CBS exec insists AFI equals quality

It would be easy to understand some eye-rolling at the thought of yet another award show. The airwaves already seem to be jammed with stars swapping statuettes, and some kudos seem to be little more than a way to attract celebrities to yet another excuse for a special.

But as Jack Sussman explains, even the most cynical TV watcher should take note when a new kudocast bears the American Film Institute imprimatur. Sussman is vice president of specials for CBS and he’s been working with AFI for several years. When he talks about the institute, “credibility” is his refrain.

“(Credibility) means that you’ve got the brand of the American Film Institute stamped all over this show,” says Sussman. “I’m not critiquing other shows, I’m just saying that ours has an opportunity to be stamped with one of the most prestigious brands in the film and television business, and it has a chance to stand with anything else out there.”

In many respects, the AFI Awards show will seem familiar.

“There’s a comfort level that you don’t deviate from just for the sake of looking different,” says eight-time Emmy winner Gary Smith, who is the show’s exec producer, along with the AFI’s Frederick S. Pierce. Dann Netter and Bob Gazzale are the show’s producers.

The awards will be given out at a dinner in the Beverly Hills Hotel Ballroom, with plenty of star power among presenters. The show will be opened by keynote speaker Dustin Hoffman, and presenters for the inaugural show include Joan Allen, Alan Cumming, Dennis Franz, Andy Garcia, Rachel Griffiths, Daryl Hannah, Steve Harris, Patricia Heaton, Samuel L. Jackson, Allison Janney, Diane Keaton, Ben Kingsley, Eugene Levy, William H. Macy, Joe Mantegna, Haley Joel Osment, Michelle Pfeiffer and James Woods, among others.

Target Stores, the show’s sponsor, has made a donation to fund 20 scholarships to the AFI Conservatory in the name of each presenter and the keynote speaker. (There are 19 award categories, 12 for film, seven for TV.)

Yet there will be no live performances and the show has a notable new format: The AFI will select up to six 2001 moments of significance relating to film and television. Each will be examined in some depth on the show.

It is hard to imagine such a list without the Sept. 11 attacks, and Smith says they will be addressed in the show. Smith, who recently completed the twice-postponed Emmys kudocast, says the evening will acknowledge the country’s mood.

He singles out the serious tone of such film nominees as “In the Bedroom” and “Monster’s Ball” as a reflection of the national psyche. “People are interested in analyzing the bigger issues,” he says.

The awards themselves are different, too, honoring not just quality but productions that “advanced the art of the moving image” and/or “made a mark on American society.” And with only 19 awards spread over three hours, the event will feature a more thorough look of each nominee than viewers may be used to.

“You’re not only going to see clips of the films,” Smith says, “but you’re going to hear from people who really know what they’re talking about, about why these films were chosen 10 best.”

Focusing the gaze

Such a show might not have been considered viable a few years ago, but previous AFI specials on CBS have proved there is

a market for a serious look at movies.

“I think the public craves that (inside information) as much as they want to know what dress Julia Roberts is wearing, maybe more,” says Jack Sussman. “They’re becoming more savvy, too. They want to know how they did that in ‘Lord of the Rings,’ or how’d they create that helicopter crash in ‘Black Hawk Down.’ When they can get behind the scenes they feel more engaged.”

The show will air Saturday in a timeslot that takes much of the ratings pressure off the show’s debut. Since Saturdays are the lowest-rated night of the week, the inaugural AFI Awards probably only need to attract around 10 million viewers to be considered a success.

Smith promises that the aud that does tune in will find a show that appeals to everyone from industry insiders and cinephiles to casual fans. He and Sussman and the rest of the team expect to be tweaking the format until just before airtime, but they know to always stress the show’s key assets.

“It’s going to have the credibility of the AFI,” says Sussman. “It’s going to be the kind of show that we believe will attract stars and viewers, that’s not just credible but entertaining to boot.”

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