Pros deliberate to produce eclectic mix of pix, skeins

There’s a new gorilla in town. And if it’s not yet 800 pounds, it’s at least 600 pounds and growing.

In an already crowded awards season, the American Film Institute launched its first awards, and achieved instant credibility.

The kudos are handed out by a well-respected organization, with A-list judges and an immediate network deal. (The first kudocast of the season, “AFI Awards 2001″ will air on CBS Jan. 5).

Furthering their credibility, the AFI panels came up with a roster of interesting, eclectic nominees, in 12 film categories and seven TV races.

Since these are the inaugural awards, there is no way of knowing whether the AFI kudos will prove an accurate Oscar bellwether. But in a year with no sure things, and no clear front-runners in any race, the film biz, more than ever, is paying close attention to all year-end kudos.

And all eyes are on the AFI prize: Like the Oscars, these awards are voted on by a cross-section of pros, as opposed to the guild honors (Screen Actors Guild, Directors Guild of America, etc.), critics’ kudos and votes by the public.

Talking with Variety, AFI topper Jean Picker Firstenberg pointed out the difference with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. “The Academy is all peers of cross-disciplines; we are a group that encompasses the creative community, critics and scholars.”

Unlike the Acad, the AFI panelists “don’t vote on a piece of paper. The group is deliberative,” meaning they hash out their choices together. In addition, the group provided explanations for their picks of the top 10 pics.

(For explanations and a complete list of nominees, click here.)

With five noms apiece, Miramax’s “In the Bedroom” and Columbia’s “Black Hawk Down” pace the film race — a combo that typifies AFI’s mixture of smaller niche films with big studio offerings.

Right behind with four each are New Line’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring,” Universal Pictures’ “Mulholland Drive,” and two USA Films offerings, “Gosford Park” and “The Man Who Wasn’t There.”

Other big studio offerings such as DreamWorks’ “Shrek,” Fox’s “Moulin Rouge,” Paramount’s “Vanilla Sky,” DreamWorks-Universal’s “A Beautiful Mind” and Warner Bros.-DreamWorks’ “A.I. Artificial Intelligence” found plenty of AFI attention, as did smaller pics like MGM’s “Ghost World,” Newmarket’s “Memento,” Lions Gate’s “Monster’s Ball” and IFC Films’ “The Business of Strangers.”

Going home without any noms were some high-profile end of the year pics that had been highly touted, such as Columbia’s “Ali,” Miramax’s “The Shipping News” and Warner’s “The Majestic.”

Nominations were unveiled Dec. 17. Winners will be announced Jan. 5 at ceremonies at the Beverly Hills Hotel.

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