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Why ‘Hollidaysburg’ Should Win Starz’s ‘The Chair’ (Guest Blog)

Executive producer of the competition show weighs in on why Anna Martemucci’s film is better than Shane Dawson’s ”Not Cool“

Objectively, subjectively, and critically, “Hollidaysburg” is the better film and deserving winner of “The Chair.” Read on. And bear with me. I’m not a man of few words. I’m working on that.

My producing partners Zachary Quinto, Corey Moosa, and I produce a documentary television series for Starz called “The Chair,” created by Chris Moore. Two directors were given the same script, the same budget, and the same city, and each had to go make a feature film. Every other decision was theirs, including “final cut.” The show wraps up in two more episodes and has been compelling. The two filmmakers made two very different movies. There’s a voting period this week, which ends this coming Sunday night. You must have seen both films in order to vote (otherwise it’s absurdly unfair).

The film that gets voted the “Best Film” gets a whopping $250,000, so that they can dedicate themselves to being a director full time for a few years. That is twice the prize money given to the winner of Bravo’s hit series “Top Chef” every season. It almost sounds unreasonably high – but Chris Moore‘s goal is that the prize for whichever director wins should allow them to dedicate themselves for a year or two to being a director full-time and have the resources to option material and really pursue a directing career legitimately.

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So, as much as the vote for the winner of an “unscripted show” may not seem important, this vote for the winner of “The Chair” has the ability to change someone’s life and, ideally, launch a filmmaker into the business to create a body of work that lasts through time. To support a storyteller.

Storytelling is the primary way by which our culture is passed down through the ages and how we collectively process what it means to be human. Whether through writing, paintings, sculptures, photographs, songs, dance, theatre, videogames, television, or movies – we preserve ourselves and our humanity through telling stories. Uniquely, film has a fast, global storytelling reach. By picking a film in this competition, we as viewers and audience members say something about the kind of stories we want to tell and have told and to pass on to our children. Films are a time capsule.

Which movie do you want in the time capsule for 2014? Shane Dawson‘s “Not Cool” or Anna Martemucci’s “Hollidaysburg”?

I believe that “Hollidaysburg” should win. It’s not even a question in my mind. And it makes me very sad that “Not Cool” could win this competition. It makes me sad, because of what it says about a decline in our culture. And as a new father, what it says about our youth and their appreciation for story and art and humor.

See video: Watch Two Filmmakers Battle It Out in Starz’s ‘The Chair’

It’s also upsetting as someone who has dedicated my professional life to trying to help people tell brave, bold, creative, smart, challenging stories. Not everything I’ve been a part of is high art, for sure, but I’ve managed to make a few movies (“Margin Call,” “Breakup at a Wedding,” “All Is Lost,” “A Most Violent Year,” and now, I’d argue, “Hollidaysburg”) that do something new. That people who study film or are film fans or write legitimate film criticism or who are cinephiles believe will maybe, just maybe, stand the test of time. Films that belong in the time capsule.

The director of “Not Cool,” Shane Dawson, is a really nice guy. He’s smart and articulate. He’s creative and tireless. In the few times I’ve met him he’s been nothing but kind to me and is passionate about his work. I’m sure he will go on to make more creative content as he has been through his very popular YouTube channels for seven years (10 million plus fans, billion views). His fans are young, predominantly female, under the age of 14, and they are legion. They weep upon seeing him. They comment and retweet and repost obsessively. They defend him viciously without mercy. And he is kind to them and gives off a genuine sense of wanting to inspire them out of whatever makes them sad, the way that he once was inspired to make his own life better. To his credit, he also discourages their rage and aggression against anyone who dislikes him. I admire that greatly about Shane. It’s not an easy position to be in to be loved by millions of strangers who would kill (or at least troll) for you. His fans have been openly scheming online to cheat the voting rules for this very contest, and Shane begged them not to and to watch both movies and vote fairly.

But those great qualities don’t mean that he made the better film. Critically, subjectively, and objectively, he made the lesser of two films — from the same raw materials.

On the series, Shane says many times that he is just giving “his audience” what they want. That may be true. But, I had hoped for more out of Shane. I had hoped he’d use his megaphone to push his fanbase to something new, to stretch himself, to not fall back on his normal style and low-brow humor. One can reference “Superbad” and “American Pie” all they want, but “Not Cool” doesn’t stand up to those comparisons. Not even close. I can’t tell if Shane knows better? Or thinks that his film is funnier than it is? Or that he is genuinely trapped and thus resigned to pandering to a fanbase for which his content in the movie and online is, frankly, wildly inappropriate for. I never got to talk about it with him. He didn’t ask for my opinion, which is his right, of course.

Also read: ‘The Chair’s’ Chris Moore, Zachary Quinto Pay It Forward With Starz’s Filmmaking Competition

“Not Cool” trades in base potty humor and not the clever kind. It is often racist and homophobic and mysogynist and ethnocentrist and frequently utterly foul. To be clear, I do not think that Shane is those things, just that his movie is, and there is a difference. But Shane is putting those things out into the world via this movie and to his millions of fans on his YouTube channel. And the defense that “this is how teenagers talk and act today” is no defense at all. I know plenty who don’t. And when you take a movie like Larry Clark’s “Kids” or “Superbad” and evaluate them, there’s a reason those films are, respectively, considered art or the best of comedy. It isn’t their raunchiness, it’s their perspective and their craft. “Not Cool” has neither.

This movie has no taste in humor at all, nor any substance. It isn’t attempting to portray real people. I like a good fart joke, or broad comedy, or sex romp as much as the next filmgoer. I don’t only produce artsy-fartsy films. I’m working on studio movies too and even our auteur films get released and make money and win mainstream awards. And Zachary, who Shane has villainized on the series as artsy and absent, certainly doesn’t only make art films. He stars in franchise blockbuster movies and global hit television series and commercial Broadway theatre that sells out every night, hardly a fringe actor/producer. We both love comedies. Good ones. This is not that movie.

But don’t just take my word for it. Read critical analysis of “Not Cool” in the reviews (Los Angeles Times, New York Times, etc). Critically, it’s a disaster. Some of the worst reviews I have ever read. And it’s easy to look down on critics, but those are people who LOVE movies. They see more each year than any of us. They have context. And they believe “Not Cool” is not a well-made film nor a funny comedy in the context of other films currently and throughout history.

Also? Just watch the movie. If you are a diehard Shane Dawson fan (and there are many), I expect you believe it is brilliant. But if you are not, watch the movie and report back. I’d be shocked if you don’t agree with me. It’s that stark.

Also read: ‘The Chair’ Producer Zachary Quinto Talks ‘Skepticism’ About Unscripted TV

I have respect for the talented Pittsburgh filmmaking team who I know worked tirelessly for many long cold nights. But the screenplay Shane shot with is weak and unoriginal, the cinematography looks flat like a home video, the jokes and bits are base and without wit or irony, and the main performances aren’t strong. I pause to give a few exceptions: I think that Cherami Leigh (as Tori) and Michelle Veintimilla (as Janie) are fantastic actors and manage to give great, heartfelt performances. As does Shane’s girlfriend, Lisa Schwartz, as the blind sister, who is very very funny. But two of Shane’s biggest mistakes were in casting himself as the lead of the film, and in also deciding to play other roles in drag. Both take you out of the movie entirely. It’s hard for experienced directors to direct themselves, and his lead performance simply doesn’t work.

If directing is about hiring the best crew, making interesting choices at every turn, casting the best actors, editing in a cohesive way that makes the best of your footage, shooting so it has a specific look that enhances the movie, telling stories in a compelling way… This movie does not excel in those areas. It doesn’t win, for me, in the areas that make for a director who deserves a $250,000 prize to go further those ambitions unimpeded. I wish Shane well (win or lose) and I genuinely hope he decides to take the opportunities that come from having a fanbase like his seriously and sets out to make another movie with more technique and skill and humility and collaboration.

I make no bones about my preferred film – and it is not because “Hollidaysburg” director Anna Martemucci is also a colleague and a friend. She simply made the better movie. By a landslide. Critically, subjectively, and objectively. Again – watch her movie and I’m confident you will agree.

Critically? Anna received universally great to excellent reviews from the industry and mainstream press. One critic, from a particularly high-brow publication, called it “one of the better coming of age sagas of late.”

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Subjectively? Anna’s film is real and raw. It is simple and low-stakes in its subject, but complex in its nuance and execution. It captures something about nostalgia and coming of age that I’ve not seen before. It calls to mind other great movies, like the late Ted Demme’s “Beautiful Girls” and David Gordon Green‘s “All the Real Girls.” It is a movie in which someone loses their virginity, but it isn’t the most important moment in the film or in their life, and instead tender and awkward and real. The script is smart and unique and specific. It rings true. The movie looks like a beautiful movie, which sounds like a low bar but is harder than you think on an extremely low budget. The music is fun and emotional and dialed in just right. The locations and design are warm and realistic. They bring you back to Thanksgivings gone by.

Objectively? The “Hollidaysburg” team had the exact same resources, the same cold weather, the same city, the same money, the same time constraints. So it’s as objective in terms of fairness (huge online fanbase notwithstanding) as you can get. But unlike “Not Cool,” in Anna’s movie the cinematography looks rich and filmic, the production design is simple but beautiful, the wardrobe is subtle and cohesive, the editing is creative, and the dialogue (entirely rewritten, word for word, by Anna and her two writing partners, despite the writing credit denied them by WGA rules) is snappy and sharp and personal. In short – if you showed both movies on two screens side by side to any group of randomly chosen film professionals, regardless of what they thought of the story or themes, they would, to a person, identify “Hollidaysburg” as the professionally made film. No question. But again, with the same exact resources.

And the casting/acting? We could call this subjective if we want, or objective, if I force myself to admit that I’m a classically trained actor, and I believe that on a technical basis the acting in “Hollidaysburg” is at an extremely high level. Much of a movie’s success comes down to casting choices, directing those actors, and to the environment created by the director, which then trickles down through their entire crew to allow actors to be truly great. Subjectively, the performances of her entire cast, without exception – from Anna’s three heartbreaking and hysterical leads Rachel Keller, Claire Chapelli, and Tobin Mitnick, to the surrounding Tristan Erwin, Kate Boyer, Daina Griffith, Brian Shoaf, and Philip Quinaz — made me feel something. They made me laugh. They made me smile, nostalgic (almost) for my early college years. Along with Martemucci’s words, they used both technique and that magic ephemeral thing that really good actors can do but no one can explain, to tell a story that deserves to be heard.

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“Hollidaysburg” is a better movie. It just is. I voted for it. And I hope that anyone watching “The Chair” or who has decided to see both movies in theaters, on iTunes, on Amazon, or on Starz in order to vote makes the same choice. Even fans of Shane Dawson – I’m talking to you as 11 year olds, but soon you will be young adults. And trust me, the videos I made with my friends when I was 11 years old made me laugh and felt hugely important to me at the time. But you are really close to outgrowing Shane’s videos and outgrowing “Not Cool.” I promise you that the older version of yourself does not want “Not Cool” in your time capsule. And I also wish for you, that when you arrive at your freshman year Thanksgiving and come home from college that your five-day break is like a trip into the movie “Hollidaysburg” — complete with perfected pumpkin pie and making out in abandoned steel furnaces.

Now that I’ve made the argument for watching both movies and then choosing Anna Martemucci as the filmmaker who deserves the prize, I’ll admit that she made such a good film that she will also be fine in this business if she doesn’t win, albeit short $250,000. I would be proud to hands-on produce any movie that she chooses to direct next. She won’t need me, of course, because instead she has a great movie to show. So, Anna will have champions lining up behind Zachary Quinto and me and down the block. I’m proud to have my name on her first (of many) feature films – “Hollidaysburg”: the deserving winner of “The Chair” competition.

“The Chair” airs Saturdays at 10 p.m. ET on Starz. Voting is open now.

Neal Dodson is the producer of the movies "Margin Call," "Breakup at a Wedding," "All Is Lost," and "A Most Violent Year" and the executive producer of "Hollidaysburg," "Another Cinderella Story," "Periods," "Banshee Chapter," the currently shooting "You Were Never Here," and the upcoming "Deepwater Horizon" among many other projects in film and television. Neal won an Independent Spirit Award, and his films have also been nominated for Academy Awards, Golden Globe Awards, Gotham Awards, SAG Awards, BAFTA Awards, and recognized by the New York Film Critics Circle and National Board of Review. His mother is a retired high school English teacher who will be appalled that Neal couldn't distill his thoughts more succinctly than he has in this over-long essay.