The Chair

I meant to write this a few days ago, before The Chair aired its season finale, since the Starz program’s outcome was seemingly clear. Though I didn’t get around to it (it’s now Sunday night), I wasn’t surprised to see how things turned out in the waning moments of the show.

If you haven’t had the pleasure of watching The Chair this season, let me bring you up to speed quickly. The project is the brainchild of Chris Moore, a Hollywood film producer who was formerly partners with Matt Damon and Ben Affleck on the similarly-themed Project Greenlight (which was resurrected earlier this year sans-Moore). Moore and his co-producers came up with the idea to take one script and give it to two different directors, then document the creative process undertaken by each director and their team on The Chair, which just wrapped its 10 episode first season.

The two directors chosen for The Chair were Shane Dawson and Anna Martemucci. Dawson has been a member of the “YouTuber” community – a group of filmmakers who post nearly daily videos on YouTube – for around eight years. He’s pulled millions of subscribers and has a passionate social media following, featuring a mostly teen crowd. Martemucci, on the opposite end of the spectrum, has worked primarily as a writer on a number of shorts and some small independent features.

The films that came out of The Chair, Hollidaysburg and Not Cool, marked the feature directorial debut for both Martemucci and Dawson, respectively. Ultimately, whoever produced the “better” film would win a $250,000 prize, though just how the “better” film would be determined was relatively ambiguous when the show bowed in early September.

If you haven’t seen The Chair, but I’ve peaked your interest and you wish to see the show (relatively) unspoiled, stop reading now as I’m moving into spoiler territory.

Throughout the show, one thing became clear for each director. Though Dawson clearly wished to move on from his YouTube roots, he clearly was playing to his primary audience from Day 1. His revisions to writer Dan Schoffer’s script were very much of the raunchy variety. He cast himself, a 26 year old man, in the role of an 18 year old college freshman. And as a popular 17 year old Mean Girl. And as an old, woman bus driver.

For Martemucci, a personal connection with the script was going to be what brought her through this process. Anna, primarily a writer, dove head-first into re-writing the script into her voice and adding as much of herself into the project as she could, before she even wrap her head around the process of becoming a director.

Through 10 weeks of The Chair, we watched both directors go through the surprisingly painful process of creating art. In the end, Martemucci’s Hollidaysburg is a deliberate character study of three 18 year olds re-discovering themselves. She delivered some beautiful cinematography along the way. However, her movie was missing some up-front meat – the heavy dialogue hit hard at the top, making it difficult to identify with the characters right off. Given some patience, you can catch up in a few minutes, but in the age of 140 character attention-spans, much of your audience might not care by then. The film ends on an ambiguous note – the characters changed, but who knows if for the better. Certainly more grown up.

Speaking of 140 character attention spans, Dawson catered to that group from the very beginning. Not Cool, featuring the same essential story, instead followed four characters making the same re-defining journey. But instead of focusing on the human moments, the film was full of one staged joke after another – time and story was often sacrificed in exchange for the laugh until the last 30 minutes, when the film’s tone shifted to the sentimental, wrapping all the stories up into a nice, neat bow.

After viewing Not Cool, executive producer Zachary Quinto (Spock in the new Star Trek) pulled his name from the film, claiming it was “deeply offensive”. Though I wouldn’t go as far as Quinto, I found Dawson’s story virtually unwatchable. Only my investment in the show kept me going through the 92 minutes. I didn’t find it offensive – just boring. Scenes featuring a homeless man eating his own feces and pressing his penis to windows were supposed to be big laughs. I don’t personally find these funny, nor do I particularly enjoy films where you can almost sense the filmmakers pleading with you to “PLEASE LAUGH!” and don’t blame Quinto for taking his name off as a producer. Not Cool was just not to my taste, period, though I recognize the hard work and passion that went into it. Dawson’s casting was well done; Cherami Leigh, Drew Monson and Michelle Veintimilla were all quite good. I also liked his photography; the initial whip-around of the party scene looked great, and pulling off a one-shot like that is tough to do. The story itself, which once you strip the laugh-track moments away, was actually kind of sweet.

But – and it’s a big but – a lot of people DO like movies like Not Cool. Though Dawson was an ill-fit across the board as an actor, he was clearly a draw. Once Starz announced that the “better” film would be determined by an online survey, the writing could be seen on the wall – Dawson’s legions of social media fans would of course dominate the conversation. And dominate they did. Moore and his producer team created a variety of “test” questions to ensure that anyone voting had seen both films. But the Dawsonites posted answers, rallied around Shane, and ultimately Shane Dawson was declared the winner.

So the question becomes: What’s the better film? Clearly I’m Team Anna on this – despite its faults, I throughly enjoyed Hollidaysburg and intend to recommend it to my friends and family. However, a lot of people clearly liked Not Cool. The film made something like 10 times more at the box office (though we’re taking about $35k vs. $3k). What is the point of filmmaking? To make a film you think is great, or to make one that is the best commercial product you can (not to say that Shane doesn’t think his film was terrific – just making a point here).

On these questions, The Chair experiment was a smashing success. Two directors with two completely different visions created virtually polar opposite films from the same source material for two vastly different audiences. The documentary was dramatic and created some of the best “talking head” visuals I’ve ever seen.

But the competition? The Chair’s competition aspect was an abject failure. Not because Shane Dawson won – but because the playing field was so unfairly stacked the begin with.

If the end-game is for the competition of The Chair to be decided by an online survey, then having one of your competitors have a head-start of millions of online fans is terrible planning. This isn’t Shane’s fault – if you’re put into a competition, you’ll use all of your resources to win. That’s the very definition of competition. And congratulations to Shane for building that audience and knowing how to use it.

But for someone like Anna – it’s virtually a no-win scenario – in that she literally can’t win. At last count, Shane’s Twitter count stood at 2.25 million. Anna Martemucci? 3,648. (Yours truly has roughly double that, BTW).

But to the bigger point – what makes a movie “better” than another one? Certainly marketing is a huge part – social media quickly coming up on the heals (if not already past) traditional trailer placement and one-sheets. But this is a show about DIRECTING, not producing. So unless The Chair is going to vastly change its format for Season Two, it needs to find a way to reduce overall influence of marketing in determining the “better” film.

Note: This next part is pretty self-serving. Though I detest the idea of having cameras follow me around for a year, I recognize the exposure of being on The Chair would be terrific as a filmmaker, and hope I can figure out a way to – is audition the word? – for season two. (Regardless of the rules – I actually think that despite losing the competition, this will do more for Anna’s career than Shane’s. Shane’s film mostly preached to his existing choir, whereas Anna previously had no choir to which to preach.). So though I think these are good ideas, maybe take them with a grain of salt? (Add note: my wife will probably kill me for even considering this).

First, though the experiment of taking a more “traditional” filmmaker like Anna and pitting her against a “new generation” one like Shane was interesting, things clearly need to change as things didn’t function as expected. Therefore, I propose picking two obscure aspiring directors: One who has directed before, but maybe just shorts of their own creation. The second someone with no directing experience, but who has Hollywood experience – maybe on a crew for larger productions, but no where near the top.

Now, to determining the winner. I don’t think that there’s realistically any one way to determine the quality of a film. I propose three different pieces, weighted roughly equally:

Online surveys. Yes – this does need to stay part of the competition. Can’t ignore the viewers’ reactions – ultimately these are the people who buy the tickets. But again – no one part can dominate the competition.

Critical consensus. Critics can often make or break a film with great or awful reviews. Hollidaysburg won this area hands-down over Not Cool – though I throughly agree with Shane Dawson’s reaction to that. Each film had 5-6 people review it, and that’s not nearly enough. For this to work, the producers of The Chair would need to enlist the work of at least 100 – a cross-section of geographical location, demographics and experience would also be required. Chris Moore – consider this part of the show’s marketing – maybe you have to pay for space in newspapers to get this done, but for an experience whose budget was well over $1M, would $50-75k be too much to put into this? Pay the reviewers for their time – but allow them to review as they will.

Film Executives. Show the film to a number of willing executives – with studios and outside vendors – and allow them to pick which film is superior. The definition here would be which film would you put the most distribution investment into, both for purchasing it and marketing it? Since we can’t judge directors on their marketing prowess, this is a better way to solve the marketing issue.

Under these new rules, I sincerely believe that Shane Dawson’s Not Cool would still best Anna Martemucci’s Hollidaysburg – though in an indirect way, Shane’s presence both on and off-camera in Not Cool would probably take the day in the third category. However, starting the competition on a more even playing field will make for a more dramatic finish to a series whose first season was great, but whose conclusion was anything but climatic.

Congratulations to both Anna and Shane for making films that speak to their respective passions – and best of luck in the future.