Shane Dawson took home the prize over the weekend on STARZ filmmaking reality competition The Chair. Based on votes by fans of the show, Dawson’s film, Not Cool, was awarded the show’s $250,000 prize over Anna Martemucci’s Hollidaysburg. Though many, including myself, predicted a Dawson win before the show even hit the air, the road has been far from smooth for the YouTube star and aspiring director. Not Cool was panned by critics, most notably by The L.A. Times who called it a film “only date rapists and sociopaths could love.” Perhaps more damningly, Dawson’s film was also slammed by actor Zachary Quinto. Before removing his name as a producer and mentor for The Chair, Quinto called Dawson’s work “deeply offensive… not something in any version or by any stretch of my imagination that I can ever put my name on or be associated with.”
It’s not surprising that Dawson’s film missed the mark with critics. Anna Martemucci created the kind of film you would expect from an earnest young director. The film is professional and charming with a familiar indie film slickness. That shouldn’t be read as a criticism. I genuinely enjoyed Hollidaysburg. On the other hand, Not Cool feels very much like an extended version of Shane’s YouTube content. There’s a lot of gross-out humor, raunchy sex jokes, and several familiar scenes of Shane in dubiously executed drag. In short, it’s exactly what you should expect when you ask Shane Dawson to make a movie. It’s this tension between what has been termed “real film-making” versus “YouTube style film-making” that The Chair set out to mine from day one.
Shane Dawson is very adept at making content that appeals to his audience. He knows what they want and he regularly delivers it. That’s how he acquired his millions of followers in the first place. The producers of The Chair knew all of that when they cast him. Producers then made a great show of their effort to neutralize that following in the voting phase, as if Shane’s online popularity was a sudden, inconvenient surprise. Lengthy voting questionnaires were used to weed out fans who rated the films without watching both, or those who rated one director a zero and the other a perfect 100. It’s a reasonable attempt to level the playing field, but why cast Shane Dawson in the first place if his online following was so likely to undesirably skew the results?
The answer, of course, is that The Chair is a reality TV show, and while it might nominally be about the film-making process, it’s actually about creating compelling storylines around that process. Much of the press surrounding The Chair has been about Shane Dawson and his internet following because that is the most interesting narrative at work. The conflict between the traditional filmmaker experience and the rise of the online creator is a story that even now is continuing to grab headlines. The films, in this case, are secondary.
Did Shane Dawson win The Chair because he is a YouTube creator with millions upon millions of young followers who ravenously consume everything he creates? Yes, definitely. What’s unusual is that The Chair, and the media coverage surrounding it, are treating that like it’s a bad thing. Shane has a proven ability to identify and serve his audience that many studios can only dream of. As a result, he enjoys fanatical loyalty from his fans. In the age of digital entertainment, the ability to mobilize a large fanbase is tremendously important to the success of any project. It’s foolish if not a little disingenuous that The Chair would recruit someone like Shane Dawson and then treat his greatest talent as a liability.
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