I’ve recently finished voting for a film awards competition, and would like to give a sense here of my general assessment process, something I’ve developed over the years in my programming and academic work. In sharing these ideas, I’m not speaking for all awards voters everywhere, or about all selections procedures. But I do aim to give some transparency to filmmakers and the public on a process that can seem mysterious or arbitrary from the outside.
Whether for awards, distribution deals, or public screenings, each selections process is unique, with its own conditions. In the case of the awards I just voted for, one challenge was simply scheduling the screenings properly. I had to see over 25 films in about a month, all in their entirety and not crammed together, like over a few very long weekends. Doing so took some foresight and commitment, so I started early and worked steadily, seeing about one film (never more than two) per day, in no particular order. Fortunately, the awards organization provided many of the films on DVD and held special local screenings for some others; several more were on Netflix, and a few were playing in local theaters—which all together made the scheduling fairly efficient.
Yes, screening venues can affect the viewing experience and hence the assessment, but in the end you have to work with what you have. And I don’t personally think that seeing a movie in a theater necessarily makes much of a difference in this kind of evaluation than seeing it at home. What can affect an assessment much more (for me at least) is outside input, like discussing a film with other people or reading reviews. Outside sources certainly have value, but, for this particular type of formal and systematic assessment process—and in order to be fair, consistent, and faithful to my own sensibilities—I preferred to avoid them.
My experience over the years has been that sometimes voters or committee members have conflicts of interest that can threaten the integrity of the process. For instance, when someone advocates a film based more on their own relationship with the filmmaker or distributor than on the film’s actual merits. I can’t speak for other people, but so far have found this to happen relatively rarely. And when it has happened, the situation was usually pretty obvious to the other committee members, who ultimately handled it appropriately. One of the merits of a selection process having many hundreds or thousands of people who simply cast votes is that sheer numbers can wipe out such individual aberrations. Still, bigger isn’t perfect. For example, sometimes a significant portion of a voting community may buy into popular opinions like, “it’s time for this actor to win, even if this may not be his best work or the best among the other nominees.” Again, my preference as a voter is to avoid such things and focus on the films and my own direct reactions to them; keep it as pure and simple as possible and let the chips fall where they will.
One outside influence I welcome, though, is the awarding organization’s own voting guidelines and broader mission. Knowing and honoring them empowers me as a voter and makes the process more ethical and efficient. But I also bring my own concerns that I’ve developed over the years, including being generally respectful of the films and filmmakers. By this, I mean things like always being sensitive to how much effort it takes to make a film, even a bad one. Or maintaining critical detachment—not being swayed by things that shouldn’t matter, such as my own personal preferences for specific genres, styles, filmmakers, or stars. I don’t claim to be purely objective, but I do think I’m pretty good at being aware of those kinds of attitudes and keeping them in check to be fair in my evaluations.
One great thing about voting for this latest awards competition was that I was not responsible for developing the list of nominees; the awarding organization already did that heavy lifting. So I got to enjoy focusing on my little universe of films in their various categories. Regarding the categories, such as Best Director and Best Screenplay, they posed many challenges involving my being sufficiently attentive to the various elements that contribute to each category and assessing each nominee along those lines. With the Best Cinematography category, for example, this involved attending to technical or aesthetic elements—framing, lighting, and use of color and depth of field—that contributed to the quality of each film’s images. The Best Feature category might seem the easiest—it’s just the movie you liked the most!—but when you really consider all the elements that contribute to the quality of a film—everything from before, during, and after the cameras rolled—it can be mind boggling. Personally, I’m glad that the awarding organization had categories for Best First Feature Film and Best Feature Made for Under $500,000, thus helping to level the playing fields for different classes of filmmaking.
Categories can make voting both easier and harder. One way it can be harder is by compelling me to stick to a nominee’s category, like when I see a film nominated for cinematography that is weak in story or acting, so I have to work to prevent that problem from polluting my assessment of the cinematography. Also, there is the problem with films nominated in multiple categories—resisting the temptation to sort of horse trade by, for example, voting against a nominee in one category in favor of a slightly less worthy one that has fewer nominations, maybe only one. For that temptation, I take solace in the cliché, “It’s an honor just to be nominated.” The more of this sort of assessment work I’ve done, the more aware I’ve become of various challenges like these and the importance of managing them appropriately.
Assessing documentaries involves many of the same concerns as fiction films along with others that are more pertinent to this particular mode of filmmaking. For example, how accurate a documentary seems to be, or how “important” its subject matter is. While valid, I also find these questions tricky to address with fairness, accuracy, and consistency. What’s “important” can be pretty subjective, and there are apples and oranges problems, like whether a traditional talking-head documentary about AIDS or war is necessarily more “serious” than a quirkier one about a fashion photographer. Or, is a stridently serious documentary any weaker or stronger than one that incorporates some humor and irony? These are some of the kinds of questions that I considered while working through the process of screening and analysis.
In the end, if I’m just casting votes anonymously into a large pool, rather than debating face-to-face with a committee, I still assess the nominees pretty much as though I had to defend my choices to such a committee, or an informal peer group. If I think I could adequately defend my choices with them, then I’m ready to cast my votes.
This glimpse at my (evolving) evaluations process is not the whole picture of my work, nor is it what everyone else does in all situations. But at least it gives a sense of what the process can be like, and is like for one voter. I’m sure other people have some similar and different experiences with voting, or with having their films judged by others. If you’re one of them, feel free to comment below; let’s compare notes.
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