In 2002, while still living in Minneapolis but after my “career-ending” layoff, I took part in a screenwriting contest called “Project Greenlight”.
The contest was sponsored by Miramax Pictures (before the breakoff from The Weinstein Company) and Live Planet, with the help of Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Chris Moore.
There were actually two contests, a writing contest and a director’s contest. The writer’s contest consisted of a standard-formatted screenplay, which had to be written in either Screenwriter or Final Draft and submitted as a PDF, with a limit of 120 pages (about two hours). The directors’ assignment was to make an 8-10 minute video that used a particular prop and specific script line.
I entered only to judge the screenplays. Typically, the system would assign a screenplay randomly (or you could choose from a few titles). To rate the play (and give comments) you had to pass a T-f quiz of seven questions (not missing more than 2), submitted by the author.
The “Greenlighters” became quite a community online, with forum discussion boards on all kinds of topics. The contest effectively became a social networking site in the days before Myspace and Facebook. There were plans for a Greenlighter’s party to be held in the Hollywood Hills (I considered a weekend flight), and people were going to hitch rides and bring sleeping bags.
The winning script was “The Battle of Shaker Heights”, by Erica Benney, which I do remember seeing on cable. The film is about high school student in Ohio who takes on a bully by his artistic skills reenacting war scenes. Shia LaBeouf was in the film. The first contest had been won by Pete Jones for his script “Stolen Summer”, about a little boy who takes a priest’s advice literally and tries to help someone get into Heaven. I recall seeing that film in Minneapolis, I think at the Landmark Lagoon.
In February 2004, on a Sunday morning, after I had moved back to northern Virginia to look after my mother, I caught sight of Ben Affleck announcing another Greenlighter contest. This time I decided to enter a script. You also had to participate as a judge if you entered a script. This time, it was suggested that the film be suitable for a PG-13 rating if possible. The contest winner was “Feast”, by Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton, directed by John Gulager, about people trapped in a rural bar when it is attacked by alien monsters. I would see this at a special screening at the Landmark E Street in Washington. The film would be followed by a couple of sequels, including “Feast 2: Sloppy Seconds”. I note that the second film in the unrelated gay “Eating Out” franchise is called “Sloppy Seconds”.
The making of “Feast” became an HBO series on Project Greenlight, in 30-minute episodes, with all kinds of crises in trying to produce the film for under $1 million.
My entry was a sci-fi script called “Baltimore Is Missing”. (The word “Missing” refers to a missing value for a variable in programming languages!) The idea for the film had come to me in a dream sometime after 9/11. The character “Bill” is the protagonist. In the early scenes, he gets criticized in a DC disco for gawking at only younger men. On nightcall at work, he gets a call for an abend that may be caused by a forgotten logic bomb in his code; be goes into work to fix it forgetting he is in his pajamas. He gets fired, but not before wild rumors about a huge solar storm circulate on the Internet, and not before he gets a strange call inviting him to Baltimore where he will undergo some sort of cleansing tribunal. He boards the Amtrak train, but after it goes into the Harbor Tunnel, it never emerges. Or if it does emerge, the whole city of Baltimore is missing and there is some sort of alien, arid and cold landscape. He boards another train and explores this world, finding himself trained to fit in to a world with a simpler lifestyle. He meets some of the people he admires, and some of them come from flashbacks in earlier periods of his life. The film, in these flashbacks, recreates his “William and Mary Expulsion”, and in meta-storytelling, even recreates a scene where one of his best friends auditions for a key part in movie about the expulsion. In the meantime, he is paired off with a young woman who is to become his wife. He gradually develops affection, even physical attraction for her, which surprises him. He gets a view of what life in a homestead cottage on this alien planet in some other universe will look like. (Is he in the afterlife?) He undergoes his tribunal, and then is confronted with the fact that he has become a toy in al old nemesis’s model railroad. At the end, he gets a glimpse of Earth under siege from the Sun (maybe black holes can transmit video to other universes through X-rays or gamma radiation). He settles down to a simple life as a toy with a toy spouse.
The script mentions some other oddities, like the idea that someday male doctors and male nurses may have to epilate their hands and arms as part of infection control.
The reviews, to put it mildly, were mixed. One reviewer was confused by the flashbacks and multi-layer plot. One thought that a scene where he rides in a boxcar (sort of like the train on John Carpenter’s “Ghosts of Mars”) was an inappropriate use of the Holocaust, but I hadn’t even thought of that when I wrote the passage.
As I look at it now, I still think a film like this can work. But it probably can’t be made for under $1 million.
The treatment document for my screenplay, which in turn links to the PDF script, is here. I did register this screenplay with WGA-West.
I can remember finding an essay by Matt Damon, then about 30, in the site telling people who want to enter the movie world, “Don’t do it.”
Update: July 27, 2016
The startup company “Adaptive Studios” seems to have picked up Project Greenlight. The slogan is “Reimagine everything”.