‘Project Greenlight’ Exemplifies All That is Wrong With the Film Business

nullI don’t particularly like reality shows, so I really had no interest in watching HBO’s "Project Greenlight." But after all the talk about the show’s diversity issues and seeing the title of the most recent episode — "Hot Ghetto Mess" — I knew I had to take a look. And my look became a full-blown binge because of one person: Effie Brown.

From its first minute, this show is a guide to all that is wrong in Hollywood regarding race and gender. For the uninitiated, "Project Greenlight" is a contest led by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck in partnership with HBO to give a novice filmmaker the opportunity to make a movie. Then they film the making of the movie, and that becomes the docu/reality series. The winner of this year’s contest is a guy named Jason Mann. Jason is problematic from the get-go. When he pitches the room for the job, he basically says, I don’t want to make the movie you want to make. (The decision-making team is at least four men and two women. The women are Jennifer Todd, who runs Matt and Ben’s production company, and Effie Brown, who was hired to produce the movie the winning director makes.) Brown is a successful independent producer with 17 films under her belt. Her partner is Marc Joubert, a well-intentioned problem-solver who pretty much lets her handle anything hard.

(Side note: Let’s not even get into how there are no women team leaders vying for the job in their own right. The only two female finalists were part of directing teams, and one of those teams were a couple of exes and the woman submitted the film they made together on her own. When she got to the finals and realized she had to bring her ex in, "awkward" would be an understatement for their interview.)

If you’ve read any of the research that has comes out of the Annenberg’s Media Diversity and Social Change Initiative, you will see the words in their work leap off the page onto the screen. That’s what’s so amazing about this show. It confirms everything that is fucked up about Hollywood.

Literally five seconds after Jason gets the job (which takes up Episode 1), he wants to fire writer Peter Jones and tries to convince Ben and Matt to let him shoot on film (which is way more expensive). Then, in short order, he gets the script they were initially going to make thrown out, which is replaced with a script he wrote that he does a rewrite on with Pete Jones (the guy he wanted fired).

These types of shows look for conflict, and they found it here with Jason and Effie. Jason is positioned as an entitled brat who is uncompromising and has no self-awareness that his decisions today affect his work tomorrow. As of the episode that aired this week, there have been no consequences for Jason. He has gotten everything he has wanted. He did an end run around Effie and went directly to Ben in his quest to shoot a low-budget movie on film. He is given the option of two extra shooting days (this is a 20-day shoot) or the $300,000 to shoot on film. He takes the film. He remains recalcitrant about the locations and involves himself in every minute detail (except getting his shot list together the night before they start shooting). And he continues to get away with it.

This show has illustrated for me why dudes love directing. Everyone around you is there to serve your vision. I can’t quite believe that women operate in the same way. All of Jason’s behavior is so prototypical alpha-male, and the instantaneous camaraderie that the guys show Jason is mind-blowing. As Pete Jones departs the show when his work is done (much to the shock of Jason; if there was a bubble next to his head, it would read something like "How dare you take my boyfriend away!"), his last words are awe for Jason: "I love that he sticks to his vision." And, bringing us back to the MDSC research about how directors are like "generals," Pete also says that he is ready to go to war with Jason. 

The thing about this show that is so revelatory as I mentioned before is Effie Brown. Here’s why. She is honest. She is interesting. She is competent. And yet she is treated so poorly so many times that it is painful to watch. She has been given the hardest task. She has to help this immature asshole make his movie. And she knows her job is to help him fulfill his vision. But she has to do it on a budget. This is something that Jason has no interest in understanding. He expects everyone to feel his plight, but then doesn’t think about all the other people working on the film. They say that film is collaborative, but while watching this show, most of the time it really doesn’t feel like that.

Effie doesn’t tell us, but shows us what it means to have a woman (of color) in leadership. Look at the crew: full of women and diversity in most positions. She is the one who pushes the folks in power to think outside their comfort zone — and then she gets painted with the brush of being seen as "difficult." "Difficult" is a code word for women who have opinions and who stick to them. It is a classic textbook case of how women who disagree with decisions made by men are seen as rocking the boat because they don’t agree with the status quo. Effie declares that she will not be seen as the "angry black woman," yet that is exactly how the show tries to portray her. She challenges the men in power who continue to coddle Jason, so much so that the Farrelly Brothers (who are mentors on the project) quit because she won’t let them reopen a closed subject. 

What is painful to see is all the battles she loses. She fully admits that her job here is to be the person who says no. She calls herself the "No Lady," yet she knows that she needs to get this guy to make a great movie. I couldn’t do what she does. She lost the battle of shooting on digital because Jason felt it was OK to go behind her back to Ben Affleck, and then Ben (who also still shoots on film) gave up $100,000 of his fee and $100,000 of Matt’s fee to give this guy what he wanted. Jason is so full of himself that he actually smells the film on the first day of the shoot and say that "it smells like love." Please. 

I don’t know how the movie will turn out. This guy could be the next Spielberg for all I know. But I don’t care. I don’t think it is worth it. I don’t think it is OK to train these men that vision is uncompromising and that is all that matters. I fully believe in seeing people’s visions, but I think part of getting your vision is about learning to play well with others so that they buy into your work and your ideas and your vision. 

The thing that we all have learned from these six episodes is that the real star of "Project Greenlight" is Effie Brown. To see a strong African American woman say to all the people on the movie set that she does not make movies where all the main characters and extras are white and the only people of color are the staff was one of the most important moments of the series. And you know what? She did it. She showed what standing by your beliefs and convictions can do, and the example that you set is one of your most important legacies. Effie’s star is just going up and up from this.

I know we haven’t seen the whole story and that it is edited for conflict. Yet I can’t wait to watch the rest of the series — not for the movie, but for the example of true female leadership that has inadvertently been on display.