sense that the Hollywood system is too insular. "That was our big thing," Affleck says.

"All the good writers can't be in Los Angeles, already working for Hollywood. There has to be this great, you know, whoever-it-is out there somewhere. So finally, we have something we can say to people, which is 'send it to this website.' "

The HBO documentary was born of the belief that the offscreen stories in Hollywood are often as interesting as what makes it onscreen.

"We just talked about all these movies that we'd done," says Damon. "Thirty to 40 movies, and there was always some kind of drama just inherent to the process, just because people are under the gun, and they're trying to make decisions fast, and they're working really hard. With a million-dollar movie, and we've all worked on million-dollar movies, we just thought that would make fascinating television, just the way it does when you see [director] Werner Herzog freaking out on a river in [the 1982 documentary] 'Burden of Dreams.' "

"A lot of what goes on in Hollywood is its own little animal," says Chris Moore, who, along with Affleck and Damon, served as an executive producer of "Project Greenlight." "We wanted to show some of that. We think people are genuinely interested.... Guys like me or Miramax studio executives or whoever don't usually want the camera turned on them. They don't want people to see what it is that really gets decided in the backrooms...."

Mr. Jones's "Stolen Summer" is the story of an 8-year-old Irish boy who befriends a seven-year-old Jewish boy who has been diagnosed with a fatal illness. The friends spend their time trying to find a way to get the dying boy into heaven. Miramax is scheduled to release the movie in February.

Newcomer Jones says his biggest challenge was staying true to his vision but not losing track of the opportunity he'd been given.

"You go from 'thank you, you gave me a chance of a lifetime' to 'I gotta do it now, I wrote the script, I believe in it,' and you've got to stick to your guns," says Jones, who confesses to a love-hate relationship with the process.

"There are trying times when you're just thinking that being an insurance salesman in Chicago ain't so bad. I guess sometimes the grass is always greener, because I'd be thinking it'd be nice to be working 9 to 5 [again] and go home to my wife and my baby and live somewhat a normal life, instead of 7 [a.m.] to midnight just to go back to your room to watch dailies [scenes shot each day], to figure out what mistakes you made two days ago."

Jones says the work takes a toll,"but I already miss being on the set."

The website for "Project Greenlight" continues to accept new material. The executive producers say they owe this opportunity to others who find the door shut to new faces in the entertainment industry.

"You've got to spend a little bit of time looking at the new voices and the new people, and the people who are out there," Mr. Moore says. "So, we're going to get up there and say, 'Look, here's what it is: We think these people exist out there, and we're going to try to use whatever small amount of power we have inside the [studio] gate to try and bring people in.' "

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