Another stab at posterity

Oscar faces more competition, this time from the AFI

Tuesday’s announcement of the American Film Institute’s inaugural AFI 2000 — its picks for the top 10 pictures of the year — will amount to a double-edged sword, say several Hollywood producers.

The new plaques represent yet another set of baubles in the crowded best-of-the-year derby, in which several critics groups and institutions pick best pictures, players and candlestick makers. And lest the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences think that another organization is honing in on Oscar’s spotlight, AFI assures that its honors are conceived as a more egalitarian recognition of the filmmaking process, bestowed as they are on each significant member of a selected film’s creative team.

“It’s not a horse race, and they honor everybody on the film, not just one person,” says Peter Rice, president of Fox Searchlight Pictures. “It’s smart of the AFI and good timing for the new century. Given the level of respect for the AFI, the awards will call attention to pictures that deserve it. The Academy is the Academy. Nothing takes away from the Oscars, so that really isn’t an issue where the AFI is concerned.”

Despite the perception that the AFI process might be perceived as less political than that of the Academy, Oscar-winning producer Irwin Winkler assures that Oscar has no equal: “Just as the Golden Globes, the Screen Actors Guild, Directors Guild of America, Writers Guild of America, producers guild and the People’s Choice Awards all have their favorites, none of them seem to, in any way, diminish the importance of the votes of the Academy members.”

While Oscar has faced charges that its awards favor mainstream American product, the AFI is unflinching in its focus. The AFI 2000 selections must contain American production or creative elements and be feature-length theatrical releases. The naming of the unranked pictures, which will be announced alphabetically, was conceived as the first in an annual series of rites throughout the new century.

The films in the judges’ opinions, according to award guidelines, must have “best advanced the art of the moving image; enhanced the rich cultural heritage of America’s art form; inspired audiences and artists alike; and/or made a mark on American society in matter of style or substance.”

In this way, the AFI’s annual top 10 list might be more akin to those chosen for the National Film Registry, which annually taps 25 films that are “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.” The 25 titles are selected from more than a thousand nominated by the public, the National Film Preservation Board and the staff of the Library of Congress’ Motion Picture Division.

The AFI’s selection process is made up of a panel of filmmakers, critics, scholars and AFI trustees. The identities of this as-yet anonymous 13-member panel will be revealed with Tuesday’s announcement of the top 10 films.

Also to be unveiled with the film selections are five “AFI moments of significance” that dramatically impacted the movie year; these could range from, for example, the whirlwind Internet-aided success of “The Blair Witch Project” to the passing of a filmmaking legend.

Contributing to history

“What the AFI is trying to do is quite different from what the Oscars do,” says Jean Picker Firstenberg, chief executive officer of the AFI. “We are an academic and cultural institution, and we are finding a way to build a history of the 21st century in filmmaking from the ground floor. The panel is not made up of a peer group, as the Academy is, but by a blending of core groups who love the cinema.

“And by recognizing the entire creative team, including production designers, cinematographers, costume designers, et al, we have established a contextual concept for the honor that follows the thinking that the art of filmmaking is truly a group effort and that it is truly a collaborative process.”

The unique aspect of citing the entire creative team has really generated support among most filmmakers.

“We should have had some sort of recognition like that for everybody on a selected film years ago,” says Michael Cimino, director, co-producer and co-writer of the Oscar-winning best picture “The Deer Hunter” (1978). “It’s a grand idea. The comprehensive collaboration to create the image involves so many people. The director of photography does his bit, but long before he gets near a set the location manager does his bit, the wardrobe people … you can strikingly manipulate the image in post-production and the film editor often is overlooked. It’s like an Olympic relay team — everybody deserves to be thanked for an excellent picture. It’s admirable of the AFI, good and healthy, and to be encouraged.”

While the anonymity of the judges drew initial criticism at the December announcement of AFI 2000, several producers have declared their faith in the integrity of the institute.

“The judges are likely to be a little more esoteric or highly distilled in their filmmaking tastes,” says Albert S. Ruddy, producer of Oscar’s 1972 best pic “The Godfather.” “The AFI is a great credential, and the 13 people who were selected to pick these movies are probably highly sophisticated and without a commonality of thinking that is sometimes influenced by the weekend box office receipts — the moneymaking crap in the newspapers and on TV every week.”

“I’m a huge fan of the AFI and I think they have every right to pick a top 10,” says Ronald L. Schwary, who produced the Oscar winning “Ordinary People” (1980). “If they were the only one picking, I’d be concerned. But everyone gives out awards. It would be flattering to know that your picture made the AFI’s 10 best, especially if it maybe didn’t make the Golden Globes nominees or the top 10 selected each year by the National Board of Review.”

Tony Bill, who produced Oscar-winning film “The Sting” (1973) with Michael and Julia Phillips, feels that “the best thing of all” about the AFI selections is that the judges probably “would be far less personally and professionally linked to the potential awardees” than peer group Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences voters. He likes the idea that the Oscar-night term often applied in the media and living rooms to nonwinning nominees — “losers” — has no place in the AFI’s design for its top 10.

“I very much like the idea of (the AFI’s) winnerless array of excellence,” Bill says. “I think the honor implied is enough recognition to make any filmmaker justifiably proud, and, if nothing else, would serve to salve the perceived ‘defeat’ of not winning an Academy Award.

“It’s not bad to have another award to parcel out. It’ll probably piss off and shake up some Academy stalwarts. I think that’s a good thing. I suspect the AFI selectors will be less inclined to parrot the year’s lineup of commercial successes — a very good thing.”

On the flip side, the mounting kudo count of the past few years has created its own backlash. “I’m sort of fed up with all the awards,” says Mark Johnson, producer of Oscar winner “Rain Man” (1988). “They sort of dilute one another. The Oscars are still the Oscars. And that’s what we pay attention to. You can’t help but feel with all of the advertising after each award that it’s all about commerce.”

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