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Damon & Affleck’s Greenlight Shines
by Jon Leland
Originally published in Digital Cinema Magazine, Spring 2001

It’s a story as old as the Hollywood fable that Lana Turner was discovered sitting at the soda fountain at Schwab’s drugstore on Sunset Boulevard. The story is Hollywood’s unending search for fresh talent, but this rewrite includes the influence of reality television, the democratizing dynamics of the Web, and, of course, convergence.

Greenlight ProjectMiramax Vice President for Television, Eli Holzman, described it to me Greenlight as “equal parts Web site, TV series and feature film.” And, as you may know, Project Greenlight has been made famous by the leadership of two red hot Hollywood talents who were recent Miramax discoveries themselves (with “Good Will Hunting”), Ben Affleck and Matt Damon.

When you visit this Web site, you are welcomed with a Flash trailer that promises a paradigm shift, at least if you are an aspiring feature film writer/director who feels like you keep getting the door slammed in your face. Their Flash flick beckons, “No agent. No connections. No problem.” Or, as the Miramax trailer for Greenlight promises, “The next big thing in film isn’t coming from Hollywood. It’s coming from the Internet.”

Well, yes and no. Yes, because as Miramax’s Holzman told me, “This project couldn’t have happen without the Internet.” But, no, because it’s not really the “next big thing.” It’s the old talent search thing with a couple of innovative high tech twists that reflect a new way of doing Hollywood’s business, and which have also provided the genesis of a highly participatory web site, an upcoming 13-part HBO TV series and a $1 million feature film contract that is soon to be awarded to the winner of Greenlight’s online contest.

As Damon excitedly exclaims in the Miramax trailer, “People will see more of the creative process than ever before.”  

As demonstrated by the number of behind-the-scenes specials that are being made these days — not to mention all of the movie magazines, entertainment-focused cable channels and TV shows — the making of movies is becoming as interesting as (if not more interesting than) the movies themselves. In fact, that was the concept that independent producer Alex Keledjian pitched to Miramax for a TV series that would help “herald” the emergence of Miramax’s new TV programming company.

Not only did Miramax executives — including Holzman — like the idea, but Miramax-associated producers Affleck and Damon did too. As Damon excitedly exclaims in the Miramax trailer, “People will see more of the creative process than ever before.” But, the "creative process" of what movie? That’s where the Greenlight plot thickened.

By brainstorming over a period of about six months, the teams from Miramax and Affleck and DamonØs new media company, LivePlanet, developed the idea for a web-based contest that would involve a whole new Internet style of audience participation. And what made the whole thing ²click,Ó according to LivePlanetØs VP of Marketing, Keith Quinn was MiramaxØs commitment that the winning screenplay would get made and get distributed. No other screenwriting contest offers anything nearly this grand. Call it the ultimate Hollywood prize for newcomers.

The result is that Greenlight has developed a web site that has garnered real participation, something that has proved elusive to many other web site developers seeking to build “community.” According to LivePlanet’s Quinn, Greenlight originally received 8,000 screenplays, which were reviewed and voted upon by the web site’s browsers. Quinn called it audience market research that was conducted before the studio had “spent one dime” on development or production.

In any case, lots of fresh talent will get new exposure; and the Web is being used in a whole new way to get a movie made that “couldn’t be made without the Internet.”  

Based on the initial round of feedback (something that, in any case, can be said to be valuable to these aspiring writers), a “Top 250” were selected and asked to produce interview videos of themselves. Then, in mid-January, the “Top 30” were announced and are going through another round of readings both on the web site and in LivePlanet and Miramax offices. Among these, a “Top 10” will be selected. Each of these writer/director individuals or teams will then receive a “Top 10 Prize Package” which, according to the official site rules consists of “a kit of video production equipment (e.g., a digital video camera, tape stock, tripod, etc.),” with an approximate retail value of $3,000. Using this equipment, each “Top 10” writer/director will produce a 3-minute video scene from their screenplay.

From these, a “Top 3” will be selected, and these lucky aspiring filmmakers will be personally interviewed by Affleck, Damon and their partners. And then, finally (drum roll, please), the winner will be announced March 15th, 2001 on the web site.

And that’s when the “show” really begins. Well, “the shows” actually, i.e. the 13-part HBO series and the feature film itself. If it works (and/or they learn enough from this adventure to make the process even better), Holzman says that they plan to do it “again and again.”

In any case, lots of fresh talent will get new exposure; and the Web is being used in a whole new way to get a movie made that “couldn’t be made without the Internet.” In the end, the contest format that brought this film community web site together will have transformed the democratizing quality of the Web into a new kind of movie-making “meritocracy.” May the best filmmaker win, and may all doors be open upon him, her or them.

Jon welcomes feedback and suggestions via e-mail at [email protected]
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