Written by Anthony Imm.
This is the story of my first experience into the world of screenwriting. I have to say that this has been a dream of mine for many years. Years ago, I took creative writing and film writing courses in college. Enter real life, and writing didn’t seem like a practical thing to pursue. Since then I’ve kept writing as a hobby, reading books and trying to learn what I could about the craft. Two years ago I found out about Project Greenlight, an amateur screenwriting contest put together by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. The mission statement intrigued me:
“Project Greenlight gives aspiring filmmakers access to independent filmmaking through an online community, a film, and a television documentary series. Project Greenlight holds a contest where one person or team gets to make their original film. Miramax Films finances production of the film with a minimum $1 million production budget, and releases it in theaters. An HBO documentary series shows the entire filmmaking process, from the selection of the script, through production and editing, to the film’s theatrical run. In addition to the contest, the Project Greenlight community provides a forum for screenwriters and filmmakers to work on their ideas and gain knowledge in a peer-to-peer environment.”
At the time, I wanted to enter but I couldn’t find the time to write. I followed the contest and watched the show on HBO. The whole time I was kicking myself for not trying harder to enter and I promised myself that should they ever do another one that I would participate.
Fast forward to August 2002, when Project Greenlight 2 was announced. This year there were a few changes. There were two contests: Screenplay and Director. The winning director would direct the winning screenplay. All screenplays were reviewed by the entrants of each contest, as well as ‘reviewers.’ (Reviewers being anyone who felt like participating.) Each screenplay and directing contestant was required to review a minimum number of screenplays and scenes.
If an entry received 5 or more reviews then the best and worst review would be dropped. The field was narrowed first to 250, then to 50, then 10, then a winner. Also new this year was an entry fee of $30. It also cost $22 to register with the WGA, and $30 US copyright; both deemed necessary by the rules.
My first job was to come up with a strategy. This particular contest was for a screenplay that could be filmed within a $1 million budget, to be made by Miramax. So the story had to be somewhat edgy and non-mainstream but without a tremendous amount of special effects. I chose as my entry a short story I wrote over 10 years ago, which I’d always wanted to adapt into a screenplay. While I haven’t actively worked on it over the past decade, I thought about it and jotted down notes. I wanted to accomplish two things with the story: 1) Create a feel-good, It’s a Wonderful Life-type sense and 2) Play the human concept of reality, similar to the way The Matrix did.
With my script, I played with the human concept of the afterlife – or so I tried. I’m sure this flick could not be made for under $1 million. Contest rules called for the screenplay to be between 80-140 pages. Mine was short on description and went only about 82 pages. I figured a short movie would leave me money for any visual effects in the budget. Going light on description might also be construed as director-friendly.
All in all, it took me about two weeks to write.
I called the story “Delay at Catharsis Station,” with the logline: “A man on the verge of discovering love suddenly finds his life hanging in the balance. Now in Limbo, he must face the unexpected and find a way to reclaim his life from a place called Catharsis Station.” I hoped that it would be successful in snagging reviewers into choosing my script as one they wanted to read.
In total, there were 5458 screenplay entries. With your entry fee you gain access to the PGL (Project Greenlight) Community which, is basically their posting forums. Here people exchange writing tips, offer feedback and offer advice on selling screenplays. Mostly, they just bitch about reviews or how unfair the contest is. Some reviewers complained that some entries were too long. They even went so far as to claim them technically unreadable to get out of reviewing them. Some entries only received 3 reviews so the best and worst were not dropped.
I received seven reviews in total, which was above average. It seems as if writing a shorter screenplay paid off. My subject matter logline also apparently were good choices. I got some interesting feedback. Por ejemplo, “A pretty good idea– but it took too long to set up before getting to Catharsis Station, then not much time there to really believe what Joe is going through. Seemed almost like two films crammed into one. The dialogue was either stilted and “too on the nose” meaning the characters say EXACTLY what they think without any craft or nuance, or they are approximating some sort of hip jargon that no one uses.” I think this reviewer has a point about the pace at which the story develops but is off regarding the dialogue. In fact, that’s pretty much my definition of good dialogue. Keep in mind the greatest influence on my style of writing was Moonlighting. A couple of reviews were hatchet jobs, maybe. (After all, I was being reviewed by the competition.) I was a little bummed at first. Humbled, actually.
But the last review was very good, and I had another that said that “Delay at Catharsis Station” was sweet and touching. Even though it needs work, I was able to reach a couple of people and in the end that’s the ultimate goal. On a scale of 1-10, I averaged out between 4 and 5. I can accept that, after all it was the first draft of my first feature-length screenplay.
There was some interesting consensus about my screenplay. A lot of people took it as a romantic dramedy. The romance was supposed to be the B plot, but that’s what everyone commented on. Believe me, I had no intention of writing a romantic dramedy with otherworldly elements. I don’t know if a beginner should tackle that kind of intricate story. Ultimately my story is about faith, faith in what you believe, faith in what you know, faith in what you don’t know and faith in love.
Some reviews said my plot is similar to Defending Your Life, which I had never seen. It was also compared multiple times to It’s a Wonderful Life, What Dreams May Come, and Heaven Can Wait, as well as Mr. Destiny, Made In Heaven, City of Angels and Our Town. Those movies all hit the mood I was going for, so at least I accomplished that.
The premiere episode of the second season of Project Greenlight recently aired. They basically started at the point were they pared the Top 50 to the Top Ten they would invite to the Sundance Film Festival to meet in person and determine a winner. What they forget to mention is what got it to 50 directors and 50 screenplays was a peer review. That means contestants reviewing contestants before Matt, Ben or anyone from Miramax saw anything. That’s the reality show. They should have gotten some of these people in a room to critique each other face to face. It’d be like 1000 Simon Cowells. Truth be told, anyone who was not the winner actually won. The doors were opened to everyone in the Top 10 and most of them probably got agents. The winner has to knock it out of the park because they probably won’t get a second chance. Just ask last year’s winner, Pete Jones.
While I didn’t even make the first cut, I’d been bitten. Even though it wasn’t my best review, the person who said my story was “sweet and touching” really energized me. I can’t imagine what it’s like for writers to have many people respond to their work like that. I’m excited to hone my skills. A rewrite awaits and I believe addressing some of the concerns of the reviewers will tighten up my story.
All and all, participating in Project Greenlight was a fun adventure and I look forward to seeing if the winners can work together and make a movie. Early word is sparks were a flyin’.