The Awards Film Institute

September 4, 2001 was a sad day for film lovers. We learned that legendary film critic Pauline Kael died. Even though Kael had retired 10 years ago, this was still a great loss. Kael helped legitimize film criticism and championed the works of Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola and, in particular, Martin Scorsese. Taxi Driver may never have been distributed without Kael's intervention. Also on September 4, the American Film Institute (AFI) announced that it would "honor excellence in American film and television with an annual awards dinner." As you might have guessed, this will not be an intimate gathering, but rather a live three-hour television show that will air on CBS in early January.

Now I know what you're thinking -- "At last we have another awards show." After all the only televised award shows we have for film are the Oscars, the Golden Globes, the Screen Actors Guild Awards, the People's Choice Awards, the MTV Movie Awards, the Blockbuster Awards, and the American Comedy Awards (if I've left some out, please let me know). How can we get though an entire year with only seven awards shows? Sure, if we include television we also get the Emmys (daytime and prime time) and the TV Guide Awards, but that still means I might have to go a whole month without watching celebrities thank their agents.

There's nothing wrong with recognizing achievement and excellence, but filling the airwaves with award shows cheapens all of the awards. You almost expect to see an award show for outstanding achievement in award shows. OK, so the award show clutter is a fact of life. But why is the AFI contributing to this mess?

After all, in addition to the televised awards cited above, the film critics in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Boston (just to name a few) have their own awards as do broadcast critics and other film critic associations. The Directors Guild and Producers Guild also honor their best of the year. The AFI nominations will come from committees of AFI trustees, critics, historians, and those in the industry. But critics and film professionals already give out other awards, so what fresh new perspectives are we receiving? The AFI trustees? No thanks, I'll pass. Film historians? I would think by the nature of their profession they would be better equipped to judge films of the past rather than the present. Once these committees select the nominations, 100 so-called "experts" will pick the winners.

Again, what's the point? Well, by announcing their winners in early January, the AFI will get a jump on the Golden Globes, the guild awards and most critics awards, setting themselves up as establishing the early Oscar favorites. What's wrong with that? Plenty. The AFI is a nonprofit organization that is supposedly dedicated to "advancing and preserving the art of the moving image." They provide education and instruction to emerging directors, producers, cinematographers, and others trying to succeed in film. The AFI has also been involved in film preservation and until recently was best known for its Life Achievement Award, which has celebrated the work of some legendary directors and actors. In the past few years, the AFI has issued lists of the top 100 American films, the top 50 movie stars, the top 100 comedies, and the top 100 film "thrills" (the last of which was so poorly defined as to become meaningless, but that's another story). The films and stars included on these lists were debatable, but even the debate was beneficial. The Top 100 film list in particular encouraged people to discuss their favorite films and maybe come up with their own lists. In its own way, those lists truly did help preserve America's film heritage. So did the AFI's movie theater at the Kennedy Center, which showed both older American films and foreign fare. Unfortunately, while the AFI will devote resources to the awards, it has weakened its support of the Kennedy Center movie theater, forcing it to cut back on programming considerably

The AFI awards certainly do not advance the art of the moving image. The awards don't help preserve this art either, because there are so many other awards. Rather than helping to chronicle film's past or contribute to its future, the awards are rooted firmly in the present. Given their exposure, there's a chance that these awards might be seen by many and may even influence the Oscars. I'm sure that's what the AFI brain trust wants. But what does that really accomplish? The AFI will now be knee-deep in the jockeying and campaigning that has come to characterize the Oscars. To quote the late, great Telly Savalas, the AFI would become a "player." But that's shaping history, not preserving it. The real question is whether the AFI is launching these awards to celebrate film or to celebrate itself.

Adam Spector
September 5, 2001

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