IndieWire Influencers: Interview with Cinema Eye Honors

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The documentary universe has changed radically over the past twelve years. No longer the domain of a few cable or public television channels, no longer bound by the old rules of engagement of cinema, non-fiction cinema has spent the last decade breaking out of the independent margins on a low budget. to become the acceptance of the general public, adopting tips. and the tropes of drama and series storytelling as the directors capture the attention of audiences around the world.

One of the forces of change has always been the Eye Honors Cinema, an awards organization created in 2007 by a group of independent filmmakers. Led by Los Angeles documentary filmmaker AJ Schnack (producer at Field of Vision, whose credits include “Kurt Cobain About a Son” and the recent entry “30 for 30” “Long Gone Summer”), the Cinema Eye Honors led the charge by shaking up conversations about the types of non-fiction storytelling that deserved to be celebrated.

“It was a reaction to what was going on elsewhere on the pitch,” Schnack said in a recent interview with IndieWire. In the year the awards were launched, Schnack was on the Independent Spirit Awards jury for the Truer than Fiction Prize, which selected a list of 15 of the best films of the year by emerging filmmakers. “It’s been a really exciting year for non-fiction films, especially a lot of young new voices entering the documentary world with great films,” he said, but none of those 15 films was nominated for IDA or Oscar list.

“It was a perfect storm. It was like there was a real space and a need for a different voice that maybe looked at the documentary in a slightly different way, ”said Schnack. He ticked off a range of programmers, from Thom Powers at TIFF to Rachel Rosen, then SFFILM’s programming manager, True / False’s David Wilson, and former SXSW producer Matt Dentler, who were all from agree with the feeling that documentaries resonated on the festival circuit. I didn’t find the same support during awards season – in part because the Best Documentary field wasn’t enough to salute the sheer scale of work involved in documentary production.

“There was no real space, no year-end award, to recognize craftsmanship in the documentary,” Schack added.

At the time, the Producers Guild did not award a documentary award, nor did the directors of photography. “There was general dissatisfaction with the way non-fiction films were portrayed during awards season,” festival programmer Rosen wrote in an email. “Most notably, no other organization, even those that focused exclusively on documentaries, awarded prizes to multiple groups of craftspeople.”

Evan Hayes, Bob Eisenhart, Mikey Schaffer, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, Jimmy Chin, Shannon Drill and Clair Popkings for “Free Solo” attend 12th Annual Cinema Eye Honors Awards

ANTHONY BEHAR / SIPA USA

These conversations culminated in the first edition of the event in March 2008. (The name Cinema Eye was inspired by Russian filmmaker Dziga Vertov who, along with “Man with a Movie Camera” from 1929, was one of the first innovators of the documentary form.) The Eye Honors Cinema always presents a long and inclusive reward package. The show takes place in New York City, which is why Schnack initially brought in New York documentary programmer Powers, who now runs DOC NYC in addition to his TIFF duties.

“We contacted not only the programmers,” Schnack said, “but the people who were smart documentary viewers and curators, and asked if they would be on that nominating committee.”

To date, a small core team works year round to organize the awards and manage various committees made up of around 70 people who dedicate their time and effort to find nominees and help organize the event. It’s a true community organization, and that part of Cinema Eye Honors has never changed. “We still have a nominating committee of festival programmers, people who have watched films all year,” said Schnack, “who have thought of them for their own audiences and watch them, not just in the context of awards, but as part of scheduling a list for their festivals.

It’s the secret sauce for Cinema Eye’s success and longevity. “They have done a great job collectively,” said Schnack. “They don’t talk about it together, we don’t have Zoom meetings or conference calls. They vote for their passion for the movies they love.

At first, distributors were skeptical about the award ceremony. “We had to prove ourselves,” said Schnack, who initially relied on new online distributor IndiePix to keep them afloat, risking making Cinema Eye look like a rambling upstart. . The awards show later gained continued long-term support from HBO, Netflix, Hulu, and more.

One of the first turning points came in Cinema Eye’s fourth year, when Banksy’s “Exit Through the Gift Shop” won the top prize (and went on to win an Oscar). “Jaimie D’Cruz, the producer, read Banksy’s acceptance speech,” Schnack said. “And someone was there and somehow transcribed and recorded it online. It was the first time that I felt like something important had happened.

Watch how Cinema Eye Honors was first conceived and executed, along with some of its most iconic highlights, in the video below.




The event also found support from documentary icons Albert Maysles and DA Pennebaker, who attended it regularly during the last years of their lives. The duo last shared the stage in 2014 to present the top prize to Laura Poitras’ “Citizenfour”, which went on to win the Oscar. “It was a wonderful and special moment,” said Schnack. “Three giants of documentary cinema on stage together. These are the generational moments.

And Cinema Eye has slowly, over time, shifted all of the award shows around it. The Academy’s documentary arm has revised its rules to allow more members to watch more movies and vote for their passionate favorites. IDA has also added more categories over the years to include more crafts. Many recent Oscar nominated and winning documentaries line up with Cinema Eyes.

While the expansion of the two groups may have diminished the role of Cinema Eye Honors, the world still needs it. Indeed, as the field of documentaries has exploded over the past decade, Cinema Eye has set itself another goal as a custodian, curator and picker of quality titles, so that the best films are brought to the forefront. attention of the voters of the rewards, over a vast sea of ​​possibilities.

“There was a lot of overlap between the Cinema Eye nominated films and the shortlisted films,” Schnack said. “We have a stronger track record than any other organization or group that gives end-of-year awards. But I am just as excited and proud of these films which are not recognized anywhere else. It’s the chance for them to be part of the conversation, to have an event that they’re fully engaged in, even if they’re not on the shortlist or up for another award. Bill and Turner Ross, frequent Cinema Eye Honors (“Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets”) winners, for example, have yet to secure an Oscar spot.

Most of the awards groups focus on directors, so Cinema Eye also turned its attention to artisans, like graphic designers and editors, who also came together. “It’s seeing that these people are taken care of and treated the same as the Julia Reicherts and Lucy Walkers of the world,” Schnack said. “A few years ago we had two small European films, ‘Communion’ and ‘Distant Barking of Dogs’, both of which were nominated for Cinema Eye, but both were also on the Academy’s shortlist. And it was super exciting for me. I thought it would be great if every year, you know, there were two movies like that, the unexpected big movies. “

“Bloody nose, empty pockets”

Everett Collection

Rosen sees an impact of Cinema Eye on the community. “It has succeeded in achieving its primary goal of providing a platform to recognize some bold and innovative craft-driven non-fiction that has not been recognized by other awards,” she wrote, “to draw attention to the larger creative team behind documentary films.”

And of course the Cinema Eye Honors has adapted to the new world of streaming by adding series. “The committees got bigger and we tried to make them more international and less homogeneous,” said Schnack. “We’ve expanded the rewards for broadcasting and there is so much going on in the streaming space with shows and movies.” There are five separate episodic rewards. “We have more submissions to stream than we’ve ever had before this year,” he said, noting the addition of the Spotligiht award “to make sure we have a light on which movies don’t receive not much attention from their distributor or festivals.

The immediate practical benefit of these rewards, like guild rewards, is that they bring people together to meet in person and network. Cinema Eye hosts an annual nominees luncheon in Los Angeles as well as the awards show in New York. The social opportunity is particularly welcome by the documentary community now after the pandemic brought to an end in-person events in 2020.

“For many people, it’s an opportunity to meet other filmmakers who have gone through the same kind of journey as them. And whether you’ve met for the first time on Main Street in Park City or in Buges in Colombia or in a brewery in Durham, it’s those connections that keep you going, because you’re going to go back and make another movie. And the people you call when you have a question, ”Schnack said.

Even now, there is no such thing as Cinema Eye. “What I treasure most about Cinema Eye is its dedication to the many trades of documentary creation – production, cinematography, editing, composition,” Powers told IndieWire. “One year, longtime Fred Wiseman cameraman John Davey was nominated and he explained that it was the first time he had received an award after decades of hard work.”

He added: “When we started 15 years ago, I assumed that other awards could add to these categories and make Cinema Eye redundant. But that didn’t really happen and it did. is a unique recognition. —Anne Thompson


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