Project Greenlight and The Chair In Context

Season Four of Project Greenlight wrapped up with little fanfare last week, as the battle between producer Effie Brown and director Jason Mann took center stage. This left the showing of HBO’s The Leisure Class as almost an afterthought which, as it turned out, is more of a thought than this film deserved. But more on that in a moment.

In 2001, Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Chris Moore launched the first season of Project Greenlight, with seemingly dual goals: give a filmmaker outside the studio system a chance to get inside, yes, but also to show people how a movie really gets made. It ran for three seasons, ending in 2005. In 2013, Chris Moore created The Chair, a filmmaking experiment in which two (somewhat) novice filmmakers created films from the exact same script for Starz, and shortly thereafter HBO brought back Project Greenlight.

Out of the six films spawned by the five seasons of these programs, none have become runaway hits, and only one has scored high enough on Rotten Tomatoes to be considered “fresh” (though it doesn’t receive the “fresh” rating due to the lack of review quantity), but that almost seems beside the point.

In the dual mission of the two programs – giving people a shot and showing people how a movie really gets made – the shows have been smashing successes. First – consider the millions who have watched the programs. This year’s Project Greenlight drama spawned some nationwide controversies, drawing even more viewers and attention to the show. The Chair’s amazing production values – it felt like something Michael Moore would make – received a number of nominations and awards.

Then, consider those involved:

Season 1: Pete Jones, writer/director
After Stolen Summer, Pete went on to write, direct and star in Outing Riley, a movie with Castle’s and Firefly’s Nathan Fillion. He also wrote 2011’s Hall Pass, works wit the Farrelly Brothers and came back to help write this season’s Project Greenlight film, The Leisure Class.

Season 2: Kyle Rankin, director; Efram Potelle, director; Erica Beeney, writer.
Since the Battle of Shaker Heights, Rankin has directed nine films, including three features. Though he and Potelle no longer direct together, Potelle works as a visual graphics designer, most notably for Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD. Beeney wrote some TV pilots, rewrite jobs and other work. She was slated to write and direct a film in 2012, but no further information is available.

Season 3: John Gulager, director; Marcus Dunstan, writer; Patrick Melton, writer.
Gulager has directed four films since 2005’s Feast, and also directed an episode of Project Greenlight. He also seems to be finding a second career as an actor, and was the lead in Utero, a feature project in post-production. He collaborated with Dunstan and Melton on three more feature films, two Feast sequels and Piranha 3DD. Melton and Dunstan continue to write together, receiving credits for four Saw franchise films, Halloween Returns and now the pair are the executive producers and creators of Monstropolis, a new television series.

Season 4: Jason Mann, director.
Time will tell, as The Leisure Class is just a week old. Mann has not announced his next project however he did sign with William Morris Endeavor.

Anna Martemucci, director, Hollidaysburg
Anna is a writer first – a fact she proclaimed often on The Chair, which aired in 2014. Though Periods. Films, the self-defined comedy collective/production company she’s involved with, Anna has nearly two dozen credits, and has since directed The Genderton Project with her husband and is the recipient of the first-ever “Through Her Lens” film grant.

Shane Dawson, director, Not Cool
Out of everyone on this list (excluding Mann), Dawson’s life seems to have been the least affected by his participation on one of these shows. Though his Not Cool won the internet voting between the two The Chair films and Dawson took home $250,000, he has largely returned to his YouTube empire with little discussion of any further feature films (at least none that I can find publicly). Dawson’s online following is large, and his 5.7 million subscribers make his YouTube videos his full-time job.

Now, to the films themselves – which are the third goal at best with these productions. I’ve watched all six relatively recently. There’s one I think is a solid, indie film and two that are decent for what they are. Here’s my reviews.

6 of 6: Not Cool
Shane Dawson, director
The Chair, Season 1
Let me be clear: I found the story repulsive, so I can’t fairly review the film itself. There were parts that seemed well-shot, well-acted and such, but the sensibilities of the film were so far away from my own that I had an incredibly difficult time with objectivity. There was a homeless man eating his own shit (literally), and this was trumped up as one of the film’s high points (seriously). Executive Producer Zachary Quinto found the film to be so abhorrent that he pulled his name off the project. After all the time he spent with The Chair, he couldn’t bring himself to put his name on this film. I can see why; I wouldn’t have either. However – in the online competition between Dawson and Martemucci, Dawson took home the top prize. I haven’t seen any of Dawson’s other work, but apparently Not Cool is a longer version of what his fans have come to know and love about his YouTube channel, and they came out in droves to vote for him. Have to give him credit for knowing his audience and keeping them engaged.
My Rating: Can’t do it; no objectivity possible for me.
Rotten Tomatoes: 14% (1 Fresh, 6 Rotten)

5 of 6: The Leisure Class
Jason Mann, director/co-writer
Project Greenlight, Season 4
The show would have you believe that Mann obsessed over every tiny visual detail at the expense of larger story issues. It would certainly seem true from the final product. Some of the camerawork was great, the set design was well done (especially if you consider how late they got their locations done), and some of the shots told their own story. Which is good – because the rest of the story largely didn’t work. There were character turns that came out of seemingly nowhere, especially for the lead. Almost all the major plot points in the middle of the film were so forced that it felt like someone forgot to write transitions. And the only characters you liked at the end of the day were the troublemakers – the ones who wanted to fuck it all up. Maybe this was the point? But the overall effect felt like 20 minutes of story (tops) spread over 85 minutes of film. Too bad – because it has some solid performances, and the interplay between leads Ed Weeks and Tom Bell was really funny.
My Rating: 0.5 out of 4 stars (I initially posted this on Twitter as 1, but have decided to revise that).
Rotten Tomatoes: 0% (0 Fresh, 8 Rotten)

4 of 6: The Battle of Shaker Heights
Kyle Rankin & Efram Potelle, directors; Erica Beeney, writer
Project Greenlight, Season 2
I’m going to have to defer to the show here, because if you watch the film, you’ll immediately get the distinct impression that something’s missing. And it is. After the first test screening of The Battle of Shaker Heights went over poorly, Miramax decided to make the film, which was a dramatic coming of age story with some comedy, into a broad comedy. It seemed that Rankin and Potelle had taken their comedic scenes a bit too far, emphasizing the comedy while forgetting to underscore the underlying drama, while at the same time making their drama a bit melodramatic. So a good half the movie was jettisoned, leaving a scant 1 hour, 17 minute run-time. Though Shia Labeouf was engaging (before he was “not famous anymore”), there’s no way to feel like a few important pieces weren’t left out somewhere along the line. It’s a shame – I’d have liked to have seen the movie that Beeney wrote.
My Rating: 1.5 out of 4 stars
Rotten Tomatoes: 41% (24 Fresh, 34 Rotten)

3 of 6: Feast
John Gulager, director; Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton, writers
Project Greenlight, Season 3
In my ratings, Feast ties with Stolen Summer, and it scores a lot higher on Rotten Tomatoes than its Project Greenlight sibling, I put Feast third and Stolen Summer second because I’m not a big horror fan and Stolen Summer is the kind of quiet movie I tend to like. But you can consider them tied if you want for the purposes of this list. Feast is a horror-comedy, which is basically amped-up gore and campy, one-liner focused comedy that almost feels like it could use a laugh-track. For what it is: it’s great. Gulager adds a lot of style and creepiness where he needs to and gets the most out of his actors across the board. It even spawned two direct-to-video sequels, using the same director, writers and even a couple of the actors, and it’s hard to tell, but it looks like it actually made some money. It’s just not my thing.
My Rating: 2 out of 4 stars
Rotten Tomatoes 56% (28 Fresh, 22 Rotten)

2 of 6: Stolen Summer
Pete Jones, writer/director
Project Greenlight, Season 1
I haven’t done it yet, but directing kids looks really hard. You only get five hours a day with them, it’s hard to keep them focused, and I would imagine discussing character motivation probably wouldn’t work. But – Pete Jones seems to be great at it. He gets the most out of his two child leads, and scores solid singles and doubles across the board with Stolen Summer. Camerawork? Pretty good. Visuals? Solid. Story? Pretty well-defined and decently paced. The material itself is what brings the scores down on this one – it’s paint-by-numbers, predictable and can feel like a (Catholic) after school special – but it’s largely enjoyable nonetheless.
My Rating: 2 out of 4 stars
Rotten Tomatoes: 36% (21 Fresh, 37 Rotten)

1 of 6: Hollidaysburg
Anna Martemucci, director
The Chair, Season 1
By far, the most complete film that’s come out of these competitions. Martemucci’s vision for a real slice of life, yet compelling story, comes across from the very first frame. It’s quiet, understated, and tells a warm, charismatic story, while also finding some beautiful shots. It’s slow – but it’s supposed to be. Martemucci seems more interested in giving you a feeling for these characters, rather than amping up the drama – and it works, for the most part. There’s a couple of areas she could have spent more time, particularly in the first few minutes. The characters could have used more definition up front. Yes, over the 90 minutes, we get to know them, but today’s audiences get bored very easily, and might not stick with you through five minutes if they can’t follow who your characters are (this is especially important for watching films at home).
My Rating: 3 out of 4 stars
Rotten Tomatoes: 75% (6 Fresh, 2 Rotten)

Side Note
For those who are curious, here is a rough idea of how my film rating system works
0 of 4 stars: Nothing good about this one.
0.5 of 4 stars: I didn’t totally hate it, but its got massive problems and couldn’t hold my interest.
1 of 4 stars: Severely flawed or boring.
1.5 of 4 stars: There’s something here, but it didn’t work or come together.
2 of 4 stars: Decent. Might recommend. Might be “I liked it even though I know it’s not great.”
2.5 of 4 stars: Pretty good; enjoyed it. Would recommend.
3 of 4 stars: Really good. Highly recommend.
3.5 of 4 stars: One of the better films I’ve seen. Potentially award-winning.
4 of 4 stars: One of the best films I’ve ever seen. Should definetely win an award somewhere.