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YouTube star Shane Dawson wins ‘The Chair’ filmmaking contest |
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YouTube star Shane Dawson wins ‘The Chair’ filmmaking contest

John Altdorfer
Director Shane Dawson (left) with Pittsburgh-based movie stand-in Nick Balzer after the premiere of 'The Chair' at the SouthSide Works cinema at the SouthSide Works on the South Side. September 4, 2014.

“The Chair,” the Starz reality show that followed two novice directors making films in Pittsburgh, had drama both on and off the screen before declaring a winner this weekend.

For those who haven’t been tuning in (and that’s many people), “The Chair,” created by producer Chris Moore (“American Pie,” “Good Will Hunting”), took two first-time directors — Anna Martemucci, a filmmaker who had co-written and produced one other film with her production company, and Shane Dawson, a YouTube celebrity with millions of followers — and gave them the same screenplay to work with. They were allowed to tweak the script to their sensibilities and direct the film in their voices.

As the series unfolded, viewers got an intimate look at the first-time directors’ experiences through deeply personal video diaries and note sessions. They also could vote on which final film they liked best, and they picked Dawson to win the $250,000 prize, despite his film “Not Cool” getting widely panned by critics and even the producers of “The Chair.”

The two films were wildly different in scale and tone. Martemucci took the script and created “Hollidaysburg,” a naturalistic coming-of-age story that garnered mostly critical praise. The Los Angeles Times called it “smart, warm and authentic — one of the better youth comedies of the past few years.”

Dawson created a comedy aimed squarely at fans of his short Web videos (sample titles: “The most disgusting food ever!” and “My drag queen makeover”), and his finished film, “Not Cool,” was critically reviled. The New York Times called it “so poorly executed and unfunny that no one involved with it should ever be allowed to work in the movies again.” The Los Angeles Times critic wrote that the film is “built around mean-spirited, revolting jokes about anybody who isn’t Dawson’s color, attractiveness level, size and gender.”

But critics don’t get to pick the winner of “The Chair,” and Dawson seemed to have an upper hand in courting audience votes thanks to his rabid online fan base. Dawson (Twitter follower count: 2.25 million) has vocal young supporters who worship his every move, while Martemucci (Twitter follower count: nearly 3,500) has been trying to compete with fewer resources, or at least a smaller army of Internet fans.

Both filmmakers have encouraged their followers to vote and have tweeted often about their distaste for the competition itself. Martemucci and her supporters have posted screeds from Dawson followers who post attacks on her and her film; Dawson, for his part, has encouraged his followers to be kind and judge both films equally.

In a recent episode of “The Chair,” producer Neal Dodson and actor-producer Zachary Quinto, a Green Tree native, expressed their profound displeasure with Dawson’s film and pulled their names off of it. Dodson also penned an op-ed for about why Martemucci’s film deserves to win, praising Dawson as a good person, “creative and tireless,” while stressing that Martemucci made the better film.

After winning the prize, Dawson told, “ ‘I think I was scared, because for me the competition wasn’t about winning. I mean, we got to make our own movies, which is insane. But, just because the last two weeks of me being dragged through the mud by Neal, by all of these people and all the actors on ‘Hollidaysburg’ were tweeting against the movie and tweeting out Neal’s article, I felt so beaten down. So, the moment that I won was like, ‘Oh, OK, so I’m not crazy.’ This movie connected with people. Maybe, it didn’t connect with these people but there’s thousands of people who it did. It was a huge relief, and I’m incredibly grateful and excited about it.”

“The Chair” has also, perhaps inadvertently, offered a commentary on the state of the independent film business — about what it takes to sell a film in today’s scattered market. Both films saw limited theatrical release and are available on iTunes, and though Dawson’s film performed better on both platforms, neither film has grossed more than $50,000.

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