In recent weeks, HBO has faced a dilemma: It was about to launch a 12-part reality series in a choice Sunday night time period just as everyone was starting to ask if the reality genre is burned out.
So the cable channel known for its outstanding documentaries decided to affix that label to its new, 12-part series, and hope no one would notice the difference.
Viewers who tune in to HBO's Project Greenlight, a series about the making of a feature film from Internet script contest to finished product, will know they are watching a reality series and not a documentary. In fact, the first of two half-hour episodes airing back-to-back tomorrow night felt like an upscale version of WB's Popstars, but with wannabe screenwriters as the focus instead of teen-singing hopefuls.
But viewers who stay with Greenlight through the full hour and return in subsequent weeks are in for an engaging and illuminating look at the making of a Hollywood film and the business of manufacturing popular culture. (The series will be broadcast Sundays at 10 p.m.) After seeing the first eight episodes made available for screening, I don't care if it is a reality series. Project Greenlight opens a door on a culture usually seen only through the hazy gauze of the Hollywood hype machine, and leaves the audience better informed about that world, and the way it shapes the way we see the real one in which we live.
Project Greenlight gets its name from the show-business term signifying that a film has been given the OK to start production. The series begins with Hollywood producer Chris Moore and his two partners - movie stars Matt Damon and Ben Affleck - explaining that they wanted to open the movie-making process to people outside the Hollywood system. They wanted to give writers with neither agents nor screen credits a chance, because when they worked together on Good Will Hunting they saw what can happen when creativity is valued over commerce.
They announced a competition last year seeking script submissions over the Internet. The winning script would be made into a movie with $1 million provided by Miramax. Moore, Affleck and Damon would be executive producers of the film, which the winning writer also would direct.
The contest received 10,000 scripts.
Viewers this weekend will see how Moore, Affleck, Damon and several Miramax executives picked the winner after bringing 10 finalists to Los Angeles. Damon smokes a lot of cigarettes and often uses an obscenity.
Watching the finalists sweat is the cheesy reality-show part of the series that I hate. But that's only about half an hour long, and then the audience is behind closed doors with the executives, as they make creative choices balanced against financial realties. It's art-meets-commerce, and for many viewers it will be a real eye-opener.
My biggest complaint about the film is that the three producers claim that Project Greenlight is about "working outside of the Hollywood power structure." Yes, Miramax makes smaller films that often show in art houses, but this is such establishment Hollywood filmmaking and mainstream culture, it's difficult to buy into their outsider claims.
Pete Jones, the 31-year-old who wins the competition - and I'm not giving anything away, because Jones has been all over the media with Affleck and Damon promoting the project - was living in Los Angeles with his wife and infant daughter and working as a production assistant last year when he entered the contest. He already was in the business, albeit at a lower level.
Viewers also will notice not one person of color among the finalists - and only one woman. New voices? Not exactly.
But it's the very inside-the-culture-of-Hollywood point of view that makes this such a worthwhile series. Next Sunday, Jones arrives for his first day on the job and is told that his beloved script can't possibly be made for less than $2.2 million - or double the budgeted amount.
His script is an autobiographical coming-of-age story about the friendship between an 8-year-old Irish Catholic boy and 7-year-old Jew in 1976 Chicago, and Jones wants to shoot in his hometown. By the end of the meeting, Jones has been told to forget locating his film in the Windy City, and in the mid-'70s - too expensive. He's told to rewrite the script, set it in the modern day, and it will be filmed in Los Angeles.
Project Greenlight is the education of Pete Jones in the making of popular culture. And we in the audience are left far wiser for having gone to school with him Sunday nights on HBO.