Friday, September 26, 2014

Ranting On...Sawyer Hartman and the Art of the Celebrity Career Change

Sawyer Hartman
There's been so much swirl this week in the YouTube community that I figured my Friday rant had to be in regard to this universe.  The obvious person to write about would be Sam Pepper, as Pepper's video pinching women's buttocks "as a prank" has crossed over into the mainstream media, and he is starting to lose sponsorship deals, and internet personalities such as Laci Green and Tyler Oakley have called for a backlash against Pepper.  However, Pepper's acts are straight-forward idiotic, and anyone who thinks otherwise is not paying attention-he spent an entire video molesting unsuspecting women, if you cannot understand that that is wrong you clearly need to pay more attention.

So instead I'm going to write about one of the below-the-line stories of the past week, that of Sawyer Hartman's "Moving On: A New Chapter" video, because it has far more grey area surrounding it.  Sawyer Hartman is probably not a name that a lot of you know, particularly if you're not a YouTuber, so I feel I should probably give a teensy bit of a background.  Hartman is a 24-year-old aspiring actor, one who frequently collaborates with people like Tyler Oakley and Joey Graceffa, and who is noted for a number of videos, but frequently his drunken spelling bees and his Ask Sawyer videos.  He's admittedly not one of my favorite YouTubers, even though I do subscribe to him (mostly because he collaborates with a lot of people I like, so I end up seeing a number of his videos as a result).  However, I've seen enough of his videos both in collabs and solos to have a decent idea of his schtick.

Hartman's video, which I'll link right here, discusses his frustration with where his channel has gone.  He states that he's a "filmmaker" and that he's tired of making videos that he finds uninspired just for the sake of creating content on his site.  He wants to focus on making films, which is his passion.  As a result, he'll only be focusing on making films (...actually, he's pretty unclear on this front-he makes it sound more like he'll make films or just talking to the camera videos, which seems to basically imply that he's just skipping the Drunken Spelling Bee-style collaborations) on his channel from now on, but says that he'll go back to making films every Wednesday.

Jim Carrey
You might be thinking this is pretty innocuous, and why am I discussing this when we're fighting on multiple international fronts and polling out of the Alaska Senate race means that Mark Pryor, not Mark Begich may have to be the saving grace for the Democratic Party in November if they can find one at all?  But there's a couple of larger points here that affect more than just Hartman that I find intriguing and worth discussing.  The first is how direct and expositional Hartman is being here.  The best comparison is to look at, say, a popular actor like Jim Carrey.  Carrey was one of the top actors of the 1990's, and made an enormous string of hits during that time period: Dumb & Dumber, The Mask, the Ace Ventura films, Liar Liar-a series of silly, pretty stupid, but insanely successful comedic films.  As a result, Carrey had a large enough star to take his career in a slightly different direction.  He followed up these films with more dramatic and "actorly" roles in The Truman Show and Man on the Moon, which ended up being a strong career move; the roles won Carrey critical acclaim (though bizarrely no Oscar nominations), and instilled a different persona for him in the public's eye.  In the coming decade, he'd do a pretty decent job of balancing his career between the comedic films that his core audience loved (The Grinch, Bruce Almighty, the upcoming Dumb and Dumber To) while frequently doing more dramatic or artsy fare (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, I Love You Phillip Morris).  It was a smart, pretty seamless career shift for Carrey, and is very similar to what Hartman is doing, though on a slightly less public scale.

However, Carrey was smart about his choices in a way that Hartman doesn't appear to be.  For starters, you don't discuss your career changes with your core audience.  Your core audience is not your therapist, and this is particularly true if they are used to a "character" that you've been putting forward.  Your core audience is the way that you earn a living.  Hartman may be an aspiring actor and filmmaker, but his greatest gift to casting directors and potential producers wanting to fund his projects is that he has this base audience that wants to follow him everywhere.  That's how business (particularly show business) works-people hire you and pay you more money and are willing to take chances on you because you have a net base of fans that will follow you on a less proven path.  This is certainly the case with Carrey-he wouldn't have been able to land The Truman Show if he wasn't already a major Box Office draw-the producers would have wanted someone like Tom Hanks who had a stronger track record with both comedy and drama.  However, Carrey was a successful enough star that they were willing to take the risk because they knew his fans would follow him outside his filmic comfort zone.  If Carrey had stated he would no longer be making comedic or slapstick pictures, his fans might have been turned off by an actor who didn't seem to appreciate the success he had been given.  This is the way that Hartman is coming across in his video, where he's proclaiming "I'm an artist" and instead of putting original films alongside his more popular drunken videos (he in fact chastises fans of them), he simply decides to cut the audience off cold turkey, and that's a pretty decent reason to click unsubscribe, which is the absolute last thing that Hartman wants.

This admittedly isn't just a problem that Hartman has experienced.  YouTubers like Shane Dawson, Joey Graceffa, and JacksGap have all encountered situations where they clearly want to get out of the "talk to the camera, how cute am I?" sort of approach to their careers, but there's a slight problem here-as a whole, they are not particularly good at these new films.  Dawson's original content frequently has to rely on his past work, and it's only particularly successful when it involves him relying on his Shane Dawson persona (his best and funniest videos are typically his musical parodies, which are a combination of Shane goofiness and using other people's content for inspiration).  His forays outside of this world have been far less successful, and the reviews of his latest film Not Cool, his first full-length feature film, have been embarrassingly bad-the sorts of things that you'd expect from a Raspberry Award winner, except those films usually get better reviews.  Joey Graceffa and Shane Hartman's scripted material seems stagy and under-produced.  There's none of the fun that someone like, say the Brothers Riedell can bring to their productions (one of the gold standards amongst YouTube original content producers).  JacksGap is in a bizarre situation where some of his films (all documentaries so far) are actually quite fetching-the camera work is very strong, and there's a clear direction to what he's doing.  The problem I have with Jack Harries' direction isn't that he's changed what he's doing, but he isn't following Carrey's plan of mixing some of the old with the new to ween off the audience.  No longer do we get any conversational videos with Harries about his life, but instead just original content and discussions of his work.  This is clearly on-purpose, and may pay off in the end (Harries isn't foolish enough to not keep himself in front of the camera, as his uncanny handsomeness is the main draw here, at least at this point still), but it's a bit risky since cold turkey is a way to alienate more casual fans.

The last thing I have a problem with with Hartman's confessional is more a problem that I have with this sort of thing in general.  It's incredibly important to have someone to talk to that you can express your doubts about your life and career and where you want it to head next.  That is vital, in fact, but it's vital not just because it's generally a good idea but because it gives you a way to gage reactions before you actually have to go in and ask for a promotion or decide to break-up with (or propose to) your significant other.  However, this person should be a therapist or a best friend or your younger brother or your parents-you shouldn't be testing your message to your actual intended audience (in case you missed it in The Wizard of Oz, you don't want people to pay attention to the man behind the curtain).  Furthermore, Hartman's video is more about attention than actually getting advice, and that's something I have no tolerance for.  We talked about this over here so click if you're interested, but there's no point to complaining or whining without a purpose, and that's what Hartman is doing here.  I hate it when people complain about a problem, but aren't clearly trying to do something to rectify the problem.  Hartman has almost two million followers, but they aren't responsible for him making videos and for keeping their interest-he is.  There are thousands of aspiring actors who would kill for the kind of exposure he experiences and the platform he has created for himself (and yes, he created it-no one forced him to pursue celebrity at the risk of hurting his artistic aspirations down-the-line).  He doesn't need to go out on his YouTube channel complaining about how he doesn't feel like a filmmaker anymore, and he's not sure what he's doing.  That's a complaint for your therapist's office, not for the people who make it possible for you to actual become a filmmaker.  They should be seeing the films that you want to make, the art that you want to put out in the world, not your complaints about how that art is not happening.  If you want to be something (whether that's a filmmaker, a writer, a chef, or any number of things), if all you're doing is planning it in your head and not just going out and doing it, then there's your problem and just get out there and do it.  But don't do it by biting off and discarding the hand that feeds you.

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