The Films of Project Greenlight: When a Reality Show Makes Movies

“The films of Project Greenlight past … have been okay,” says Issa Rae in the second episode of the new season of Project Greenlight, and that pregnant pause tells viewers everything they need to know about Rae’s opinion on the previous feature films produced via the HBO/Bravo/Max reality series. More than 20 years after it debuted, and nearly eight years after the conclusion of its most recent season, Project Greenlight is back this week for its fifth edition, with actress and Insecure creator Rae taking over the mentor role from previous Project Greenlight figureheads Ben Affleck and Matt Damon.

Like a lot of reality competition series, Project Greenlight does not have a great track record at discovering accomplished artists in its chosen field, and the drama-filled fourth season made it especially clear that its main goal is creating compelling reality TV, rather than producing great movies. That’s not inherently a problem — America’s Next Top Model has never discovered America’s actual next top model, and only a handful of top chefs have emerged from Top Chef — but it leaves the feature films produced by the show as a strange sort of orphans, especially when divorced from the context in which they were created.

Watching the five Project Greenlight movies, including this season’s Gray Matter, also offers a glimpse into the shifting perceptions of what constitutes a successful “indie film,” as determined by the producers of a reality show. The first two seasons were produced at the height of the Miramax-driven indie boom that launched Affleck and Damon’s careers, and the movies that came out of them are both earnest, slightly dull dramedies, without anything resembling a bold vision. They’re as slight and forgettable as dozens of other indie films produced during the same period, hoping to capitalize on the popularity of movies like Affleck and Damon’s Good Will Hunting.

The first season’s Stolen Summer (2002) is the only Project Greenlight movie conceived by a writer-director, and it’s clearly a personal story for filmmaker Pete Jones, who shares a first name with the main character. Set in Chicago in 1976, it’s a sentimental coming-of-age story about eight-year-old Irish Catholic Pete O’Malley (Adi Stein), who decides that the best way to guarantee his eventual entrance into heaven is to convert Jews to Christianity. He settles on fellow kid Danny Jacobsen (Mike Weinberg), who blithely informs his new friend, “I got leukemia. That’s cancer.”

Jones makes the poor choice of placing child actors at the center of his debut feature, and both Stein and Weinberg give cloying, sometimes stilted performances. They’re surrounded by dependable adult actors, though, and Kevin Pollak is especially good as Danny’s father, a rabbi who is probably overly indulgent with young Pete’s interest in introducing Jews to Jesus. 

There’s an overwrought, contrived subplot about Pete’s stubborn firefighter father (Aidan Quinn) not wanting his oldest son (Eddie Kaye Thomas) to go to college, and Quinn never quite makes his character’s blustery pride believable. Bonnie Hunt is more convincing as Pete’s wise mother, who explains, “He’s a little boy searching for meaning in his life,” in case viewers didn’t catch the movie’s blunt themes. One seemingly key event occurs offscreen, and the story peters out rather than coming to a satisfying conclusion. 

You don’t need to watch a reality show to understand that missteps like that often plague low-budget indie productions from first-time filmmakers, and similar problems crop up in the second season’s The Battle of Shaker Heights (2003). Shaker Heights is a more effective, less sappy movie than Stolen Summer, perhaps because Project Greenlight chose separate winners for the script and the direction. Directors Kyle Rankin and Efram Potelle take on Erica Beeney’s screenplay about sullen teenager Kelly Ernswiler (Shia LaBeouf), whose favorite hobby is participating in military re-enactments.

Kelly even drives a military jeep, but LaBeouf avoids making him into a collection of meaningless quirks, and he brings real emotion to the somewhat scattered story. Kelly befriends fellow re-enactor Bart Bowland (Elden Henson), a friendly teen from a wealthy family who invites Kelly into his home. Kelly immediately falls for Bart’s older sister Tabby (Amy Smart), who’s engaged to be married, even though he obviously belongs with his grocery-store co-worker Sarah (Shiri Appleby).

There’s a lot going on in Kelly’s life, and that’s without even getting to his recovering-addict father (William Sadler) or the bully who torments him at school. Rankin and Potelle can’t quite balance all the narrative and tonal elements, but they bring an appealingly grounded tone to the movie, getting strong performances from the entire cast. As a coming-of-age story, it’s more engaging and less maudlin than Stolen Summer, even if it isn’t particularly memorable.

Just two years later, when Project Greenlight moved from HBO to Bravo, the entire indie-film landscape had shifted. Sensitive dramas were out, and gory horror movies were in, so the show jumped from Miramax to sister studio Dimension, to produce its most successful movie to date. “Successful” is a relative term when it comes to Project Greenlight, and it’s not like Feast (2005) was a major artistic or commercial hit. But it’s an enjoyably nasty piece of mid-’00s horror, and it launched thriving genre careers for its director and writers, who worked together on two Feast sequels.

Once again, the contest was split between writing and directing, so John Gulager was chosen to direct the screenplay by Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan. All three have a clear affinity for genre material, and Feast doesn’t hold back on the graphic violence or the mean-spirited humor. It’s also the only Project Greenlight movie with a distinctive visual style, even if that style involves a lot of hyperactive quick cuts and saturated colors that would be at home in a nu-metal music video.

Set almost entirely within a grubby roadside bar, Feast delivers on its simple horror concept of deadly creatures attacking a group of hapless humans, as they attempt to find a way to escape. Gulager puts together an energetic cast that includes Navi Rawat, Henry Rollins, Jason Mewes and Gulager’s own character actor father Clu, and he showcases some creatively gross practical effects. He also delivers the first Project Greenlight movie with an actual ending.

The show could’ve gone out on a high note there, but Affleck and Damon decided to revive it a decade later, back at HBO. This time, the intention was to find just one winner, a director, who would take on a preselected comedy screenplay. But winner Jason Mann brought extraordinary hubris from the beginning, jettisoning the originally planned screenplay in favor of an adaptation of his own short film, with writing assistance from Stolen Summer’s Pete Jones. 

It’s impossible to say whether Mann could have made a good film from the screenplay he was initially given, but The Leisure Class (2015) is a full-on disaster, the only Project Greenlight movie that makes a firm case against giving the winner of a reality show millions of dollars and complete control of a feature film. After Stolen Summer, Jones worked as a writer collaborating with the Farrelly brothers, who came onboard as mentors for this season alongside Affleck and Damon. Yet The Leisure Class is a spectacularly unfunny comedy, featuring an monumentally annoying, one-note performance from Tom Bell as the meddling brother of a suave con artist (Ed Weeks) attempting to marry into a wealthy, influential family.

Weeks does a second-rate Hugh Grant riff as the flustered, rakish Brit with a heart of gold, and Bridget Reagan doesn’t make much of an impression as the kind-hearted woman he targets and then accidentally falls in love with. Bruce Davison puts way more effort than is warranted into his role as the entitled, manipulative patriarch, trying his best to sell a late-film turn into disturbingly dark territory. As a satire, The Leisure Class is a total dud, and Mann’s much-touted insistence on shooting on film doesn’t make the movie look any more stylish than a mediocre sitcom.

Thankfully, Gray Matter redeems Project Greenlight from Mann’s atrocity, although it’s at best a passable sci-fi thriller that plays more like a TV pilot. This time, winning director Meko Winbush sticks with the assigned screenplay, from veteran genre writer Philip Gelatt (Love, Death + Robots), and she executes the story competently, although without much flair.

Recent breakout star Mia Isaac (Not Okay, Don’t Make Me Go) plays Aurora, a teenager with vaguely defined superpowers she’s inherited from her mother (Jessica Frances Dukes). That makes her a target for various sinister forces, and Gray Matter borrows heavily from movies like Firestarter, Midnight Special and Fast Color. Garret Dillahunt plays to his strengths as the avuncular but obviously evil researcher who promises Aurora a place where she can train with others who have powers like hers.

Opening with a title card featuring the dictionary definition of “psionic,” Gray Matter isn’t exactly subtle, but it’s no worse than plenty of other low-budget streaming-exclusive sci-fi movies. Rae has made a point of diversifying Project Greenlight both in front of and behind the camera, and Gray Matter, starring and directed by women of color, represents the opposite of the blinkered privilege expressed in Mann’s The Leisure Class. It’s gritty and fast-paced, and it could give Winbush the kind of unpretentious genre career that Feast brought for its filmmakers. At this point, that’s the best anyone involved in Project Greenlight should hope for.

“Gray Matter” premieres today on Max, along with the new season of “Project Greenlight.”

Josh Bell is a freelance writer and movie/TV critic based in Las Vegas. He's the former film editor of 'Las Vegas Weekly' and has written about movies and pop culture for Syfy Wire, Polygon, CBR, Film Racket, Uproxx and more. With comedian Jason Harris, he co-hosts the podcast Awesome Movie Year.

Back to top