Watching movies in March is a lot like shivering through the last days of a New York winter—both are seasons of seemingly interminable desperation. As most of the country fights off seasonal affective disorder (SAD), filmgoers endure movie affective disorder (MAD), brought on year after year by exposure to the likes of 3000 Miles to Graceland, 8MM, Booty Call and now Stolen Summer, a promotional gimmick that's being slipped into theaters with the sort of stealth accorded only the unprofitable or the unwatchable. A period story about a Catholic boy who tries to help a Jewish friend get into heaven by sending the audience straight to hell, Stolen Summer is indeed unwatchable, though its profitability will be more difficult to gauge given its genesis. For those without premium cable, a little background may help. In 2000, LivePlanet, a media company founded by actors Ben Affleck and Matt Damon with producers Chris Moore and Sean Bailey, initiated a contest called Project Greenlight that would give an aspiring filmmaker what sounded like a terrific break—the opportunity to direct a feature-length film. Also onboard were Miramax, which would bankroll and release the feature into theaters, and HBO, which would produce and air a 12-part behind-the-scenes series documenting the project from start to finish.
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The contest was sold and bought in the press as a golden opportunity for untried talent; less often noted was the fact that it also served the interests of its backers. On the most basic level, Project Greenlight looked to earn the newly launched LivePlanet valuable exposure while allowing HBO and Miramax to buff their reputations as creative risk takers. And if one of the eventual 10,000 contestants delivered the goods, the associates would profit in other ways as well. As reported in Variety, contracts for contest participants stipulated that "Each of the Top 250 and Alternates will be required to grant (or, as applicable, confirm prior to the grant of) certain rights (including, without limitation, intellectual-property rights) to Miramax, HBO and/or LivePlanet Films." In other words, in addition to everything else, Project Greenlight was a fishing expedition, ostensibly for talent. "Ostensibly" because the fish the partners landed was Pete Jones, a former insurance agent who had written an autobiographical screenplay about the eight-year-old son of a large Chicago family during the mid-1970s.
Jones wrote a puerile script, yet, as the documentary series reveals, Stolen Summer wasn't just chosen by committee; it was chosen by a committee that seemed as concerned with its aspirant's on-camera presence as it was with the quality or the workability of his screenplay. Jones' story centers on a Catholic kid named Pete O'Malley (Adi Stein), who tries to help his Jewish friend, Danny Jacobson (Mike Weinberg), get into heaven. (Everyone has a name off a 1930s programmer.) Pete is one of eight kids, the son of a bluff fireman, Joe (Aidan Quinn), and the relentlessly cheerful Margaret (Bonnie Hunt), while Danny is the only son of a local rabbi (Kevin Pollak), a mensch with the patience of Job. Irish Joe drinks, but he's a brave firefighter, as well as a fundamentally decent man; Margaret is a cardboard saint (either that or she's popping Valium on the sly) surrounded by a sketchily drawn brood. In scene after scene, the actors flounder in awkwardly framed shots that are often as blurry emotionally as they are literally out of focus, which is no surprise if you've watched the HBO series. Although it's unlikely, as the documentary makes clear, that Stolen Summer could ever have made a good film, Jones—subject to repeated ridicule from the very people purporting to help him—was less than well-served by his mentors. It's not unusual for crews to hate the director; the above-the-line guys, on the other hand, don't usually vent such spleen on the set.
Even if the expedition has thus far resulted in little of tangible worth, everyone involved, even the hapless writer/director and his bungling crew, has probably come out ahead. HBO came out the best, reaping kudos for a compulsively watchable series that should be required viewing for every would-be filmmaker. LivePlanet didn't do badly, either: The project helped land the company on the cover of Fortune and The New York Times' Sunday arts section, taking it from obscurity to putative player status, and it made a minor star out of Chris Moore, a bully with a knack for making everyone else look like an idiot. (Funny, didn't he hire all those bunglers?) The dividends for Miramax are more ephemeral—after all, it has to release the movie—yet there's no question the film served the company's interests. In Project Greenlight the series, Harvey Weinstein delivered a mogul performance straight out of Central Casting, while the company came off as a thoroughly benign—and detached—part of the equation. However benighted, the project lubricated Miramax's relationship with Affleck and Damon and, crucially, helped resuscitate its languishing reputation as a champion of independent cinema. Or at least that's what reporters have been asserting since Stolen Summer's premiere at Sundance, an honor that left more savvy industry-watchers shocked—shocked.
Stolen Summer was written and directed by Pete Jones; produced by Ben Affleck, Matt Damon and Chris Moore; and stars Adi Stein and Mike Weinberg. Now playing at select LA theaters.