Thoughts on the Cinema Eye Awards

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Yance Ford, POV’s series producer, attended the inaugural Cinema Eye Awards on March 18th. She writes in with some of her thoughts on what she liked and didn’t like about the awards. For a complete list of winners, visit the website of the Cinema Eye Honors.

POV series producer Yance FordGathered in decidedly more casual attire than the Academy Awards, the docuratti (the non-profit version of the gliterratti) celebrated the inaugural Cinema Eye Honors on Tuesday night at the IFC Center in NYC. Launched by filmmaker AJ Schnack and documentary programmer Thom Powers this past year, and sponsored by distributor Indie Pix, the Cinema Eye Honors were born out of frustration over many industry awards (like the Oscars) giving short shrift to documentary films that pushed the craft envelope.

Thom Powers strode to the podium to the Jackson Five to open the evening’s festivities. He was followed shortly by AJ Schnack singing a brief song about Manda Bala, one of the nominated films, to the tune of Oklahoma by Rodgers and Hammerstein. Powers and Schnack, co-chairs of the Cinema Eye Honors, were ebullient as they welcomed many of documentary films’ greatest names to the virgin outing of Cinema Eye. Working in partnership with the folks at Indie Pix and producer Pamela Cohn, Schnack and Powers pulled off a minor miracle (they planned the event in just a few months), and our congratulations go out to them.

Logo for the Inaugural Cinema Eye Honors, March 18, 2008

The Cinema Eye Honors gave three out of its nine awards to the film Manda Bala (Send a Bullet).

The ceremony was energetic and punctuated by tributes to St. Claire Bourne and Tony Silver, documentary pioneers who died unexpectedly in recent months. The pre-ceremony gathering was jovial (and smartly lacked alcohol) as documentary folk from far and wide turned out in an enormous show of support for the new awards. The knowledge and experience in the IFC theater last night was incredible. Presenters included Sam Pollard, Barbara Koppel, Ross Kauffman, Molly Thompson, Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky, Marshall Curry, Alex Gibney and Alan Berliner; the groundbreaking documentaries represented by those names are astounding, never mind the rest of the audience.

For its first time out, Cinema Eye has done a tremendous service to the documentary community in the same do-it-yourself spirit that gets films made. I overheard the phrase “well, next year” often, and I’m sure that in the coming months, AJ, Thom and Indie Pix (with lots of input, no doubt) will improve upon their model for the 2009 Cinema Eye Awards. My personal suggestion would include a discussion about how films with a limited festival life that go straight to TV might be included in the awards. I’d also like to see the list of craft categories expanded to include composition, writing and sound. I know that these questions and others are on the minds of everyone at Cinema Eye, and I look forward to hearing and contributing to the coming conversations.

I know Thom Powers to be a thoughtful, passionate programmer and a great filmmaker in his own right. But his opening remarks included a remark that I found troubling. He said that “distributors don’t get it, critics don’t get it and the general public doesn’t get it. We wanted to fill [this auditorium] with people who get it.” I’ll be the first to agree that independent documentary does not get the recognition it deserves, but I don’t think that the problem is the fact that the general public doesn’t “get it.” The problem is that the general public doesn’t get to see it. And as long as the documentary community prioritizes theatrical release and festival runs over broadcast, the public will continue to miss a large and dynamic body of work. I say this not just because POV is a broadcast outlet. I say this because when I looked around the IFC last night and saw the amazing collection of people in that theater, I wanted to ask everyone, what comes next? What do you do after tonight? How to you capture this energy and turn it into something sustainable?

With the coming broadcast digital conversion, the increasing options for “day and date” release, the absurdly high cost of going to the movies, and the fact that exhibitors by and large are in it for the money, does anyone honestly think that there will be a sea change in the way documentaries are made available theatrically? Maybe Michael Moore will work a miracle and get exhibitors on board for his Doc Night idea. But maybe audiences won’t turn out for that either.

Meanwhile, television series like POV and Independent Lens, and television networks like the Sundance Channel, IFC and HBO, can bring documentaries to the viewer on her own television set. The lowest rated POV film in any one season will reach more than seven hundred thousand viewers. These are seven hundred thousand people who likely do not have an art house theater in their community, but who might get their movies from Netflix. These are viewers who welcome content that does not insult their intelligence, or demean others for amusement. They are viewers who “get it.”

Am I saying that filmmakers shouldn’t go for theatrical runs? No. But festivals are for our colleagues and the relatively small number of civilians who are privileged or savvy enough to patronize them. I think we need to imagine a time when a majority of filmmakers complete the festival circuit or a short theatrical run then focus on reaching the people where they are: at home. The Cinema Eye Awards are a great start to celebrating the art and craft of documentaries within the documentary community, but there’s still a long ways to go for some of these wonderful films to reach a bigger audience.

Yance Ford
Yance Ford
Yance works closely with POV's executive director and programming director to evaluate films submitted to POV She is instrumental in curating the series, a showcase of acclaimed documentary film on PBS. Yance frequently represents POV | American Documentary at conferences, festivals and markets, procuring work from filmmakers both nationally and internationally. Yance also oversees POV's annual call for entries, which yields upwards of one thousand entries, and coordinates POV's annual programming advisory board. Yance is a Programming Consultant and Pre- Screener for film festivals around the country, including the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, the Black Maria Film Festival, the Newport International Film Festival, Latino Public Broadcasting, Creative Capital and the Sundance Film Festival. She has served on festival juries at Full Frame and Silverdocs, appeared on panels at Sunny Side of the Doc and DocuClub and served on the IFP Advisory Committee. A graduate of Hamilton College and the production workshop at Third World Newsreel, Yance is a former Production Stage Manager for the Girls Choir of Harlem and has worked as a Production Manager on numerous independent productions for the Discovery Health and History channels. Ford has also worked in various capacities on the documentaries The Favorite Poem Project, Juanita Anderson, Executive Producer, Brian Lanker's They Drew Fire (PBS), and Barry Levinson's Yesterday's Tomorrows (Showtime). Yance's favorite documentaries include: 1. Hands on a Hard Body 2. Tongues Untied 3. Harlan County, USA 4. Cul de Sac 5. When We Were Kings 6. The Thin Blue Line 7. Night and Fog
  • http://www.indiepixfilms.com Bob Alexander

    FOREIGNID: 15436
    FOREIGNPARENTID:
    Hi Yance! Thanks very much for your post. Your comments in the latter paragraphs are right to the point. We at IndiePix believe that there are in fact audiences for independent film — including especially documentaries — and that challenge is to offer them alternative ways of sampling that programming that work. Our goal in sponsoring the inaugural Cinema Eye Honors was first to lend our organization ability to AJ and Thom so that they could finish this task by their target date. (And thanks for your good words!) But we also wanted to use this event and these awards to increase audience awareness of these great titles. I really don’t care who distributes them. If this audience doesn’t come together, it really won’t matter. I look forward to talking with you about this in the coming months as we think together about what this all means. Bob

  • http://edendale.typepad.com AJ Schnack

    FOREIGNID: 15437
    FOREIGNPARENTID:
    Yance,
    Great to see you on Tuesday and thanks for this piece. I agree that we will talk further about our nomnations process for next year and make slight tweaks in order to move closer to perfection. One thing that we want to do is add a couple of non-North American festival programmers to the committee in order to further our goal of recognizing films no matter their country of origin (although I’m proud of the fact that so many Danes were present and took home awards on Tuesday).
    As to the issues you raise regarding television and theatrical, I think it’s important to specify that one of the goals of this process is to support and encourage greater overall exposure for nonfiction, particularly nonfiction that emphasizes film craft, not solely importance of topic.
    You are certainly right that more people will see the lowest rated POV or HBO airing than nearly any theatrical release, but I don’t think there’s much question that theatrical – particularly a theatrical run that follows a festival run and/or is prior to ultimate runs on TV and DVD – is an important way to do that.
    I suppose one question is whether the Cinema Eye Honors can, in and of itself, be made into a “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” that an entity like POV or a theatrical exhibitor could use to drive more people to see a certain film. We’ve already had some discussions to the latter – ways for instance to create a small theatrical run of certain nominees or winners – that we can hopefully expand upon. But ultimately that indicator of success of Cinema Eye on a larger level, in terms of impact, falls to the people who have the ability to give the Honors that level of weight. Can/will distributors, networks, exhibitors and the like use Cinema Eye as a way to convey quality. So, I guess I send that challenge back to my friends at POV – be the first TV entity to commit to promoting your films which have been nominated or win.
    Thanks again,
    AJ

  • Simon Kilmurry

    FOREIGNID: 15438
    FOREIGNPARENTID:
    AJ:
    I can say for sure that P.O.V. wiill cite Cinema Eye nominations and awards as we promote films. The awards have generated a lot of great debate, and I think it can only be a good thing that so many people are talking passionately about documentaries.

  • http://www.sivajitv.com sivajitv

    FOREIGNID: 20263
    FOREIGNPARENTID:
    I like all these awarding and all.. I like nominating for cinemas, its very interesting..
    sivajitv