Moviemaking reality competition 'The Chair' pits two first-time directors

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — Producers of Starz’s moviemaking reality competition docuseries “The Chair” have made one of the show’s co-executive producers, Pittsburgh native and actor Zachary Quinto (“Star Trek,” “Heroes”), the face of the project, but Mr. Quinto is quick to give credit for the Pittsburgh setting to creator/executive producer Chris Moore.

“Chris had some connections there in the financing side of things, so Pittsburgh was already an element when it came to us,” Mr. Quinto said in July during the TV critics summer press tour.

The “us” Mr. Quinto refers to includes his two production partners, fellow Carnegie Mellon University grads Neal Dodson and Corey Moosa, co-founders with Mr. Quinto in Before the Door Productions, heretofore an indie film production company (“Margin Call,” “Lost at Sea”) and named after a famous CMU drama school acting exercise.

'The Chair:' A show that chronicles two films shot in Pittsburgh

'The Chair,' is about two different directors shooting two different movies using the same source material. The chair was produced by Pittsburgh native Zachary Quinto and actor Chris Moore.

Mr. Quinto’s triumvirate is among more than a dozen co-executive producers on “The Chair,” which isn’t altogether unusual for an independent production that seeks financing from a multitude of sources. WQED president Deborah Acklin and Steeltown Entertainment Project President and co-founder Carl Kurlander are among the locally recognizable names in the show’s opening credits.

Pittsburgh first got on Mr. Moore’s radar when he produced the 2012 Matt Damon movie “Promised Land” locally. Earlier this year Mr. Moore credited Mr. Kurlander with helping him to see the potential of Pittsburgh as a mini-film/television production center. He’d been noodling around with the idea for a competition series like “The Chair” for several years and credited Pittsburgh investors for stepping up and agreeing to fund the project.

“There are some people in Pittsburgh who are early adopters of ideas who deserve a lot of credit,” Mr. Moore said.

He cited Pittsburgh’s helpful mix of beautiful, varied locations, Pennsylvania’s film tax credit, the acting program at Carnegie Mellon University and classes in behind-the-scenes film work at Point Park University, another production entity credited in the main credits of “The Chair,” with making the region viable for film production.

“The county, the state, a bunch of nonprofits and Point Park University put money into the project. … There is a certain thing about that attitude of being in a place like Pittsburgh where it’s OK to start something fresh and let it grow and have this internal confidence that if they like it, it’s probably good.”

Mr. Moore said the theme of transition fits both Pittsburgh and the aspiring filmmakers featured in “The Chair.”

“‘The Chair’ is one of those projects that’s transitionary in people’s careers,” he said. “You go from YouTube to making your first small movie and now you’re a professional filmmaker and Pittsburgh has played a role in a lot of different industries.”

While the many producers of “The Chair” are the stars of the show’s first half-hour, the program is ultimately about two first-time directors, YouTube star Shane Dawson and indie screenwriter Anna Martemucci, who make two different movies using the same initial script as source material. Mr. Dawson and Ms. Martemucci will vie for a $250,000 grand prize that will be voted on by viewers who complete an online survey that will go live when the eighth episode of “The Chair” airs.

Mr. Dawson comes into the competition with a huge online following he can mobilize -- he has more than 2 million Twitter followers; Ms. Martemucci has 1,800 -- while Ms. Martemucci had the benefit of working on full-fledged films in the past as a writer and actress. She also came to “The Chair” with home-field advantage: She grew up in State College and traveled to Pittsburgh on occasion, including to see Bruce Springsteen perform at the Civic Arena when she was a teenager. Her husband, film director Victor Quinaz, is a CMU grad.

Mr. Dawson, who grew up in Long Beach, Calif., had never been to Pittsburgh and came prepared for cold winter weather.

“All I had heard from a couple of people was that it was more laid back and for the most part people were really nice and chatty,” Mr. Dawson said. “It was a little warmer than L.A. -- not temperature-wise -- so I was excited. And they told me a few places to stay away from, places you’ll get murdered, where they’ll make fun of your haircut.”

In the first episode of “The Chair,” Mr. Quinto chats with Mr. Dawson via Skype, offering notes on the revised script for Mr. Dawson’s film, “Not Cool.” Mr. Quinto cautions Mr. Dawson to dial back the raunchiness and avoid having the characters in his film disparage Pittsburgh.

“If I was going to come back there with a project, I want the city to be portrayed in a favorable way because I have a very favorable history with the place and feel like a large part of my success is attributable to the fact that I grew up there,” Mr. Quinto said.

Both Mr. Dawson’s movie and Ms. Martemucci’s film, “Hollidaysburg,” named after a real Pennsylvania town south of Altoona, use the same script about college students home for Thanksgiving break as a starting point, but they diverge in tone with Mr. Dawson going for broad, gross-out laughs and Ms. Martemucci playing up more the coming-of-age angle of what she called “a classic teen sex comedy with a complex, interesting female character and a grounding in reality.”

“Not Cool” and “Hollidaysburg” will turn up on Starz and Starz On Demand before “The Chair” ends its run, but first they’ll get a brief theatrical run in New York Sept. 19, and in Los Angeles on Sept. 26, and both films will be available from iTunes, and other digital providers on Sept. 23. Pittsburgh public screenings have not been scheduled.

Mr. Dawson, who stayed at the Hyatt House extended-stay hotel at SouthSide Works, said he ended up lingering in Pittsburgh a month longer than planned. Ms. Martemucci rented a large Squirrel Hill home where she and key members of her film’s crew lived together. She allowed herself a seven-day Pittsburgh vacation after production on her movie wrapped.

“That’s what I held onto when we did this insane, 20-day shoot where we barely slept,” she said. “It was seven days of being in an amazing house and wandering around Squirrel Hill with my snow boots on and pitting pizza from Aiello’s and Mineo’s against each other.”

(For the record, she preferred Aiello’s: “I thought I’d like Mineo’s, but it was too greasy.”)

“The Chair” marks Starz’s first foray into unscripted programming -- it’s also the first TV project from Before the Door -- and in success. Mr. Moore said a second season would again be produced in Pittsburgh.

Mr. Moore also suggested the state would generate more film and television production if it raised the cap on the film tax credit program, which currently stands at $60 million. While that’s more than some states offer in incentives for filmmakers -- New Mexico has a $50 million program and Oregon has $10 million -- it pales compared to other locations that have no cap, including Georgia and Louisiana. He also suggested the need for more private investment.

“The private sector needs to embrace it a little more,” he said. “In Atlanta you have three guys building soundstages, you have people investing in prop houses, you have people investing in wardrobe houses, the big labs, Panavision for cameras, are opening outposts in Atlanta and, I know it’s self-propaganda that benefits me and others who want to shoot there, but if the private sector can now look at it and say, ‘There’s a real benefit for us in this,’ I think it can really be the next step for Pittsburgh.”

Mr. Quinto agreed, saying he’s developing projects through Before the Door he’d be happy to shoot locally — if the price is right.

“As Chris says, we have to make decisions on a business level,” Mr. Quinto said. “Unless we can work that part of it out, there are other places that incentivize us more than Pennsylvania to bring our productions there. That’s not about Pittsburgh. That’s about the state and tax incentives at the state level. Any opportunity we have to come back and bring jobs there we will do because all of us feel really connected to that place and feel a lot of gratitude and warmth about being there.”

TV writer Rob Owen: or 412-263-2582. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook.

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