Two of Hollywood's top young stars, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, gave their own version of a film studio "green light" to little-known writer-director Pete Jones on Thursday, naming him the winner of a $1 million filmmaking contest.
Jones' victory provided the climax to a series of events this week, including a Hollywood-style movie premiere on Monday, as the top stars promoted the "Project Greenlight" screenwriting contest they have been conducting on the Web through the site they co-own, Liveplanet.com.
The contest began last autumn and more than 7,300 screenplays were entered. In the past few months, the field was narrowed down to Jones' "Stolen Summer," about two young boys trying to understand death, differences in religions and what it takes to get into heavenJones now goes on to make his movie with a $1 million budget and the two stars as executive producers. Miramax Films will distribute the movie, which begins production next week, and Miramax's television division is making a documentary of the process that will air on HBO in early 2002.
"When they told me I won, I didn't have any emotion left," Jones said in a conference call with reporters. "When it actually happens, it's not like you expect it."
The week's events included a showing at a velvet-roped premiere in Hollywood of one scene that he and nine semifinalists shot from their scripts, several parties and a spotlight on NBC's "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno."
Jones said he had kicked around Los Angeles for about three years, looking for any break that would get his foot in the door in the notoriously tough motion picture business, but he had so far been unable to make any headway.
Before taking his stab at Hollywood celebrity, the 31-year-old had been living in Chicago and working as an insurance salesman. In Los Angeles, he was supported by his wife, Jenny, a teacher, and "a lot of debt."
"Really, this is the first time I've had a chance to get anything out," he said. "I've never even gotten as far as (film) development hell, and if I had, well, that would have been heaven."
BREAKING DOWN TRADITIONAL BARRIERS
Damon, Affleck and their Liveplanet.com business partner Chris Moore, who is also a movie producer, said they started the contest as a way to break down traditional barriers to moviemaking in Hollywood, where the phrase, "It's not what you know, but who you know," takes on added meaning.
"We've always had a problem with the gatekeeper system," Damon said. "We ran into that with 'Good Will Hunting.' Miramax was the only place that said they'd do it, and we tried everywhere."
The two actors struggled to make a career for themselves before penning the screenplay for "Good Will Hunting." Miramax ended up making the movie with them as stars, and it became one of 1997's big hits. It made them instant celebrities and earned them an Oscar for best original screenplay.
"Pete's script ... it was emblematic of the kind of things we were looking for with this contest," Affleck said. "In addition to a wonderful heartfelt story about real people, it wasn't derivative. It wasn't Hollywood in any way."
The two actors said they hoped the widely publicized contest would bring even more scripts to a second "Project Greenlight" contest they plan to hold. They hope to get more female writers and a greater diversity of voices in the next round.
"We're convinced that there are writers out there who really deserve to be working, deserve to be in this business," Damon said.
People can learn about the contest at http://www.projectgreenlight.com.