Few people can deny how good it feels to receive an award or two, in many cases, no matter what it is for; Honor Roll, Student of the Week, Employee of the Month, MVP of the NBA, Magna Cum Laude, Pulitzer and Nobel prizes, you name it -- we salivate over and work our butts off to gain honors. This yearning was not lost on me when I started to pursue a career in film.
I wanted awards -- particularly an Oscar for Best Director or a Palme d’Or at Cannes, and I wanted them badly. Boy was I kidding myself by placing too much value on items that rarely offer more than décor and bragging rights.
I wonder -- aside from helping you build a pedigree, what are awards really worth, and what does it take to earn these coveted honors? As artists we must aim to make movies that are great. To win awards, however, these films have to not only be better than great but also considered worthy of recognition by a select group of people with varied levels of experience, talent and/or accolades in their own right. I invited a few select award-winning filmmakers to shed some light on the matter. Here, they make it clear how important awards are in terms of being a driving force behind what they do and the influence, if any, it has on their careers.
"To be honest, I just don't see the point of awards in the arts," says Amir Motlagh, director of “35 YEAR-OLD MAN,” “WHALE” and “KHOOBI,” who adds "I just can't find a justification for them -- But, I'm sure they feel good for the family. Oh, you get a few phone calls and I'm sure grabbing an Oscar would be a little different. Let's be honest here, who wouldn't want an Oscar for pragmatic reasons alone?"
'“PIG” won 10 awards and "THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT" has already won two awards; for certain kinds of films -- especially these two films, they (awards) are kinda crucial in a way but at the same time, they don’t do everything for you, says Best Sci-Fi Feature winner Mark Stolaroff, producer of “PIG,” “THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT” and “MANIC.”'
Stolaroff continues "They’re crucial in that both of these films are in a position where they really need an award because neither of them got into Sundance, which is the gold standard for films, and a lot of films don’t get into Sundance - like “SHORT TERM 12,” which is a terrific film that won Gotham awards and other accolades but didn’t get into Sundance.
When you don’t get into Sundance, SXSW, Toronto, Cannes and related festivals, you have to prove something to the kind of crowds that go to festivals. So, you have to get into a lot other festivals to show your merit and then you have to win awards to measure up – otherwise, you don’t really have an art film. You may have a good film, but it’s not an art film. Particularly with "Pig," it’s a really unusual situation; the movie fits between an art film and a genre film, although we never thought of it as a genre film when we were making it. If you have an art film, then winning an award can make a difference with your audience. If you have a genre film like a horror film or a Sci-Fi film, an award doesn’t necessarily matter."
Student Emmy winner Akil Dupont, director of "UNDERGROUND" and "SILHOUETTES" says "I’ve won 25 awards as a filmmaker so far; they come with some things – some tangible things! The majority of them – probably more than half – did not come with anything, and some didn’t actually give me a physical award. It ranges from nothing beyond an “attaboy” and acknowledgement on a website to money and mentorship.
Inside the industry, my theory is that people are not as concerned with awards as they are with other things because film is still a business.
The monetization of your product is what they’re most concerned with – how can it still turn over to make money, because you still have to make money with these films.
Some people think that awards are sorta the gateway into the industry; and in some sense they may be but in another sense, people in the industry still want to see what you can do moneywise.
What filmmaker doesn’t want the Academy Award?!! We all want one – an Academy Award, a Golden Globe, an Emmy, a Tony, a Grammy. I was hoping that "UNDERGROUND" would be nominated for a Short Film Oscar. Right now, I think this movie has the DNA for the stage, so I’m looking to see what we can get, as far as going to Broadway is concerned."
Ari Gold, director of "ADVENTURES OF POWER," "HELICOPTER" and "CULTURE" says "The student Oscar has been helpful in the sense that when I’m soliciting investment or collaborators, it makes people take me a little bit more seriously than they might otherwise. That doesn’t necessarily mean direct employment but it means that my calls or emails are slightly more likely to be answered. Interestingly, I got a bunch of Audience Awards for my feature film ("ADVENTURES OF POWER") and those have had no impact whatsoever, which is a sorta interesting contrast, but that’s the reality.
You can daydream about getting awards but I think I’m smart enough to know that’s not the point. For me, I like to connect with an audience and know people are responding to my work, so that always is the most powerful kind of motivator. Does that mean that if I make something that reaches a huge audience that I’ll be exponentially happier? No, of course not. Although it seems like it would be nice, I’m aware that it’s a fallacy; the more successful people get, the more successful they think they need to get.
So, I want my work to be satisfying to me and satisfying to people who watch it – that’s the biggest award."
My Own Thoughts on Awards
Our culture views awards as a stamp of approval for being the best, under the expectation that a movie and its maker have been vetted against other projects of equal or higher merit. So who is to say that you and/or your work are not one of the best -- all based on whether you’ve been honored for your contributions to a particular industry or for a certain creation? Martin Scorsese, one of the greatest directors in the history of American cinema, has claimed many accolades including an American Film Institute (AFI) Lifetime Achievement Award, yet, got snubbed by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (aka the folks in charge of the Oscars) on many occasions.
The man who helmed “Goodfellas,” “Taxi Driver,” “The Departed” and “Hugo” is no less talented, enthusiastic about his work or successful just because he lacks those golden statues. In a career that spans over 30 years, Scorsese has received 8 Academy Award nominations for Best Director and one win, to date. If it’s tough for a legendary director such as Martin Scorsese to win an Oscar, I must come to terms with how little weight awards really hold, where matters of career satisfaction and success are concerned.
So the way I see it, going after nothing more than shiny statues, medals or plaques after all is said and done would be selling myself short; it does not justify the amount of blood, sweat, tears, time, money and resources that are put into each independent film and the disappointments, rejections, failures and learning experiences that come out of a project.
Make no mistake about it – I do still like awards and would appreciate those that come my way. I am just working on readjusting my priorities because accolades are just not enough to keep me on this filmmaking train. I don’t want to make movies merely for a chance at winning awards, given that there is no guarantee I’ll be in the running for one and they usually don’t come with anything other than a title and something pretty to look at.
I figure, the best way to benefit from awards is by using them as leverage, since a lot of them don’t automatically come with deals and offers for the next gig.
Stay tuned for more reflections and observations on the journey of independent filmmaking!
In the meantime...
- Motlagh's short films such as "Khoobi" can be watched online
- Gold's comedy "Adventures of Power" is available on YouTube
- Stolaroff's mystery/Sci-Fi "PIG" movie is viewable on DVD and through iTunes
- DuPont's full historical musical "Underground" film is online to watch
Does winning an award have any bearing on whether YOU’VE done good work?
Can YOU be considered among the best in your field, without being the recipient of awards?
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*Photos courtesy of DuPont Productions, The Pig Picture and Ari Gold Films.