This idea, that there should be awards for nonfiction that recognized the breadth of the genre and included the crafts of cinematography and editing and producing, has been simmering for more than a year.
Little moments began to build. I was dumbfounded that groups like the ASC - the American Society of Cinematographers - didn't give an award for cinematography in nonfiction features. I was surprised to see filmmakers twist themselves and their bank accounts into knots trying to qualify via the Academy's byzantine and oft-changing rules.
Last summer, at the AFI Silverdocs film festival, I found myself in several conversations about the Academy and its qualification procedures. I'd see filmmakers stressed, wondering where they'd get the money or whether they'd be able to qualify through the IDA's DocuWeek. And at some point, sitting with filmmakers and others from within our community, I began to insist that the only way to fix this broken system with the Academy was to dilute the hypnotic power it seemed to hold over filmmakers. And one way to do that was to create a new award, one that would salute the craftspersons and artists who work in nonfiction. One that would not be subject to the same bizarre requirements and mysterious screening committees. One that truly grew from within the community.
My first thought, at least the one I proposed in Silver Spring with at least one drink consumed, was that this was a job that should be handled by an existing entity - perhaps the IDA with an expanded list of awards that included areas of craft, or maybe a top nonfiction festival like Silverdocs.
But it soon became clear that these organizations and others had their hands more than full. Getting someone else do take on this project would take years of persuasion (of boards, sponsors, etc.).
So, with Silverdocs completed, I returned to Los Angeles with this little idea tucked away.
Then came the Academy Shortlist.
It was five months later and I was in Denver, serving on the documentary jury of the Film Festival, when I started getting text messages from others in the nonfiction community. Each message was increasingly incredulous - "Did you hear?" What followed would be the shock of film after film after film - films believed to be some of the year's best - not having made the Academy's Shortlist.
For those of us who had spent the previous year on the road watching nonfiction films at festivals from Toronto to Park City to Oxford to Columbia, MO to Durham, NC to New York (and on and on), the list was staggering. You'd expect that one or two of your favorites might not be selected. That always happens. But this list - it didn't look at all like the year that we'd experienced.
Almost immediately - while still in Denver - I began to talk again about the idea of these awards. There was a sense of immediacy. I felt like something needed to be done and done quickly.
"And one must look to a new body, be it the American Film Institute or some consortium of festivals or some brand new organization to stand up for, to recognize filmmaking craft, to support innovation and risk-taking. To say damn what is important, damn the issues, we stand with artists."
What followed surprised me. I began to hear from other filmmakers, from people within the industry, from Academy members. They affirmed the feelings I had expressed here on the blog. Academy members told me that the list was "a scandal". With a rolling of eyes, they'd tell me about the "out-of-touch" screening committee members who were sent a box of DVDs to screen on television.
This is what some filmmakers paid tens of thousands of dollars for? The opportunity to be thrown into a box and randomly watched on television? There's got to be a better way.
Over Thanksgiving, I wondered why couldn't someone come up with eligibility criteria that wouldn't require jumping through hoops, undercover theatrical runs or massive outlays of cash. One that wouldn't disqualify you over a rogue foreign broadcast. A criteria that would truly focus on the films that mattered during the year.
I began to pull the film lists from North America's nine top festivals for nonfiction, beginning with Toronto 2006, and continuing in 2007 with Sundance, True/False, SXSW, Full Frame, Hot Docs, Tribeca, Silverdocs and Los Angeles. Then I pulled box office reports. I decided that films would be eligible if they fulfilled one of 4 criteria:
- They had screened at three of the nine festivals.
- They had screened at two of the nine festivals and had received a jury or audience prize.
- They had screened at two of the nine festivals and had reported theatrical box office of at least $5,000.
- They had reported theatrical box office of at least $20,000.
From these criteria, 76 films became eligible - six more than the Academy qualified via their controversial 14-city, 10-state requirement and not a dollar spent by anyone.
I sent out a few emails with tales of how I spent part of my Thanksgiving weekend. One person I emailed was Danielle DiGiacomo, who I had seen often throughout the year at a number of festivals representing her company, IndiePix, which distributes indie film online and where Danielle serves as Documentary Film Coordinator. I knew that IndiePix had provided great support (financially and otherwise) to one of my favorite films of 2007, BILLY THE KID, and from my conversations with Danielle - and comments she had left in response to my pieces on the Academy Shortlist - I thought that she might be interested in this budding idea.
The next day, I got emails from Danielle and Bob Alexander at IndiePix inviting me to come to New York.
From here, everything began to move at lightning speed. I spoke to my old friend John Vanco at the IFC Center in New York, which has been a true champion for documentaries this year, and we had a venue for the awards. I went to New York and had several meetings with the folks at IndiePix. I grabbed coffee with Thom Powers, the Documentary Programmer for the Toronto International Film Festival and the programmer/host of NYC's Stranger Than Fiction documentary series, and asked him to work with me on the project. Together, he and I invited the programmers of many of the top film festivals in North America to form the nominating committee, for it is they who have seen these films, made judgments about them and truly have a sense of the best films of the year. Each of these programmers quickly and enthusiastically joined our accelerated effort. And finally, IndiePix came aboard, enthusiastically, as our presenting partner and sponsor.
[Full disclosure - IndiePix has also become the sponsor for the festival coverage that you will see on this blog in 2007. Further full disclosure - To avoid conflicts of interest, I withdrew my film, KURT COBAIN ABOUT A SON, from consideration for these awards. Although I truly believe that my producer, cinematographer and animation team are deserving of nominations and recognition, they are gonna have take one for the team. As noted above, IndiePix helped produce BILLY THE KID, but since the nominating committee was unaware of IndiePix involvement in these awards at the time of their voting, I believe that BILLY THE KID should be under consideration for these awards. I did not vote in the nominating process.]
And so, today, we have our announcement. I will be honest, this is the kind of thing that a sensible person would probably allow a year to plan, but we are compelled to act now, in this year. I am honored that so many people who I respect have so quickly joined us in this effort.
I am especially proud of the list of 15 films that were announced today as our own shortlist. It is, I would humbly submit, an exceptional list of many of the year's great films, films that pushed creative and artistic boundaries. I'm sure that 1 or 2 of your favorites are missing, as are mine, but I'm incredibly pleased that our nominating committee - working independently and submitting their votes privately - collectively agreed on these 15 films as representative of the best of 2007.
From these 15 films, we will announce five titles in the category of Outstanding Achievement in Nonfiction Features. From our list of 76, we will announce nominees in seven other categories - Direction, Production, Cinematography, Editing, Graphic Design & Animation, International Feature and Debut Feature. This announcement will come in less than two weeks, at an event in Park City during the Sundance Film Festival.
Three months ago, I could not have imagined that we'd be here, launching this endeavor. I hope that, when we gather together in New York City in March, these awards will be the beginning of an annual event that has real meaning within our community, a time when we honor one another and everyone who plays a role in the artistry of nonfiction filmmaking. For at least this one night, we will turn to one another not as journalists, not as agents of social justice, but as filmmakers, artists and craftspeople.
I look forward to seeing you then.