The annual Cinema Eye Honors nominees will be announced ￼￼on Wednesday in London at a big fall party given by Sheffield Doc/Fest. The doc awards, founded in 2008, have become influential in the all-important culling process for the Indie Spirits and Oscars. I chatted on Gmail from London with Cinema Eye co-founder, doc filmmaker and blogger AJ Schnack (Kurt Cobain About a Son). Our conversation is below, along with Cinema Eye’s eligibility criteria and juror list. UPDATE: The nominees are here.
AJ Schnack: Tomorrow we announce the nominations. In 2009 and 2010, we had announced the nominees at Sheffield Doc fest. This year Sheffield moved to June, and was planning a big fall party in London, so why not announce the nominees there?
Anne Thompson: And who picks the nominees exactly, what are your criteria?
AS: We have a committee of top documentary programmers from international film festivals — there were 23 on the committee this year. [Criteria and committee members are below.]
AT: How well have the Cinema Eye nominees presaged the Oscar shortlist?
AS: Two of four winners of the top award have also won the Oscar. Last year was the outlier when Inside Job was nominated in three categories but didn’t win at Cinema Eye.
AT: My sense is that doc insiders have different, more rigorous rules on what’s a good doc than outsiders. How has the Cinema Eye changed over the years? I get the impression that you started small five years ago and the Cinema Eye Honors have become more influential and established.
AS: Yes, that’s true. Our first year was just a few of us trying to pull something off in a short period of time, reacting to what we felt was an Oscar shortlist that favored topic over craft. Now, I think that the general discussion has changed throughout the documentary community and I do think that Cinema Eye has had a lot to do with that. We are certainly a much broader, much more international award than we were at the beginning.
AT: Would you say your 23 fest programmers are doc experts? Or general fest programmers?
AS: The latter has a lot to do with Sean Farnel [one-time Hot Docs director of programming, TIFF programmer] joining our core team last year and strengthening the presence of international programmers on the committee. It definitely steered Cinema Eye to being more of an international award.
AT: You have invited me to vote on the winners. Is that a much bigger list?
AS: Yep, the nominations committee is all festival programmers. The voters for the final award are 500-600 invited folks from the larger documentary community.
AT: OK, when will you announce the winners?
AS: The ceremony is January 11 this year, at the Museum of the Moving Image in NYC (Astoria, Queens).
AT: How are the submissions changing over the past few years, any observations?
AS: We had 123 film eligible per our criteria. We had about 115 last year. This year there were 42 debut films, more than a third, which certainly was a larger share than I expected, particularly in a year with Wiseman, Herzog, Spurlock, Morris, Steve James, etc.
AT: Does that support the DIY trend–anyone can make a movie?
AS: To some extent that’s true, but it’s also clear that the younger generation of filmmakers have a more expansive view of what nonfiction can be. It’s not just verite, it can have elements that we are more used to seeing in narrative films. They are much more willing to experiment, and that’s very much part of where Cinema Eye’s POV comes from, more so, I’d argue, than the other major awards for nonfiction.
AT: Was Banksy’s Exit through the Gift Shop helped by Cinema Eye?
AS: I do think that the larger conversation that was raised by Cinema Eye created an environment where a film like Exit could do well with the Academy. I should also add that Exit was also nominated by the Spirit Awards and IDA, so we weren’t the only ones to recognize that it was a great film prior to the Oscars.
AT: In the winnowing process, as usual, consensus titles emerge, often with higher profile elements, but not divisive or repetitive (like Davis Guggenheim’s Waiting for Superman last year). Steve James’ The Interrupters is a keeper for sure–so much emotion there–high-minded, reminding us of what human beings are capable of on the positive side.
AS: You may see by Friday that there are a couple titles (maybe more) that show up on the Cinema Eye and IDA lists and maybe were also on the Gothams list. But The Oath was on all three lists of nominees last year and didn’t get shortlisted so it’s never a done deal. Yeah, you would think, hard for the Academy to not finally give Steve some love. Such a great guy and such a great film.
AT: It’s a popularity contest, too. I don’t see Errol Morris getting far with Oscar voters with too-entertaining Tabloid (which I love), but Werner Herzog could go all the way with Into the Abyss–for keeping it simple and pure.
AS: Well, you know they made the mistake of qualifying Cave of Forgotten Dreams last year. So, I guess he’s going with the death penalty doc for this year, but if they’d waited for this year, you’d have to think Caves would be a frontrunner.
AT: Any sense of The Island President being a factor in the doc awards race this year?
AS: I hear Island President is great. Haven’t seen. One other thing about Cinema Eye that I noticed this year was that in a year that a lot of people thought was kind of a “down” year (or at least maybe not as good as 2010), there are still a lot of really great films. More great films than we have slots for, truthfully.
About the Cinema Eye Honors and the 2012 Awards
The Cinema Eye Honors were founded in 2007 to recognize excellence in artistry and craft in nonficiton filmmaking. It remains the only international nonfiction award to recognize the whole creative team, presenting annual craft awards in directing, producing, cinematography, editing, composing and graphic design/animation.
Cinema Eye is headed by a core team that includes Co-Chairs Esther Robinson (director, A Walk Into the Sea: Danny Williams and the Warhol Factory; Cinema Eye nominee for Outstanding Debut, 2008) and AJ Schnack (director, Kurt Cobain About A Son and founder of Cinema Eye), Producer Nathan Truesdell (producer, Convention), Nominations Committee Chair Sean Farnel (Former Head of Programming, Hot Docs Film Festival), Advisory Board Chair Andrea Meditch (executive producer, Buck and Man on Wire) and Filmmaker Advisory Board Chair Laura Poitras (director, The Oath; Cinema Eye winner for Outstanding Direction, 2011).
Nominees for the Cinema Eye Honors feature awards are determined in voting by the top documentary programmers from throughout the world. This year’s nominations committee included Meira Blaustein (Woodstock Film Festival), Heather Croall (Sheffield Doc/Fest), Sean Farnel (Hot Docs Film Festival), Joanne Feinberg (Ashland Film Festival), Tine Fischer (CPH:DOX), Elena Fortes (Ambulante), Ben Fowlie (Camden International Film Festival), Tom Hall (Sarasota Film Festival), Doug Jones (Los Angeles Film Festival), Amir Labaki (It’s All True, Brazil), Grit Lemke (DOK Liepzig), Caroline Libresco (Sundance Film Festival), Artur Liebhart (Planete Doc Review), David Nugent (Hamptons Film Festival), Veton Nurkollari (DokuFest Kosovo), Janet Pierson (SXSW), Thom Powers (Toronto International Film Festival, DOC NYC), Rachel Rosen (San Francisco), Charlotte Selb (RIDM Montreal), Sky Sitney (Silverdocs), Sadie Tillery (Full Frame), David Wilson (True/False) and Brit Withey (Denver).
Finalists for the Cinema Eye Honors short film awards were selected by a nominations committee that included Hussain Currimbhoy (Sheffield Doc/Fest), Sarafina DiFelice (Hot Docs Film Festival), Ben Fowlie (Camden International Film Festival), Ted Mott (Full Frame), Veton Nurkollari (DokuFest Kosovo), Sky Sitney (Silverdocs) and Kim Yutani (Sundance). Nominees were chosen from a list of 11 finalists by a jury that was composed of Peter Debruge (senior film critic, Variety), Audrey Marrs (producer, No End in Sight and Inside Job; Cinema Eye nominee for Outstanding Feature, 2008 and Outstanding Production, 2011), Christine O’Malley (producer, Wordplay and I.O.U.S.A.), Chris Shellen (producer, Marwencol; Cinema Eye nominee for Outstanding Feature, 2011) and Peter Van Steemburg, Director of Acquistions, Magnolia Pictures.
The members of the Cinema Eye Filmmaker Advisory Board include RJ Cutler (director, The September Issue, Cinema Eye winner for Audience Choice, 2010), Audrey Marrs (producer, Inside Job; Cinema Eye nominee for Outstanding Production, 2011), James Marsh (director, Man on Wire; Cinema Eye winner for Outstanding Feature, 2009) and Morgan Spurlock (director, POM Wonderful Presents The Greatest Movie Ever Sold). The members of the Cinema Eye Industry Advisory Board include Sara Bernstein (HBO Documentary Films), Heather Croall (Sheffield Doc/Fest), Matt Dentler (Cinetic Media), Ben Fowlie (Camden Intenational Film Festival), Ryan Harrington (Tribeca Film Institute), Molly Thompson (A&E IndieFilms) and Debra Zimmerman (Women Make Movies).
Key Partners of Cinema Eye are the Museum of the Moving Image, HBO Documentary Films, A&E IndieFilms, Sheffield Doc/Fest and Hot Docs. Supporting sponsors include the Camden International Film Festival, the Hudson Hotel, Frontline Club and Abel CineTech. Additional sponsors will be named in the coming months.
Films become eligible by fulfilling one of four criteria:
1. Screening at three of the following international film festivals (listed chronologically): Sundance, Berlin, True/False, SXSW, Full Frame, Tribeca, Hot Docs, Cannes, Silverdocs, Los Angeles, Toronto, Sheffield and IDFA.
2. Screening at two of the above film festivals and winning a grand jury prize at one of them.
3. Screening at two of the above film festivals and reporting at least $5,000 in North American theatrical box office.
4. Reporting at least $20,000 in North American theatrical box office.