The movie world has never suffered for a lack of awards. But even within an industry awash in trophies, honors, roasts, sidewalk handprints and lifetime achievements, the CINE Golden Eagle Award was considered something of a joke.
CINE — the Council on International Nontheatrical Events — was founded in 1957 as a private-public arm of the State Department, tasked with selecting American for programming in film festivals around the globe. As part of America’s Cold War-era propaganda machine, CINE often seemed to be as concerned with quantity as quality: Its habit was to give its Golden Eagle award to just about anyone who submitted a film. For years, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences included the Golden Eagle in its criteria to be considered for an Oscar for best short film or documentary, a practice that rankled filmmakers who deemed the citation to be little more than a rubber stamp.
The State Department dropped its funding of CINE in the early 1990s; since then, the DC-based organization has relied on corporate donors for its budget, going so far as charging winners a fee if they wanted a physical trophy for their mantels. Last year, Jon Gann — founder and director of the DC Shorts film festival — was hired to re-vamp the Golden Eagles, renew their relevance and stake out a meaningful role for CINE in an awards-giving universe that’s more crowded than ever.
If Thursday’s announcement of CINE’s new crop of Golden Eagle winners is any indication, Gann is already making a difference. Rather than give awards to anyone who submits, the new executive director has whittled the number down to a few nominees and one winner; what’s more, he has divided the year into thirds, awarding work by student filmmakers, independent and emerging media-makers and established professionals in three separate cycles. This year’s Golden Eagle Awards in the professional category honor such TV shows and movies as “Hannibal” and “A Most Violent Year.”
Gann examined more than a dozen awards programs to decide how to set CINE apart. “We wanted to have a very open, transparent process,” Gann said in a telephone conversation, “so after we announce the decisions every applicant can see reviewers’ comments. You don’t learn unless you know why [you didn’t win]. So hopefully that’s helpful.” Whereas in the past, professionals and students were competing against each other according to categories, now, Gann says, the playing field is more level. “The feedback is really important for independent filmmakers and students.”
Gann says that when he researched past Golden Eagle winners and found out that “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” won, “I went, ‘Wait, what?’” To me, that’s just the epitome of what was wrong with the organization.” Now, he says, CINE aims to be “an honors program that’s trying to identify and give credit to original new programming. It can’t be the same old thing, it has to be original and new. One of the big questions we ask on the application is, ‘Who is the audience for your media, and how does your project meet the needs of that audience? That’s the kind of thing professionals think about, obviously, but independent and student filmmakers don’t think about that at all. When they do, whether by accident or design, that’s when they have the greatest success.” (Oh, and: Winners no longer have to pay for their own trophies.)
Gann doesn’t think that the CINE Golden Eagle will be listed as a qualifying criterion for an Academy Award any time soon, and that’s perfectly fine. “It’s not important to what we’re doing,” he explained. “We’re really trying not to be a popularity contest.” And just look at what film won the Golden Eagle for best feature documentary this year: Steve James’s “Life Itself,” about the late film critic Roger Ebert, a film that, to the consternation of critics and many fans, inexplicably wasn’t nominated for an Oscar this year. Far from a joke, the Golden Eagle now looks like that rara avis of the awards world that is getting things right.