“The Chair” is many things. Dreamed up by producer Chris Moore, it’s two indie movies directed by rookies, YouTube sensation Shane Dawson and NYU screenwriter Anna Martemucci (“Breakup at a Wedding”), which will be released in theaters by Starz. It’s also a ten-part one hour unscripted original documentary series, which starts airing on Starz September 6. And it’s a reality show competition with $250,000 going to the winner. And more material will eventually post online at The Chair Channel on Vimeo, on Starz.com and via social media.
Remember “Project Greenlight”? The HBO reality TV series, produced by Miramax, Sean Bailey and “Good Will Hunting” producers Ben Affleck, Matt Damon and Chris Moore, showed audiences the nuts and bolts of indie filmmaking. A decade later Moore dreamed up another idea. “The Chair,” more than a gladiator event for directors, he says on the phone, is part of his continuing quest “to show people how intense it is to go make a movie, how much creative decisions go into it. This is a very different idea. It’s how best to show people how different decisions could be made.”
Moore recalled that before Gus Van Sant took the reins on “Good Will Hunting,” Mel Gibson was on board to direct for a few months and Michael Mann shot a test of Matt Damon: “What would it have been like? I became fascinated. How come in our business you never see two versions of the same movie? I know the business reasons why, but for me personally, I wanted to watch two people take the same script and turn it into a movie.”
The competition is less the driver, Moore insists, than a great way to have an end to the story of who made the best movie. “In the doc we ask, ‘what is the definition for what is better? Was it the movie that made $6 billion because of a great director or the one that won Oscars, or 10 people think you’re greatest filmmaker ever?”
The measure here will be a panel of professionals who watch the two movies and vote; who scores the best with a preview audience filling out surveys; and how many buy tickets at the brick and mortar theater box office. “All those things factor in,” says Moore, who’s eager to set up the same competition in countries around the world, “to who wins the prize for the best movie: $250,000.”
“When was the last time you watched the extras on DVD before you watched the movies?” asks Moore, who wanted the Weinsteins to let audiences see the “Project Greenlight” movie and then watch the show about making movie. This time, the movies are playing for two weeks in New York and Los Angeles while the show is still airing, day-and-date on iTunes and other digital platforms. The only way to see the documentary is to subscribe to Starz.
Moore pushed this rock up the hill by himself until a catch-up lunch with Starz chief Chris Albrecht. It all started three years ago, when Moore was shooting Van Sant’s “Promised Land” in Pittsburgh, where a group of people at Steel Town Project and film school Point Park University got excited about growing their local film community. With their initial seed investment Moore raised $2 million and eventually $3.5 million, and agreed to shoot the films there, hiring locally.
Moore developed a script, a coming-of-age story that could be made for $1 million with young actors. MTV owned “How Soon is Now?” but was willing to put in turnaround. “When I had a script, we went out looking for directors–sort of like casting the documentary. I’d been working with Shane Dawson for six months; I believe in the guy. He created all these YouTube characters online, spoofs and skits done in real time. I was working on a script of his when the money came together for ‘The Chair,’ so sent him ‘How Soon Is Now?,’ he liked it. On the show he starts revealing that he didn’t like it as much as he let on. Shane’s got 10 million fans and can’t get a job directing a movie.”
Moore is a main character in the series, along with Before the Door producer Zachary Quinto (“Margin Call,” “All is Lost”), who Moore brought on with his partners to produce the two films. Martemucci was writing another comedy project for Moore that he admired; Before the Door had produced a movie she wrote and produced with her husband directing, “Breakup at a Wedding.”
Both Dawson and Martemucci were having a tough time getting their directing careers going. And Moore recognized they would make very distinct movies. In order to lure more filmmakers going forward, he gave them each Final Cut. On the show, you see Dawson cutting two characters and turning the film into a teen comedy, while Martemucci cuts two other people and goes for a naturalistic indie feel. He hires a male cinematographer who had shot rap videos, while she goes for a reliable and experienced woman D.P. Watching Episode 1, I immediately started rooting for one and disliking the other. (Guess.) It’s fascinating watching these two very different people making their decisions and coping with performance anxiety.
They were still in the midst of shooting the films in snowy Pittsburgh when Moore met with Albrecht, who heard Moore’s pitch and said, “I would like to have the documentary on Starz,” Moore says.”He didn’t buy the movies, he licensed the TV series, which adds clout to the project.” Only this week did Starz’s film digital and theatrical acquisitions side screen the completed films and immediately bought them.
While Moore has yet to make back money for his investors, he’s close. They still have to spend more to release the movies in AMC Theaters and they’re still shooting the doc, covering their presentation at Comic-Con. “To be a young filmmaker you also gotta have the muscle of marketing,” says Moore. “You got to get people to see your movie. I hope people see it. A big part of this series is we’re covering production and making the movie, PR and marketing.”
The doc is being shot by Tony Sacco, who was the camera operator and DP on all the “Project Greenlight” shows, and has made History channel docs and shows for Shark Week on Discovery. “As we got deeper into it,” says Moore, “I realize he’s directing it. We’re the top of the food chain. I give notes like a producer. He’s the director.”
The producers will get some returns from film ticket sales and iTunes. They own the licensing in a relationship with Starz, after the series airs. Film schools will want to keep showing them, Moore hopes. There will be box set with both movies that will be sold on home video domestically with the doc inside.
Of course Moore would like to keep doing it. “This idea is cool!” he gushes. “It’s not meant to be just first-timers, I want to see actual directors where we know the kinds of movies they made working on a season two. My fantasy is to get David O Russell and Steve Soderbergh to both do a Philip K. Dick short story. Let’s see the movies they make out of it.”