For the second year in a row, and, I fear, the last (since I know the Gothams try to mix up their nominating committees), I was asked and honored to serve as a Nominating Committee member for the Documentary Feature category for the 2009 Gotham Awards. Yesterday, I watched with some interest (and a little horror) as the nominees in all categories were announced and feedback began rolling in from all over the internet. While many reactions targeted omissions (Lee Daniels’ Precious: Based On The Novel “Push” By Sapphire seems to be drawing the most curiosity in its absence), other reactions* weighed the relative value of the Gothams as an awards season bellwether and so on. So much analysis, so little relationship to my own reality. Having served for two years now, and say what you will, the Gotham Awards process is about the nominating committee coming to consensus on a list of nominees and, honestly and truly, that is all there is to it. If that offends or is not “serious” enough (which is to say, it does not conform to the values of a good, obedient awards program, meaning it has its own stand-alone relevance outside of Hollywood and box office and the Academy– see previous reactions to Cannes awards, etc etc.), well, so be it, I guess.
This year, we watched 50 eligible documentaries; One of the reasons film programmers and critics tend to make good committee members is that many of us have seen most of the films by the time the list of eligible titles is available. I ended up only needing to see 10 or so films of the 50; not bad. Unlike other awards, say, the Academy process, where thousands of screeners are sent out and screenings set up in order to have enough people see a film to help secure a nomination– you literally do need a ton of money to run a nomination campaign– there is no “For Your Consideration” campaign with these awards; if it was eligible under the IFP’s rules, we watched it. None of the committe members talked during the screening process; we met for the first time during the nominating meeting. Once we got together to nominate, we were given our guidelines for nomination; choose whatever films you like for whatever reasons you like but come to a consensus on each film and the final list. I did ask specifically about the role of New York films in the process and we were told that the Gotham Awards had no specific New York City mandate; we were simply asked to choose what we believed were the best films. Each member champions their own titles and, over the course of a few hours, a consensus is reached and a final list emerges. That is all there was to it for my committee.
While the deliberations are secret, I can tell you that the committee never talked about “box office” or “what other award bodies may do”; we just weighed the artistic merits (as we saw them) of dozens of films and simply made our list by talking to one another and trying to find consensus on the films we thought were the best of the year. Now, how that plays into what other committees and organizations do and why and when; I have no idea. I play the Oscar pool at work like everyone else, I watch the Spirit Awards and feel pride when films I admire get recognized, I read the prognostications of the industry “insiders” as to who will win what. It’s a fun diversion, sort of like fantasy football; it has no impact on the actual value of a film or performance, but its fun to win a little money from your friends by beating them at guessing who will win. I know that award recognition can help people make money and get their film seen, which, more power to them (and to the audiences who care about awards in making their film-going decisions– I don’t begrudge anyone going to the movies– just go and enjoy!) But for me, none of that was ever a factor; I just wanted to do right by the eligible filmmakers by taking the process seriously and by applying my own critical thinking to the group’s decision making. Do I think the final list is one of multiple possible lists, had dynamics and reactions been different among my colleagues? Obviously. But I am very proud of the list we put forth, stand by it 100% and look forward to seeing who the voting members choose as a winner. I hope to be back one day and to serve again, as I love this process and feel a strong affinity to these awards and the values they represent; subjectivity, collaboration, critical thinking and artistic merit. That and a cocktail? Good enough for me.
* A quick note about this; What the fuck is going on in film writing land? Did someone spike the blogger Kool-Aid with virulent strains of pettiness, ego and manic self-righteousness? From the namecalling and ridiculous navel-gazing deluge of “who got the scoop/ whose analysis is best” to the boring Hollywood-as-business blogging (ITEM! Suit lunches with other suit! Suit fires other suit! Suit denies it’s “personal”! Other suit to start stand-alone production business! Suit now 31st Most Powerful Suit in Hollywood!) to the relentless bombardment of reality TV show and video game sales analysis that clogs the indieWire blog feed these days, the contrast in tone and focus between writing about “the community” and “the business” seems stark. The difference? The community folks hold an independent film summit. The business bloggers spend time attacking each other and sniping about the accuracy and meaning of the studios’ Human Resources departments. I mean, good for you that you guys love power and numbers and the business side of film– rah rah, that’s where the action is, hooray for Hollywood, indie film is irrelevant, guys with money love seeing their names in print and blah blah blah. Your ad sales and traffic and “professionalism” are all more meaningful than mine; I leave you to your passions. But any chance you’ll tone down the personal attacks? Or maybe, indieWIRE can stop honoring this stuff with real estate and analysis on its own site? Just sayin’.