There’s a moment in Starz’s The Chair—which debuts on Saturday at 11/10c—where one of the two directors making a version of the same script in a competition for a $250,000 prize is scouting locations at a middle school, and he’s approached by a group of young students who ask to take a picture with him. Taken out of context, it would seem strange for teenage girls to treat a director like a celebrity, but Shane Dawson is not a traditional director. His filmography largely exists on the web, on YouTube channels with upwards of 6.1 million followers, and his involvement in The Chair is about testing how YouTube creators are able to transition into a more traditional filmmaking environment.
Accordingly, there’s more at stake for Dawson in the project than the $250,000 prize—Not Cool, his version of Dan Schoffer’s original script, is a major transition outside of YouTube, and one of the central narratives of the series is Dawson’s efforts to maintain appeal to his young fanbase while nonetheless meeting the expectations of the producers and financiers of the project. Recently featured in a Variety cover story confronting a new era of online content creation, Dawson is also among a group of YouTube creators who are expanding outside their channels in an effort to stretch themselves both creatively and financially, a test of how audiences built in the space of web video can be translated across platforms.
After speaking with Chris Moore, and before speaking to his fellow filmmaker Anna Martemucci, I spoke with Dawson about his decision to be involved with The Chair, his identity as a “YouTube star” in the context of this and other projects, and how the experience has shaped his future plans both on and off YouTube.
Cultural Learnings: In the series, you’re really held up as a representative of the new vanguard of online creators, which is further reinforced by the Variety cover story. Are you comfortable being held up in this way?
Shane Dawson: I think I’ve been around for so long—I mean, it’s only been seven years or something, but YouTube years are like dog years. [Laughs] I think it’s cool that people kind of look at me as one of the originators of online video and one of the pioneers of YouTube because I’ve worked really hard to build an audience and make content that I’m proud of. A lot of the things I was doing on YouTube nobody was doing at the time, and now everybody is doing them, and I think making movies—I know a few Youtubers have done it, and hopefully this movie does well and more YouTubers want to take a risk and make movies, and I’m excited about it.
As your comments suggest, the YouTube form has its limitations, and you naturally want to push beyond it to expand into other creative outlets. What made this the right form of expansion for you personally?
I’ve wanted to make movies ever since I was a kid. I knew that was my goal. I had wanted to make a movie for the last five years, really trying to get funding, and nothing was working out. And then Chris Moore came to me wanting to do something, and then this came up and he said “Hey, maybe this would be great.” And so the thought of having final cut, and it wasn’t my money that I had to put up, I mean—I think I signed up without even writing the script, I was like “Done! Put me in!” [Laughs]
You also had an NBC comedy pilot that was sold last fall—was that happening around the same time?
That was during—everything kind of happened at once. I think the pilot got sold in the same week I signed the deal with The Chair. Every year I try to pitch a show, and I try to do something outside of YouTube, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. And this year it just happened that a few things at the same time worked out, which was very exciting and unexpected.
How would you contrast the two experiences of independent filmmaking and the television development cycle?
They were pretty different. With the NBC project, there was a showrunner [Ed. The Big C creator Darlene Hunt] and she was kind of writing the script based on an outline that we all had come up with together, but it was more her sort of taking the reins and doing it. The Chair was different because the script was already written, and the writer was still signed on to help me rewrite it, so I worked really closely with him for the two months working on the script, putting it in my voice and adding my jokes. We talked pretty much every day about it—email, phone, whatever—so it was definitely more collaborative making the movie than it was with the TV show.
One of the most interesting moments in the first few episodes is the discussion you and your producer Lauren Schnipper have with producer Josh Shader about the logistics of WGA writing credits, and how the choice to keep Dan on as a collaborator affected your ability to earn a credit on the film. Looking back, do you wish you had just taken the script on your own, or was that collaboration really important to the film?
I had never done this before, and I didn’t know that technically my changes were considered “director’s notes.” I went into it thinking that I’m going to get a little credit, which I didn’t know was so not going to happen. [Laughs] On YouTube, it’s like “Put an annotation, link me in the description!” It’s very “whatever,” so for me I wish I wouldn’t have expected to get credit. I think I end up looking kind of dumb in the episode, and like an asshole, for expecting it.
I just was literally uneducated about the system. I would change all the dialogue and send it back to him, and then he would kind of put it back in the script, and I was like “So I rewrote the scene,” and they were like “Those were just notes.” And I was like “But I literally rewrote it.” And so there were things like that where now that I’ve learned more about the WGA, I get it, but back then I was just “Oh, I’m rewriting it!” [Laughs] Which is not something that I should have been saying.
But working with him was great, and we got along great, and we want to work with each other in the future—we’re actually working on something now, and so I loved the collaboration.
One of my favorite elements of the series is your relationship with Lauren, which is a producer/creator dynamic that we don’t always get a chance to see in such detail. How did Lauren’s presence contribute to the project?
I’ve worked with her pretty much every day for the last four years, and it’s more than just producing—she has become family, and this movie was just as much her baby as it was mine. We have been working toward it for so long, and working with her is fun because we get into huge arguments and they literally blow over in two seconds and we laugh about it. Which, you know, for TV we just start having arguments and you don’t see them blow over. [Laughs] But we’re both passionate, and we both had kind of a different view of the movie. She saw it being a little different, I saw it being a little different, and then in the end I think both of those different views turned into this movie that is so diverse and interesting. And it wouldn’t have looked like this if I didn’t have her.
You note that the documentary doesn’t always tell the whole story—have you found that the editors have misconstrued your experience in any ways that have concerned you?
No, they’ve been awesome. I don’t know if I’m allowed to say this, but they’ve really let us see the episodes and if there is something like that we can tell them and they can look into it for us. It’s all real. There’s always moments where it shows a fight between me and Lauren or me and somebody, and they don’t really show five minutes later where we’re laughing about it, but that’s just TV. That’s good TV, and that’s drama. But everything was pretty real: they pretty much captured everything. [Laughs]
You mentioned earlier that other YouTube creators have been moving into features. Recently, a number of creators—including Joey Graceffa—have moved outside of YouTube to platforms like Vimeo when shifting into feature film territory. Do you also feel like you have to move outside of YouTube to make these kinds of projects?
It depends. I would never put a movie on YouTube unless the funding was right, or unless YouTube paid for it or something, because the AdSense revenue you make on YouTube is not enough to cover a feature film. I used to spend $25,000 of my own money on my short films, and I wouldn’t make that back, not even close. So I think the Vimeo thing, because it’s pay to download, that helps. At some point, though, maybe—I think in the future the ads will be television quality ads, and we’ll all be making enough money where we can be putting up really high quality shit, but right now it just doesn’t work that way.
One of the things I’ve been following is the way you’ve been engaging your fanbase about the movie, starting with vague mentions of a secret project and then moving into full-fledge promotion. Within the documentary, you’re always going back to wanting to make something your fans will connect with—was there any conflict with the larger elements of the production to try to keep your vision in place?
I think everybody’s goal was to make something that was really broad for a big audience, which was my goal too. But my main goal was that I wanted my audience to love it, because they’re the ones who are going to buy it, and they’re the ones who are going to tell their friends. And I wanted to make sure that core audience was really happy, because if they all buy it we have a successful movie.
But throughout the experience I was like “Okay, I think there’s some things I could do to broaden it, to make it not so specific to my audience.” We did some test screenings, and I took a lot of notes from producers, and I think I got it to a place where people outside who have never heard of me are going to love it, so I’m excited about that.
So thinking about the fact that this is a new step for you, expanding outside of the YouTube audience, how would you describe yourself? There’s “YouTuber,” “Youtube Creator,” “YouTube Star,” “Comedian,” “Filmmaker,” “Director”: is there a term you self-identify with specifically?
Throughout whatever I do, I always just say “Director” first. All the YouTube stuff, and even the podcast, I am directing the storylines and I’m creating what it is. I’ve always just wanted to tell stories, and create stuff, and I think “Creator” or “Director” would probably be the two words that I go to first.
The word “YouTuber,” even though—listen, I love YouTube, and I would never, ever abandon it, but I think when somebody says “Youtuber” it says “Oh, they talk about what they ate that day.” That’s not me—I do way more than that.
Did you look at this as an opportunity to work against that stereotype?
Yeah, I wanted people to know that I’m not just a guy who does weird videos on the Internet. I actually am a filmmaker, and I can tell stories, and I can create something that’s 90 minutes long that feels just like any other movie you see in the theater, and hopefully enjoy. I think a lot of people haven’t even seen my videos but just hearing my name are like “Oh, that’s that dumb Internet thing.” And I’m definitely trying to shake that a little bit.
In addition to the creative side, you’re also building a business, which has included working closely with Starz in promoting the series. How have you approached that side of this project, and your work in general?
I’m excited to tell my audience about it, and I’m excited to work with Starz to try to promote this show and the movie in a different way. Because I don’t think it’s about billboards and me going on Regis and Kelly or whatever—I think it’s about getting the audience to really, really be invested and every week really care about it. Whether that means livetweeting during the show, or whatever—I know The Chair is doing the contest on Instagram that’s really cool that the kids are excited about. I’m just really excited to promote the movie and the show in a different way, and not just the typical Hollywood way, which I don’t think I’ll ever fit into.
Is it gratifying to see your grassroots audience building methods now being valued and adopted by a traditional media company?
Yeah. It’s cool because we have an email that’s for the movie, and I think we’re close to a couple hundred thousand kids signed up on it. And we have their zip codes and we have their email, so we know where they are. And going into that before the movie was even finished being edited, I think that was a shock to Starz and to a lot of people involved, and it’s like “Hey, this is the future!” This audience is ready. They want it. They want to know the details. They want to be a part of the creation of it. They want to know the editing process. They want to be involved, versus just seeing a poster and being like “Let’s go see that movie, because it’s Friday, so why not?”