Long ago, when the internet was still YouTube-less, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck had something of a radical idea: use the internet to discover the next great unknown filmmakers.
Through their production company, LivePlanet, they launched Project Greenlight in 2000 as an online contest that invited aspiring directors to submit three-minute movies for the chance to receive a real budget and crew to produce a feature film. Damon and Affleck partnered first with HBO and then Bravo to air all of the behind-the-scenes drama as a docuseries on TV. Miramax signed on to help distribute the resulting film.
After three seasons, Project Greenlight was canceled because of low ratings. You could say that the idea came before its time--in the first few seasons, Project Greenlight had to teach finalists how to digitize VHS tapes to submit their entries and gave them laptops to do it. But the fact that the resulting films failed to wow critics and theater audiences probably also contributed to its demise.
Now, 15 years after its debut, Project Greenlight is making a splashy comeback, with the premiere episode of the fourth season airing on HBO on September 13. But it never would have happened unless a tiny startup known as Adaptive Studios hadn't stepped in.
LivePlanet shut down in 2008 and sold off its assets. So Project Greenlight turned into nothing more than a pile of languishing intellectual property.
Dead IP happens to be Adaptive Studios exact niche. The Culver City, California, company was started by three friends and entertainment veterans--Perrin Chiles, T.J. Barrack, and Marc Joubert. Their big idea was to find abandoned IP that still had some promise, acquire the rights, and then resurrect it for the big screen, the small screen, the digital screen, and even the printed page.
Sometimes all Adaptive needs is an iconic image, such as the Black Dog of Martha's Vineyard, which the startup spun into a children's book series. Another book project, "Silence of Six," started as a Miramax script but eventually became a young adult thriller franchise.
"We go after stuff that's honestly dead. We're willing to put the energy into bringing it new life," says T.J. Barrack, Adaptive's president and chief operating officer.
When Joubert signed on to help launch Adaptive he knew exactly which orphaned IP project he wanted to try to resurrect: As a former producer at Damon and Affleck's LivePlanet, he was intimately familiar with Project Greenlight and still loved the idea.
So Adaptive acquired the remaining rights to LivePlanet for an undisclosed sum ("We were very happy with the acquisition price," Joubert says), and Damon and Affleck quickly signed back on to executive-produce their long-lost project. Within the week, Adaptive had successfully pitched Project Greenlight to HBO. Miramax and Pearl Street also agreed to be partners.
This time around, Project Greenlight could take full advantage of the digital revolution. Adaptive ran the initial contest, which attracted 5,000 contestants, on Facebook. Two hundred of those contestants then submitted video biographies. After a voting round on Facebook, the final 13 contestants all had to shoot a short video based on a Farrelly brothers script.
Jason Mann, a San Francisco filmmaker, eventually won the contest. Joubert says Mann's contest entry was the only one he passed on to Damon and Affleck before the submission process closed. Check out his initial submission below:
"Project Greenlight gives first-time directors, like Jason, the unique opportunity to show the industry what they're capable of and, with the support of HBO and Adaptive Studios, we're pleased to welcome the series back to HBO," Damon said via email. "It's been an exciting journey bringing Jason's film to life and viewers will get a behind-the-scenes look at the Hollywood filmmaking experience."
Mann received $3 million--and only 20 days--to make a feature film called The Leisure Class.
Joubert wouldn't reveal what happens in season 4 but he did say this: "It was not easy. A lot of good things happened and a lot of crazy things happened. Our director was extremely talented and very stubborn. At the end of the day, that makes for good TV."
Regardless of how Project Greenlight fares the fourth time around, Adaptive is pressing on, and scooping up more orphaned IP for future projects. To date, the company has about $6.4 million in funding, according to publicly available documents from the Securities and Exchange Commission. (The company declined to confirm or deny the figure.)
Adaptive is busy pitching TV show ideas and plans to publish 12 to 18 books over the next 18 months, including a reimagined "Robinson Crusoe" trilogy and a book based on actress and blogger Amy Main's popular blog "40 Dates and 40 Nights."
"Some things we're going to win on and some we're not going to win on," Joubert says.
For Greenlight, that verdict may not even come after the final episode airs. The company isn't interested in one-off hits; it wants franchises that keep on giving. "We want to do this for four or five more seasons--we want to sell this around the world," Joubert says.