AFI Awards Stick to a Winning Formula

While other kudos have headaches, the Institute is still 'appreciating each other, not competing'

"The Banshees of Inisherin" -- "Everything Everywhere All at Once"
Everett Collection

Don’t mess with success. That’s the G-rated version of an old showbiz mantra, and it applies to the AFI Awards, which on Jan. 13 will continue with the same format that has worked for two decades. 

While the Oscars struggle with TV ratings and other issues, and the Golden Globes are working to restore their luster, the AFI Awards, again at the Four Seasons Los Angeles in Beverly Hills, holds onto a formula that was devised for the org’s third annual kudos handouts in 2003. 

Every year, the team addresses whether changes are needed, AFI president-CEO Bob Gazzale tells Variety. “And we keep coming back to the same format, because it celebrates everyone equally.” 

Winners are announced in advance, so there’s no suspense, and there’s no pressure to make acceptance speeches. 

During awards season, filmmakers and execs drag themselves to various events, but people actually want to go to the AFI Awards. 

“Each year we have difficulty including all who want to attend. That’s the blessing and curse of an intimate luncheon of 250 people,” says Gazzale.  

In other words, it’s a hot ticket. 

Every December, jurors select 10 notable movies and 10 TV shows of the past year. At the January event, each saluted work gets a table. After the schmoozing, lunch is served and the ceremony itself takes an hour. An AFI rep reads a brief “rationale” for each work (ie, the reason for the recognition), and a brief clip is screened.  

Gazzale says, “In our original conversation about ‘What is this event?,’ our simple idea is that after a clip plays, it’s 19 tables applauding the one. That was the goal: We’re appreciating one another, not competing.” 

Other big plusses: The event is fast-moving, offers great insight and terrific clips and, thanks to “our very generous underwriters” like Fiji water, no network or studio has to spend money to be honored. 

The awards began in 2000, a turn-of-the-century time of reflection. AFI had created fun lists that also fed multiple TV specials: 100 greatest movies, greatest stars, greatest songs, etc.  

Tom Pollock, studio exec who was AFI chairman, said at the time, “We’ve done an excellent job of looking back. Maybe it’s time to chart excellence across the 21st century, year by year. It will be
our almanac.”  

Gazzale says the word “almanac” was a key. 

“In 2000, we launched the AFI Awards with nothing more than a press release, saying these are 10 outstanding motion pictures of the year and we listed them alphabetically.” He adds with a laugh, “This was so long ago we faxed it out.” The heavy global coverage that resulted was a reminder that the name AFI carries weight. 

The following year, they staged a live TV show, which aired on CBS Jan. 5, 2002, with 19 competitive film and TV categories. 

“We learned a lot,” he says. “We learned it was our mandate not to sell but to celebrate. We don’t believe in winners or losers. So it was a valuable step in our evolution.”  

Afterwards, AFI director-CEO Jean Picker Firstenberg gathered trustees and they brainstormed how to evolve the awards program. 

Michael Nesmith, a trustee at the time, asked, “What would you do if you could do anything?” They came up with a plan of a lunch, honoring movies and TV in a celebration of collaboration, with no winners or losers. 

Nesmith immediately wrote a check to cover the costs. “That’s how AFI Awards was born,”
says Gazzale. 

With Hollywood’s biggest heavy hitters always attending, presumably TV networks have requested rights to the show? 

“We have politely declined the invitations,” the prez-CEO says. “We considered it, but we could not find a way to preserve the spirit of that room on a television program. And that’s what’s most important to us.” 

The org previously announced the honorees: For film, “Avatar: The Way of Water,” “Elvis,” “Everything Everywhere All At Once,” “The Fabelmans,” “Nope,” “She Said,” “Tar,” “Top Gun: Maverick,” “The Woman King” and “Women Talking.”

On the TV side: “Abbott Elementary,” “The Bear,” “Better Call Saul,” “Hacks,” “Mo,” “Pachinko,” “Reservation Dogs,” “Severance,” “Somebody Somewhere” and “The White Lotus.”

The awards are for U.S. films and TV shows, and there is a special award this year to “The Banshees of Inisherin.”