J. Michael Dawson is a producer in film, television and online media, with a focus on commercially viable and brand-centred entertainment. As the founder of Lifeforce Entertainment, a digital media company, he has produced five original web series, including the hit show Men’s Room, and launched Canada’s first online broadcast network,LifeforceTV.com.
Dawson saw the potential to develop online media well before its present-day ubiquity. As early as 2000, he wrote a business plan for streaming TV services online as part of his studies at the Algonquin School of Business. When asked what initially drew him to online media, he explained that it was “just the benefit of being in the space. I wanted to go into online media because I believe it’s the future.”
And Dawson has a number of ideas about what that “future” entails. In particular, he lauded the accessibility of the internet as a means of content distribution for low-budget productions that would otherwise lack exposure. To demonstrate how online media can function as a gateway for up-and-coming talent, he cited the show Pure Pwnage as an example of a series that secured a network deal following the popularity of its web show.
On the flipside of the coin, he expressed enthusiasm for the breadth of choice now offered to the consumer through the web. When asked for his opinion on the preponderance of brief clips amongst online media, he contended that there has always been a market for bite-sized media. The internet has simply satisfied a demand that always existed: “The idea of having smaller, bite-sized chunks is great because a lot of people will consume those during their lunch hour or when they have a quick moment, on the bus, or during a coffee break.”
He also believes, however, that there is significant room for growth in the development of longer linear content online. He is currently in post production on a new web series/feature partly financed by the Independent Production Fund’s new pilot program. The fund selected Dawson’s production to be one of the 11 projects granted funding out of 166 submissions. Dawson is not only pleased to see his own work recognized in this way, but he also believes that it is a step in the right direction to include linear content in funding programs for online media. His series, titled In the Rough, is currently scheduled to be released online and on the Superchannel in January 2011.
An alumnus of the Vancouver Film School, Dawson also has experience with feature films. After spending several years on set as an assistant director, Dawson is now line-producing the Telefilm features Cold Blooded for Guildwood Entertainment and Stag for Fresh Baked Entertainment. In 2009, he produced The Shrine, starring Aaron Ashmore (Smallville, The West Wing)for Brookstreet Pictures.
The Shrine, a horror movie,recently won the Best Canadian Feature award at the 2010 Fantasia Film Festival. It has also received attention for its daring decision to use Polish dialogue without subtitles. To explain this unconventional choice, Michael stated, “It was very important to us creatively that the audience felt like the characters did, and because the characters are in a foreign place with a foreign language, we wanted the audience to have that sensation as well.”
In addition to his own projects, Dawson is also keen to motivate aspiring filmmakers. In 2005 he created the Toronto Film Challenge, Canada’s largest film competition. Hosting over 2,500 filmmakers and Executive Producing their submissions, the event has become a staple in the Toronto film community. Besides having awarded local filmmakers with over $100,000 in prizes, the contest enables their work to be adjudicated by some of Canada’s most distinguished actors, directors and producers.
In some ways similar to reality TV contests, the Toronto Film Challenge has an unusual format for a film competition. When asked about the contest’s 48-hour time-limit for the production of submissions, Dawson explained: “The idea is to inspire creativity without being able to second-guess yourself. A lot of times we’ll create a project and then we’ll go over it and we’ll have re-writes and it will be vetted through all the studio heads. By the time it’s distilled down into the product that is actually shot, it has been changed so many times that the original creative vision is lost.” Besides the time restriction, the competition is structured such that contestants are given a line or a prop on which to build, in this way combining improvisation and scripted production. Dawson insisted that this format produces surprising quality, with some of the submissions having been later purchased by Air Canada and Movieola.
In keeping with his commitment to media development, Dawson tries to remain as fully engaged as possible with his peers in the industry. Besides holding membership in the Canadian Media Production Association, he routinely hosts an ongoing meet-up for web television professionals in Toronto where he resides.
When asked what is needed to succeed in the industry, he noted “tenacity,” “perseverance,” and the ability to accept rejection. But in the end, he said, “It’s well worth the journey.” He added, “At the end of the day, when you’re able to create something that you’re incredibly proud of and that everybody around you pulled together to create, it’s one of the best feelings you can have in this business.”