Nomination process gets critic's OK

Roger Ebert gives his experience on the film nominating committee for the American Film Institute’s inaugural awards a hearty thumbs-up.

“It was one of the most interesting experiences I’ve ever had,” says the veteran Chicago-based film critic. “Movie people don’t usually get together for 15 hours over two days to seriously discuss movies. The only time you get discussion like this is on juries at film festivals.”

Ebert and 12 other hand-picked film cognoscenti took the first round of AFI Awards’ evaluation process for a test drive and say it worked very well, despite inevitably mixed reaction to its conclusions. Along with the film committee, AFI’s 13-member nominating panel for television undertook the same duties. Now the nominations in 19 categories — 12 for film and seven for TV– are in the hands of a jury of 100 for a final vote.

The jury must select a winner from four nominees in each category, except movie of the year, which has 10. The ballots were due back Wednesday and the results will be announced live during the program’s broadcast on CBS on Saturday. That means the jury had roughly three weeks to see all the films nominated.

Priming the panels

This potentially awkward scheduling is not a concern, says Jean Picker Firstenberg, AFI’s director and CEO. “We’ve been in touch with the jury for some time. They are aware of their responsibilities and are looking at the work. We’ll send them tapes of all films nominated, but by now they have seen a number of them already. They have confirmed they will see all the nominated work.”

Both nominating committee and jury are composed of representatives of various entertainment disciplines. Each year the majority of both groups will change, with some holdovers to give continuity to the process.

Once deliberations are complete, first by the nominating committee and then the jury, their names will be made public.

Given the critical role played by the nominating panel, the question arises as to whether a technical category like digital effects, for example, can be properly evaluated when no one from that discipline is represented.

Learning curves

“I think knowledge of digital effects is fairly strong in the creative community,” says Picker Firstenberg. “The critics on our nominating committee understand where these artists are coming from and they’ll be able to validate what’s been accomplished in this regard.”

Nominating committee members say discussions grew heated at times, and some votes required two or three ballots to arrive at a consensus.

Also, some thematic debates took place that might affect the shape of future categories.

“There was a big discussion on the composer in film, about the difference between musical score and sampling,” says Ebert. “The committee suggested the category be changed from ‘composer of the year’ to ‘best use of music.’ “

Another discussion dealt with whether or not the digital f/x category should be limited to live action or include animated films, given that “Shrek” and the attack in “Pearl Harbor” used computer-generated animation.

For those accustomed to holding opinions, the process of deliberation as a group yielded some surprises.

“People’s votes actually changed because of the discussion,” says Ebert, adding that while he himself didn’t actually change an opinion, he raised his already high estimation of an actor’s performance based on an argument presented by actress Marsha Mason. “These people were very well prepared.”

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