AFI Awards set sail on different course

First-time show on CBS honors film and television work

There’s a new wrinkle in the award show derby this year, and it could have a major impact on the Oscars and the Golden Globes. It’s called AFI Awards 2001 and will air Jan. 5, more than two weeks prior to the Globes’ traditional party Jan. 20 and almost three months before the Oscars on March 24.

The American Film Institute is entering the fray with a live three-hour broadcast on CBS to “honor excellence in American film and television … presented within the context of a year in review,” in the words of the org’s original Sept. 4 announcement.

AFI officials deny they’re out to steal the thunder of the the Oscars or the Globes. But the timing of the show — which the institute says was CBS’ idea — has given some longtime award watchers pause.

Tom O’Neil, author of Variety’s “Movie Awards” book, who charts the award season via, thinks AFI may shake up the status quo.

Movie honors have “evolved historically in a very sensible way,” he explains, “where we have the American film critics sounding off in December and early January. Then we have the foreign journalists speaking up right after that with the Golden Globes. Then we head into the guild honors, and lastly the finish line with the Oscars.”

Sudden impact

John Pavlik, director of communications for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, says that it’s too early to tell what kind of impact the AFI Awards show will have but that another addition to an already crowded arena may dampen enthusiasm.

“I’m sure the AFI had some compelling reasons for creating a new awards show,” he says. “You wonder though how big the pie filled with interest and excitement (for awards) really is and how many slices can you cut it into before you drain the interest and excitement.”

Though the AFI Awards are months away from Oscar, some observers point out that AFI is a rarity, since the new awards are voted on by industry members as well as critics and journalists.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences has long considered its Oscars the standard by which all other movie award ceremonies are measured, not only in terms of glamour but as a serious gauge of excellence in the industry. The Academy’s voting members are made up of approximately 5,700 working members of the industry, and its golden statuettes are viewed as the ultimate symbol of respect by one’s peers.

The AFI’s taste-makers comprise two 13-member committees — one representing film, the other television — who determine the nominations, include AFI trustees, three critics, three historians, three artists and a chair.

After the public announcement of nominations and committee members, an AFI jury comprising “100 experts from film and television,” according to org literature, will determine the honors. These members will also be identified publicly two days prior to the awards dinner at the Beverly Hills Hotel.

The AFI’s voting body carries a mandate of “identifying excellence, recording and preserving the history of the moving-image arts,” according to Seth Oster, former PR director for AFI who is serving as a consultant to the show.

This kind of lofty criteria is bound to encroach on the prestige associated with the Oscars.

Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. president Dagmar Dunlevy isn’t worried about the new AFI honors.

“It just shows you that it’s a cottage industry and there are bound to be lots of additions to the awards shows that are already existing,” she says. “The HFPA has had a relationship with AFI for a really long time. We have contributed to them.”

No major changes in the Golden Globes show — apart from heightened security considerations as the result of Sept. 11 attacks — are planned because of the fresh competition, Dunlevy adds. “It’s got a 58-year history, so I don’t think anyone is shaking in their shoes.”

Similar thrust

Many of the categories are the same in the AFI and HFPA events: film actors and actresses (both leading and supporting), director, screenwriter, composer; drama and comedy series, telepic or miniseries, TV actors and actresses. The Globes continues to separate movie dramas and comedies, which the AFI won’t; and the institute will be recognizing several crafts a la the Oscars, including editing, cinematography, production design and digital effects artistry, which the Globes does not.

“Comparisons will inevitably be drawn,” says Oster. “But the AFI is proceeding knowing that its program will be different. It’s not the Golden Globes, it’s not the Emmys, it’s not the Oscars, and it doesn’t intend to be.”

The main difference is that the AFI appears to spread the wealth a bit more with its movie of the year category than the Oscars or the Globes, recognizing “creative ensembles” and making the process seem somewhat more democratic. In addition, AFI committees will select “moments of significance,” reflecting the impact of culture, politics, new technologies or other influences on the moving-image arts.

But, contends Pavlik, “How many times can you see the same film or same acheivement being honored before you say ‘I’ve already seen that?’

The TV show, Oster says, is an outgrowth of last year’s initial AFI Awards, although that announcement (citing the year’s top 10 films and significant moments) was not televised (and not widely noticed).

Spinning the Globes

The Globes have long been considered an early indicator of possible future Oscar glory. O’Neil thinks that, since the AFI Awards are being presented Jan. 5, 11 days before Golden Globe ballots are due, Globe voters may well be influenced.

“They are notorious for being more hip than the Oscars, for making fearless choices,” he says. “If (the AFI Awards) premiere with very conventional choices on Jan. 5, that may rein in the Golden Globes a bit.”

So, says O’Neil, the AFI Awards are bound to “skew the race. The question is will they do so in a more conventional way, or will they be a little adventurous or dangerous in their choices, adding new entries to the race that the critics have overlooked.”

Oster won’t speculate about the possible impact of the AFI Awards. Dunlevy maintains that the HFPA’s 91 members are active, hardworking journalists with their own minds.

But one certainty is that this year’s race will be more closely scrutinized than ever before.

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