Those lamenting the absence of “Project Greenlight” (yes, both of you) before HBO announced its planned revival will find another insider-ish means of exploring Hollywood (by way of Pittsburgh) in “The Chair,” a Starz not-so-original series from former “Greenlight” producer Chris Moore. The revised conceit relies on giving a pair of unproven filmmakers the opportunity to adapt the same script, providing insight into how movies can change depending on who winds up in the director’s chair. The culmination, obviously, is two independent films the audience will hopefully have a curiosity-driven incentive to watch. And until then, there’s this ho-hum reality show.
Moore’s explanation for the idea, frankly, is better than the execution. He recalls meeting with various directors on “Good Will Hunting,” and remembering how different their approaches were going to be, before Gus Van Sant finally took the reins.
The problem with “The Chair” is once that template is established, the project — a first for Starz in the unscripted genre — devolves into a fairly traditional reality format, in much the way “Greenlight” did. There are deadlines and budgets to meet, egos and insecurities to mollify, and monkey wrenches — ginned up, in part, by the various arbitrary restrictions placed on the two directors — thrown into the works. (The winner receives a $250,000 prize, which is nice for them, but in terms of the show’s premise, wholly unnecessary.)
They are, admittedly, a helpfully mismatched duo, each assigned to adapt a coming-of-age story about kids returning home for Thanksgiving during their first year of college. Shane Dawson is a YouTube sensation who plans to turn that into a broad, raunchy comedy (title: “Not Cool”), while film school grad Anna Martemucci’s take (“Hollidaysburg”) looks more introspective.
Each must wrestle with a $600,000 budget, although the emphasis on economy seems slightly farcical taking into account the 16 executive or co-executive producers who receive credit on the series, among them actor Zachary Quinto, who delivers notes and suggestions mostly via Skype. One of his main concerns is how the projects depict the city of Pittsburgh, which kicked in incentives to attract them.
“Is the movie happening?” Dawson frets at one point, while Martemucci chafes at the ever-present cameras, badmouths Moore, and talks openly about how she expects the reality-TV producers to manipulate “The Chair,” potentially to depict her in a less-than-flattering light. So if filmmaking doesn’t work out for her, media criticism could be an option.
If there’s really someone worthy of sympathy here, it’s Dan Schoffer, author of the original script, who has his work dramatically (and publicly) revised not once, but twice, and must deal separately with both directors. In one of the more enlightening aspects, Dawson grumbles that he deserves script credit, offering pretty good insight into how Writers Guild arbitrations begin.
Starz chief Chris Albrecht was at HBO when it birthed “Project Greenlight,” so this is a reunion in more ways than one. Yet while that series spawned several low-budget films, it’s worth noting they remain a pretty forgettable lot.
Viewed from that perspective “The Chair” is certainly an interesting experiment, and probably an intellectual exercise that will give film students plenty to contemplate. As yet, though, its first two episodes haven’t done much to inspire one to stick with the series, much less sit through the movies.