Why reality TV makes for so-so films

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

"The Battle of Shaker Heights" is a mediocre coming-of-age tale that lasts about as long as it takes to eat a small bag of popcorn. Despite having a charming star, Shia LaBeouf ("Holes"), critical praise has not been forthcoming, and even moviegoers are saying, "It's a rental."

You'd think that would be enough to keep people away. But when the film's distribution expanded beyond New York and Los Angeles over the Labor Day weekend, at least one opening night showing in Boston was packed with ticket-holders.

The reason for the turnout is reality TV, of course. "The Battle of Shaker Heights" is the subject of a recent HBO series, "Project Greenlight." Spearheaded by actors Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, the project plucks a screenwriter and a director out of obscurity and gives them the opportunity to make a low-budget, Hollywood movie while HBO's cameras capture their initiation. After two seasons, the crash course in filmmaking has resulted in brilliant TV, but less-than-memorable movies.

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You can't blame any of us who watched the HBO series for being curious about how it all turned out. After all, not long before the movie's release, the directors and the studio were still fighting over whether it would be a drama or a comedy. (They finally settled on the latter - but the directors had to create laughs with what they had already shot.)

"I'm expecting to see if they pulled it off," said Jennifer Davis, as she settled in for the crowded show in Boston. "Is this movie how I pictured it in my head?"

I got hooked on HBO's "Greenlight" as much for the antics of the amateur directors as for a look at how a film makes it from soundstage to cineplex. Week after week, I sat on the edge of my overstuffed chair waiting to see who Kyle Rankin and Efram Potelle would irritate next - and if the movie would end up going straight to video, as the studio, Miramax, suggested at one point. I'm sure these guys are much nicer than portrayed - this is reality TV - but watching them make a movie was like watching Conan O'Brien learn to host a talk show a decade ago: You couldn't help thinking,"I could do better than that!"

Their demands are by now infamous. Mr. Potelle wanted a car when fellow winner, writer Erica Beeney, was provided with one because she wasn't from Los Angeles. They once wasted hours during a shoot with a meeting to ask the producers not to criticize them in front of the actors (they helpfully suggested that producer Chris Moore could instead pass them 3 in. by 5 in. cards). They rewrote scenes without Ms. Beeney's input. And they so infuriated one actress with their conflicting suggestions that she used her middle finger to express her frustration.

By the time the movie premièred in Los Angeles, even they were poking fun at themselves. "This is the fulfillment of a childhood dream for both of us," Mr. Rankin told the audience. "I've always wanted to direct a film, and Efram's always wanted to demand a car."

As it turns out, these two aren't awful directors. Often during the movie, about an angst-filled teen who likes to reenact World War II battles, I found myself thinking, "Hey, that was a good scene." But I also found myself thinking, "Hey, there's no character development."

I wasn't the only one with reservations. "I expected worse quality, but a better story," said Bob Newton, of Georgetown, Mass. "I actually liked [HBO's] 'Project Greenlight' better."

Still, in the end, I agreed with Ms. Davis: The movie was not great, but not "Ishtar." "You laugh," she said as she was leaving, "but it's just OK."

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