BillyTheKid.jpgLast night I attended the inaugural Cinema Eye Honors, co-chaired by AJ Schnack and Thom Powers, produced by Danielle DiGiacomo, and presented by IndiePix at the IFC Center. I have never been a big fan of awards for art. I’m a big sports fan, and a competitive person, but I don’t judge success in anything based on being first, or on winning an award (or an Honor, or whatever you want to call it.)

I play on an amateur baseball team, and I want to win. But if winning were the only goal, I would’ve long since stopped playing, knowing that I’ll never win the ultimate prize, a Major League World Series. I root for the Mets because, at least in my idealized conception of the team, the organization doesn’t consider every season a failure if they don’t win the championship. There are great playoff streaks, memorable games, astonishing plays, and touching personal stories, even in a losing season. (My Mets fandom could be its own blog, so I’ll wrap this up by saying,) I appreciate sports in a manner more like the way many people appreciate art: I enjoy the aesthetics, the excitement, the emotion, and the narrative, and the end result is equally powerful whether it makes me happy or sad, so long as I am moved.

So the idea of awards for art seems to me somehow antithetical to the point of art; an award is an artificial high which doesn’t stem from the work itself, but instead is bestowed upon the film in relation to other films. I had usually passed on the opportunity to vote in awards, even declining to submit a ballot for audience choice awards at festivals.

MrVig.jpgThat said, when Sundance asked me to be on the jury in 2007, it took about half a second for me to say yes. So I had to ask myself if I was being a hypocrite. And in the end I came to the conclusion that has been arrived at by most thoughtful people who are in favor of awards for art: by giving awards to certain deserving works, you raise the level of attention for the form. As Thom Powers wrote in his introduction to the Cinema Eye Honors, “We don’t expect you to agree with all our choices. Rather we hope this will be an occasion for increased debate and discussion.” When I agreed to be on the jury at Sundance, I figured I could help out the types of groundbreaking, personal cinema that I think deserves more attention that it gets, even coming out of Sundance. And, of course, I was excited at the possibility of representing Rooftop Films, and raising the profile for the work that all of our programmers past and present (Joshua Breitbart, Moira Griffin, Dan Nuxoll, Sarah Palmer, Genevieve DeLaurier) believe in, fight for, want to see more of, and want to share.

Before and at the Cinema Eye Honors, there was some grumbling about the eligibility criteria, which (in short) limit the possible nominees to films that have played at major festivals, won awards at major festivals, or been seen by a certain number of people in theaters. There’s a sense that these are the films that have already garnered some acclaim and audiences, even to the point of reaching wide national release and Academy Award recognition. I understand the feeling, because in a room full of avid festival watchers, these are the films we’ve heard about over and over.

But let’s keep in mind the broader picture of audience awareness. By my estimation, via Box Office Mojo, no film nominated for Outstanding Achievement in Nonfiction Filmmaking (the equivalent of Best Picture), was seen by more than 150,000 people–less than the number of people living within three square miles of the IFC Center. Tony Kaye’s abortion documentary “Lake of Fire” was perhaps seen by 3,000 people–about as many people as saw “Juno” on any given screen on any given day in the first week of its 104 day, 2,534 theater release. Correct me if my numbers are wrong (I’ll admit I’m not an expert at box office stats), but outside the independent film community, these films have not been widely seen or recognized.

So these awards are certainly needed, and it’s impressive what the Cinema Eye team has accomplished in such a short time. If they have the energy to do it again–and I hope they do–I think in order to gain wider relevance to the mainstream public, while also entertaining and informing Cinema Eye’s core audience of indie film professionals, there are a couple of ways they might work to expand.

IndiePix and IFC have done a commendable job in supporting these awards, but jointly the Cinema Eye group could actively work to get a wider release for the films. The trick here would be getting distributors to believe that the Cinema Eye Honor would help a theatrical run. That’s no mean feat, but I think it’s a necessary and worthy goal in order to keep the awards from devolving into hermetic self-congratulation.

As for keeping this hermetic community happy, I think the eligibility should be expanded to include at least one category for the best film that didn’t play at multiple fests, didn’t win awards, and didn’t get a theatrical release–essentially just reverse all the eligibility requirements for what they could call the Underexposed Award. It’s more work for the nominators, but by finding the films that not even most industry insiders have seen, the Cinema Eye Honors could launch awareness for a truly marginalized film.

kingofkong.jpgAs an awards ceremony itself, the event was slick but homey, weighty when it needed to be but generally lighthearted, informative but not ponderous. I particularly loved the mid-ceremony discussion group, which featured the fierce insights of Esther B. Robinson and the goofy dynamism of Jason Kohn. Still, the structure and format felt like just about every other awards ceremony, which is a disappointment for an event that is celebrating narrative craft. Of course, coming from Rooftop Films–where for 12 years we’ve been trying to stage new ways of presenting films–I would level such a criticism, but I think if the Cinema Eye Honors want to want to break some boundaries and maintain this level of interest in the event itself, in the coming years they would do well to try to stretch the format of their show, much they way the artists they are hon
oring are challenging the formats of non-fiction filmmaking.

I think when the dance floor clears at the after-party and the dust settles back onto Thom’s tux, the Cinema Eye Honors will have succeeded in generating some more attention for some artful and deserving documentaries. I hope that some of the more mainstream press picks up on the awards and brings the spirit of the event, and the films themselves, to a wider audience.

At Rooftop Films, I think we’ll proudly stick to a non-competitive model, instead giving away grants for filmmakers’ future productions. But I’m glad that the Cinema Eye Awards exist, and send a huge congratulations to AJ, Thom, Danielle, all the nominators and voters, and of course to all the filmmakers who have made these wonderful films, so deserving of attention.

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For a rundown of the event, visit IndieWire. Here is their complete list of Cinema Eye winners:

Outstanding Achievement in Nonfiction Filmmaking
“Manda Bala (Send A Bullet)”
Director – Jason Kohn, Producers – Joey Frank, Jared Goldman & Jason Kohn

Outstanding Achievement in Direction
Alex Gibney
“Taxi to the Dark Side”

Outstanding Achievement in Production
Seth Kanegis, Tomas Radoor & Mikael Rieks
“Ghosts of Cite Soleil”

Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography
Heloisa Passos
“Manda Bala (Send A Bullet)”

Outstanding Achievement in Editing
Doug Abel, Jenny Golden & Andy Grieve
“Manda Bala (Send A Bullet)”

Outstanding Achievement in Graphic Design and Animation
Animation by Curious Pictures
“Chicago 10”

Outstanding International Feature
“The Monastery – Mr. Vig & The Nun” (above, middle)
Director – Pernille Rose Gronkjaer, Producer – Sigrid Dyekjaer

Outstanding Achievement in Debut Feature
“Billy the Kid” (above, top)
Director – Jennifer Venditti

Audience Choice Prize
“The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters” (above, bottom)
Director – Seth Gordon