Earlier this summer, ahead of their presentation at the Television Critics Association (TCA) press tour, Starz sent critics an advanced screening link to the first two episodes of what they termed a “Starz Original Filmmaking Experiment” called The Chair.
When the link arrived in my inbox, I had no idea The Chair existed. I had vague recollections of Project Greenlight, but not enough to remember much about The Chair creator Chris Moore. I did not recognize either YouTube creator Shane Dawson or New York writer-producer Anna Martemucci, the two directors making two different movies—Not Cool and Hollidaysburg, respectively—based on the same script.
However, I am interested in the process of filmmaking, and in the industrial dynamics of trying to get movies funded, produced, and distributed in a shifting contemporary media landscape. From the time I saw those two episodes, I was hooked, and I’ve been obsessed with the show ever since. I wrote about its TCA panel, where Dawson and Martemucci met for the first time; I interviewed Moore, Dawson, and Martemucci ahead of the series’ premiere; I reviewed the first two episodes here at The A.V. Club; I analyzed the two films’ limited release box office performances; I watched Not Cool and Hollidaysburg on Starz Play and reviewed them. I even kept finding ways to work The Chair into everyday conversation, to the point where at least one friend notably scoffed as I once again found a way to tie something to the series that was more or less completely unrelated. It is the 2014 series I’ve recommended to the most people, and the show that I am most looking forward to seeing return should Starz be interested in a second season.
I include this narrative because it’s necessary to understanding why The Chair has been so fascinating despite its failure to deliver on its most basic promises. As someone who went into The Chair interested in seeing how the participants navigated this distinct creative challenge, and who became more and more fascinated as the series’ characterization of Shane and Anna—and everyone else involved—worked in conjunction with and in opposition to their respective articulations of professional identity on social media, The Chair was everything I hoped it would be.
However, given that I use phrases like “respective articulations of professional identity,” I am well aware that I am not in any way normal. This wasn’t what The Chair promised during its TCA presentation. From the beginning, Chris Moore wanted this to be an experiment about how movies got made, and how a director’s vision reshaped material, and about how audiences responded to two versions of the same story. And although those topics were certainly among those that The Chair dealt with over its ten episodes, they were tangential from—and at times cross-purpose with—the observations that made The Chair so engaging. In the end, The Chair succeeded as a documentary series by abandoning—and in some cases never engaging with—the steps necessary to make this a satisfying or fair competition.
Since its first two episodes, The Chair has gone through a significant amount of storytelling, taking the filmmakers through pre-production, production, and post-production. True to the series’ early episodes, this journey told two compelling narratives, which the series framed in contrast to one another. Anna started on shaky ground, usually depicted having difficulty articulating her own vision for Hollidaysburg compared to that of her collaborators (husband Victor, brother-in-law Phil). Meanwhile, Shane started much more confidently, convinced he knew his audience and was going to do what he could to deliver the movie they wanted, and shaking off issues like homeowners backing out of being part of the movie after watching his content online. As both films neared the end of production, though, the narratives started to shift: none of the supposed conflict with Anna’s directorial indecision seeming to have a deeper impact on the Hollidaysburg set, but the concerns regarding the tone of Shane’s film rose to the surface more often. This was clearest when Not Cool was filming a scene in a tattoo parlor, during which the owner is seen criticizing Chris Moore for aligning himself with someone whose videos are racist and homophobic, and emphasizing that she is only not kicking them out so that she doesn’t completely screw them over.
It all came to a head when the two films entered post-production, at which stage the narratives the show had constructed to that point began to disintegrate. Whereas the series had been charting two directors facing different problems while going through a similar experience, post-production saw them face completely different challenges. Anna proved adaptive and eager to hear constructive comments about her film, running a traditional test screening and working with her editor to respond to concerns that the two female leads in the film were indistinguishable from one another (creating the paneling in the above screenshot from the film). Shane, meanwhile, screened the movie in what amounts to a “friends and family” screening and refused to sit in on the Q&A that followed with select audience members. While Anna’s post-production narrative showed how the difficulties she faced making the movie had helped her grow as a filmmaker, Shane’s narrative shifted toward a defensive posture, further exacerbated by Zachary Quinto’s decision to take his name off of Not Cool alongside his producing partner Neal Dodson.
That decision represents a pivotal moment for Shane’s narrative on The Chair. On the one hand, as someone who thought Not Cool was offensive and not nearly funny enough to justify how offensive it was, it was incredibly cathartic to see someone involved in this process take a stand against the kind of movie Shane was making. At the same time, however, Shane is not wrong when he raises his objections after being informed of Quinto’s decision in “Outside The Bubble.” Quinto and Dodson had seen the script—Quinto had even been on set briefly. And given that so much of his narrative was framed around wanting to expand his audience beyond YouTube, I sympathize with Shane’s concern that Quinto’s decision reinforces the most pessimistic views of his capacity to do so.
And yet it’s hard to feel too bad for Shane given that he turned down clear opportunities to test how far his audience would be willing to follow him. He chose to cast himself in his movie because it’s what his fans would expect. He chose to take the humor in a direction that was consistent with what his audience wanted. When he entered post-production, he chose to test his movie with an audience of friendly faces, resisting suggestions to test it with a general audience. There is a version of The Chair where Shane makes Not Cool without playing the lead character, and where Shane tones down his exaggerated humor to find a more balanced tone, and where Shane uses the responses of average moviegoers to make something that represents an evolution of his career. In that version of the story, Shane’s moment of triumph would be seeing a general audience engage with his work in the way that his fans do; in this version of the story, Shane’s triumph is returning to the safe space of Vidcon and showing a trailer for a movie made for his audience to his audience.
Shane’s ultimate triumph is winning The Chair, of course, and the $250,000 prize that goes with it. When I reviewed the first two episodes back in September, I was frustrated by the series’ competition element. As far as I was concerned, Shane Dawson was always going to win The Chair as it was designed: so long as audience voting was going to determine the winner of the $250,000 cash prize, Dawson could take the novelty check to the bank. With such a large online following, there was no way that The Chair as a television show could garner a significant enough fanbase in its first season on a premium cable channel with a relatively low subscriber base to offset the number of Dawson’s fans who would vote purely to support his career. This isn’t Big Brother, which saw its loyal audience of millions shut social media star/Ariana’s brother Frankie Grande out of the fan favorite award despite intense campaigning. This is The Chair, which had no audience before it started, and has garnered only a tiny audience as it concludes—while this number would increase through streaming and On Demand, only 33,000 viewers watched the ninth episode when it aired last week.
In this way, some would argue that The Chair failed Anna Martemucci. She made a movie that is subtler, more technically proficient, and more sophisticated—from a critical standpoint, there is no competition at all. But although questions about the tone and technical details were part of the SurveyMonkey survey that viewers were asked to fill out to determine a winner, the more general response questions—how would you rate this movie, would you recommend this movie to a friend, etc.—were weighted more heavily in the final determination according to Moore, who I spoke to yesterday. And while Moore notes that 40% of the survey results were thrown out based on users’ inability to answer simple questions about each film to make sure voters saw both movies, the fact that Dawson had to actively warn his Twitter followers not to try to cheat by sharing quiz answers would indicate that Martemucci was fighting an uphill battle.
When I spoke to Martemucci yesterday, I asked her if she believes there was ever anything she could have done:
“I had months to think about that, and it almost drove me insane. I don’t think so. I think Chris Moore made this choice a long time ago, and to be fair I knew that this was his choice to do a straight vote online. And I always told him it was ludicrous, and he knew I felt that way even before I signed up for it. So I have literally spent months trying to figure out what Chris Moore is trying to say or trying to prove, or what his motives are, and I just can’t figure it out, so I’m done. [Laughs] I feel very free, honestly. It’s really nice to not feel as guilty anymore about not being able to garner millions of followers within two months, which is sort of the place I was in.”
She tried to convince Moore that they should bring in a panel of experts to judge the competition; Moore suggests he tried to get experts involved, but none were willing to serve as a judge onscreen, and he felt keeping them hidden would defeat the purpose, and was more interested in interrogating what “better” means than having experts determine it. While Moore is open to trying a new method in future seasons and acknowledges that this was an imperfect way to choose a winner, it does nothing to change the fact that Anna Martemucci never had a chance to win this competition from the moment she signed on the dotted line.
Here’s the thing, though: Anna Martemucci won The Chair without winning the prize. Although the series raised a number of questions regarding her competency, Hollidaysburg answered most of them, and she exits the experience being able to call herself a director and with a solid coming-of-age film to her name. The Chair offered a larger platform for PERIODS. Films, which they’re using to launch a wave of new content: they’ll release their third feature film—also titled PERIODS in December, while Martemucci is working on an idea for a television series. Martemucci, having resigned herself to losing the prize, has been able to transition to using this as a launching pad for her career—while millions might not be watching, a loss is still a win if you’re Anna Martemucci.
Shane Dawson won The Chair, and he got to make a feature film, and that is undoubtedly a significant accomplishment—no one can take that away from him. However, at the same time, the way the competition (d)evolved meant that Shane’s win doesn’t end up being the validation it could have been when the series began. Tonight’s episode tries to pretend that this was still a competition to see who can make the best version of Dan Schoffer’s script, but when reflecting on the inequity of the competition Moore admits this isn’t exactly the case:
“[Anna and Shane] went after totally different genres with the story, and that’s when I may have failed the experiment as the ultimate designer at the very beginning, because there was too much freedom of how far apart they could go. I take that criticism that Anna could never have won not only because he already had six million fans, but [because] he went after the genre that draws more people.”
As a result, the series became a test to see which audience was larger, and more vocal, and more active in the online communities where the decision would be made, which means all Shane had to do was appeal to the audience he had already tapped into through his online work.
And this is how The Chair failed its winner. There was never any incentive for Shane to push himself in new directions—and no, adding a rote romantic arc between shit jokes does not qualify as a new direction—because the easiest way to win the competition was to pander to his audience. While Shane was pushed to tighten his vision by his producers, the fact that Shane had final cut—something that Moore insisted on when designing the competition, and the element he says caused the most criticism from his fellow producers—meant he never had to go beyond small cosmetic changes. If The Chair had asked Shane to stick to someone else’s script, or if The Chair had asked Shane to make a film in an entirely different genre than what he is used to, he could have left this process with evidence that he could adapt his creativity in ways that make him a viable Hollywood director. Because The Chair actively pushed him back inside his bubble through the way the competition was designed, Shane leaves with the same devoted fans he’s always had and a cinematic extension of his YouTube channel that unfortunately reinforces conceptions of YouTube as amateur, sloppy, and lacking in subtlety. And $250,000.
It’s a frustrating way to end a competition, but in retrospect I can’t deny that it made great television. Even early on, when I struggled with how inevitable the result seemed and how the design of the show seemed to be working against itself, Shane and Anna’s narratives were a strong hook. But as the show evolved, it seemed less and less interested in the competition, and became more interested in exploring how those involved in the productions got swallowed up in the absurdity of the situation around them. The first to emerge was Lauren Schnipper, Shane’s producer and later on in the series the person most responsible for weathering Shane’s insecurity and defensiveness (after which she reminds Shane that his claim that he never yelled at anyone is an enormous lie). But there’s also Corey Moosa, a producer on both films, who ends up in the complicated position of being proud of a movie he worked on—work that included cold-calling strip clubs searching for an African American penis in Pittsburgh—that his two producing partners consider a complete waste of money; Josh Shader, the closest thing to an executive producer of The Chair involved on set on a day-to-day basis, who must balance both films with the goals of the reality show itself; Dan Schoffer, whose original script will never be made, and who has a sole writing credit on both films despite having only remained with Shane’s after Anna hired her own team to rewrite the movie nearly from scratch; Josh Hetzler and Julie Buck, who served as both Anna’s producers and valuable narrators for the specific challenges of production scheduling and logistics.
And then you have the smaller players, whether it’s each film’s first assistant directors, Shane’s location manager who puts people in a holding area without a working bathroom, or Anna’s production manager Rob Long—the latter is part of my favorite moment in the documentary, when Josh and Julie turn a camera on him during the Hollidaysburg wrap party to inform him his contribution to the project through his Clear Story Studios has earned him a Co-Producer credit. The wrap sequence in “Two Martinis” also features student interns from Point Park University who gained valuable experience, and reminds us that this process involved lots of people for whom this wasn’t a competition, and for whom these jobs were “real” and integral to their professional identity without the added promotion or the chance to win a cash prize. As the show went on, more and more of those types of people emerged, making The Chair much more than two filmmakers’ journey.
What The Chair became, I would argue, is a story about how you choose to represent yourself as a media industry professional, and the challenges and comprises of holding onto your values in that environment. This is why Zachary Quinto emerged as a crucial “character” late in this story, something he had never imagined. He told me he never anticipated having such a visceral reaction to Not Cool that he would be forced to become such a part of the documentary narrative, but he had to make a decision that reflected his values as a producer:
“When I started my production company, I aspired to be some kind of arbiter of what I want to put into the world creatively, and ultimately Shane’s movie didn’t fall in line with that. I have worked to put myself in the position to do that, and to create an infrastructure that allows me to do that, so I had no choice but to honor the reaction I had and stand by it in a professional way.”
The Chair is a show that allowed people to have values, and which saw those values come into conflict with the decisions they were asked to make in the process of making these movies and being documented in the process. This extended to the social media around the show: it was here where Anna struggled to build a following from scratch, where Quinto unexpectedly ended up the target of intense social media attacks by Dawson’s fans, and where Quinto’s producing partner Neal Dodson went on the offensive in support of Hollidaysburg in what Dawson characterizes as part of a lengthy “cyberbullying” campaign. The resulting discourse between the filmmakers, their fans, their casts, and others close to the production reveals how fraught the process has been when it comes to those involved defending their values.
The show focused less on this conflict than I would have liked. In fact, there were a lot of elements late in the process—the box office results, the reviews, the likely writer’s guild arbitration, etc.—that got glossed over in the documentary. However, the show didn’t completely shy away from exploring the messiness of the process, and to Chris Moore’s credit he acknowledges that this was a messy process. When I spoke with him, he was unilaterally pleased with how The Chair unfolded but nonetheless took full responsibility for mistakes he made, and resisted pushing responsibility for the show’s problems onto anyone else. He respected Quinto and Neal Dodson’s decision to leave Not Cool; he respected Shane’s decision to ignore early advice to broaden his audience and make something for his fans instead. I ultimately believe that Moore vastly overestimated the fanbase that would emerge for the show (as evidenced by a failed IndieGoGo campaign that never got off the ground), and vastly underestimated the role that Shane’s fanbase would be in any fan-voting situation (as evidenced by the decision to have fan voting in the first place). But all of it stems from a passionate—at times blind—belief that filmmaking is important, and fascinating, and something that he wants to explore through The Chair as long as someone is willing to have him do it.
I hope it happens. I also hope that the competition element is refined to be a fairer fight and pushes the directors to make more significant compromises, but at the same time I hope this doesn’t strip away the chaos that made The Chair so engaging. At one point in “Outside The Bubble,” Josh Shader claims “at the end of the day, you judge a director by the product they put out.” If we judge The Chair critically by the movies it released, it’s hard to consider it an absolute triumph given Not Cool’s problems. However, the show itself is a tremendous artifact of the flaws, failures, skirmishes, and triumphs of being someone who makes movies, exaggerated but never obliterated by the competition happening around it; reality television would be a far better place if we had more artifacts like it.
- Although I spoke with Martemucci, Moore, and Quinto this week, I did not have the chance to speak with Dawson, but I hope we’ll get some more concrete reflection from him about his experience soon.
- If you’ve ever wondered what the TCA Press Tour looks like, this is probably the most thorough documentation I’ve seen—this is the Summer tour, which takes place at the Beverly Hilton, which you will recognize from the Golden Globes.
- Moore says they’ve yet to tabulated all of the data from the surveys on a question-by-question basis, but they intend on doing so, and are looking into ways to make the data public in a way that isn’t just a jumble of SurveyMonkey information.
- Quinto acknowledged he believes things could have gone differently if other commitments hadn’t kept him away from Pittsburgh during the production window available to the series, and says that if the show—which he characterizes as a positive experience overall—moves forward he would expect to be more involved. And given that Shane was involved before Quinto and Before The Door signed on, chances are the choice of filmmakers would keep such an extreme rift from emerging in a subsequent season.
- I found the series’ House of Cards-ripoff credits obnoxious, but I did at least appreciate they made an L.A. version for the post-production episodes.
- My biggest question for the director of the documentary itself: Why were the actors so consistently erased from the narrative? None of them got to really speak on the record regarding their experience, and only Anna’s relationship with Phil and Shane and Anna directing themselves really delved into the acting dynamic of directing in any way.
- If you don’t subscribe to Starz, The Chair will be available to purchase digitally on Monday.
- I will note that Starz only made the first forty minutes of the finale available to press, so I actually don’t know how the last forty minutes played out beyond who won. I’ll check back in and edit to offer a few thoughts once I see the episode in full.