Lessons Learned from Project Greenlight

Sep 28 2015

The TV show Project Greenlight is back, which has caused me to watch previous seasons of the show. The show is basically a film contest produced by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon to let sad-sack screenplay writers and directors realize their dream of making a Hollywood movie. Since the winners have never made a big movie before, they make plenty of mistakes along the way and have failed 100% of the time to make something artistically or commercially viable.

The first two seasons, with their early-2000s normcore fashions, aired on HBO. The third season aired on Bravo and has a Youtube view count that inexplicably proves that I'm not the only one that watched that season. This fourth season is back on HBO and the resulting film will be played on the network instead of to empty theaters across the country.

Despite the almost preordained failure of the films, I find the show really interesting because of group dynamics that are always manifested. Tech companies (or any company really) could learn a few things from the lessons that the contestants learn the hard way.

The show, for the most part, hinges on The Director, who is ostensibly the leader of the whole filmmaking process. He or she doesn't setup the camera, sound or anything else. The Director doesn't really do much work at all, rather they make decisions that will affect the work of the rest of the cast and crew. Because of this, efficient communication is absolutely necessary and past PG directors have not been good at this. Because their grand artistic "vision" wasn't accurately passed along to the rest of the crew, things go wrong. The lighting isn't setup how they may want it or the actor isn't delivering the lines the right way. Time is usually wasted; every hour on a film set costs thousands of dollars.

A leader or manager isn't just the one in charge, but usually the key person for communication between the team. It's important to get everyone on the same page on the goals, methods and status of the project. If not, time will be wasted or even worse, the team will produce sub-par work.

The interesting wrinkle with this show is that the first-time directors usually improve by the end of production. They start to gel with their cast and crew and days go by more smoothly. The progress can be partially explained to this being their first Hollywood job, but there's another factor at play. At first the rest of the team doesn't take them seriously because they were just "a contest winner." The contest-winning director responds to this by hoarding information in an attempt to shield themselves from scrutiny. But as the days pass everyone becomes more comfortable with each other and the egos peel away. The team becomes laser-focused on their role and making the day a success.

It's important with any project that teammates know the role that they are being relied upon and that they sacrifice their ego to make the project a success. Even a genius can be a liability if he or she cannot work well with others.

An inherent contradiction in filmmaking, which makes PG really intriguing to me, is that although theoretically a film is the output of The Director's artistic vision, it's also a very collaborative process. Casting directors have their own opinions and relationships with the actors that get cast in the movie. The writer writes the screenplay although once they submit it they usually do not have further influence on what actually gets shot. Then there's the editing process, which some say is where the filmmaking actually starts.

Most technology products are the same way. They start as just someone's idea. Other people are brought together to make the thing and in turn shape it with their talents. Requirements and constraints are added that lead the project down a path that it was not originally intended. But unlike a film, the audience of the product also plays a part in shaping the product. Their feedback and usage patterns lead to changes to the product that may evolve it even farther away from its original intentions.

To writers and directors this is unfortunate, but I think it should be embraced. The evolution process is natural and the only way that something can become viable and useful to an audience. The movie business can be risky because you can't go back and change something once it is release to audiences (director's cut aside). With most technology products, because of the low to zero cost of production, it is possible to adapt based on feedback.

After the final shot of production on a movie is completed, someone yells "that's a wrap!" and everyone celebrates. The fights and passive aggressive comments are forgotten (temporarily at least) because everyone has finished the shoot together. Later, when the movie premieres and before the opening weekend results come in, former enemies hug and make jokes like the best of friends. Once angry memories are just funny now, because it's all in the past and instead of fixatating on that, how about this thing that we made together?

I know tech teams do this, but they should do it more. It is important to step back for a minute after a launch and recognize the hard work that went into it. Now the thing is out there and let's see where it goes. Also, let's look back and laugh at that night we had to stay late because no one knew what the hell was going on with that legacy system that just wasn't working. It's back up now and for now everything is working fine.

We'll see where this season of Project Greenlight goes. The director this year seems very skilled, but could be a passive aggressive jerk like the others. Already he is getting push back from the studio on what he wants the film to be like. But no doubt at the end there will be "that's a wrap!" and cheers for the thing that was built together.

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Dave Walk is a software developer, basketball nerd and wannabe runner living in Philadelphia. He enjoys constantly learning and creating solutions with Go, JavaScript and Python. This is his website.