Oscar Minor

Dubious honor? The late D.L. Mabery earns mixed reviews for his role as namesake of the Minnesota Film Board's controversial awards program
Minnesota Film Board

Every year on Oscar Night, 2,500 locals dress to the nines--though probably the sevens or eights by West Coast calibration--and converge on downtown Minneapolis to watch Hollywood's annual love-fest on TV. For most in attendance, the evening's controversy is limited to the perennial topics: Will Russell Crowe finally be able to prop up his coffee table with Oscar statuettes? What variety of waterfowl will grace Björk's shoulders? Who let Ron Howard in? But for Twin Cities filmmakers, the event, a fundraiser for the Minnesota AIDS Project, is weighted with extra intrigue, for it marks the announcement of the winners of the D.L. Mabery Awards, modestly dubbed "the Minnesota Oscar."

The awards, which were established seven years ago by the Minnesota Film Board, are intended to honor the best independent local films of the past year in two categories: feature-length and short. And while the honor carries no tangible reward (the winners used to get $250 or so), Mabery-winning films do get a screening at the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival--a major boon for DIY filmmakers struggling for attention. All well and good, right?

Not so, according to many local filmmakers. "The D.L. Mabery Awards have become a travesty," opines one disgruntled auteur. (A number of filmmakers interviewed for this story requested anonymity, citing their reluctance to look a grant-administering gift horse in the mouth.) The Maberys, the filmmaker continues, "have become absolutely meaningless to filmmakers and an embarrassment to all involved in the facilitating and judging of these awards." Among the charges leveled at the awards: confusing and apparently fluid rules of eligibility; glaring omissions on the nomination ballots; and voting irregularities worthy of Palm Beach County, Florida. "The nomination process has less integrity than the People's Choice Award," another local filmmaker pointedly summarizes.

The film board's director of marketing and communications, Ben Nelson, who has administered the Maberys for the past three years, says the nominating process is based on that of the Academy Awards, and thus has no built-in safeguards against ballot-box stuffing. In January, he explains, the board develops an internal list of possible nominees, which, though designed to be inclusive, is not exclusive. "It's really just to jog people's memories," Nelson explains.

The list is distributed to 1,200 or so directors, producers, and assorted others in the local film community. The returned ballots--of which there were about 400 this year--are tabulated to determine the top five vote-getters in the award's two categories. Then a panel of local critics chooses the winners from among the finalists.

"In years past it was always a secret ballot," says Nelson. "One of the changes we made [this year] was to make it signed. So if the ballot isn't signed, it's not counted." Nevertheless, he adds, there's nothing to keep filmmakers from "getting out the vote," as it were. "People are obviously encouraged to advocate for their projects. Of course, it can be manipulated the same way politicians can manipulate the vote."

"I really don't understand how it works," says local filmmaker and curator Lisa Ganser. "It seems so vague. Like with the list [of nominees] are they just like, 'Oh, here's some films'? Like, 'City Pages said this one was good'? Or, 'This one got some press'? Who knows?

"Last year I had two films on the ballot," Ganser continues. "So I got my ballot in the mail and voted for my films and some other films, too. Then I e-mailed everyone on my [e-mail] list to say, 'Please vote for my movies.' If you wanted to and you had some time and skills, you could just send out a billion e-mails to everyone you know, and your film would win."

Greg Stiever, whose documentary Poles Apart won last year's Mabery for best feature, says that he too lobbied for a nomination. "At first I thought people were supposed to nominate you. But it turns out that's not really the way it works. I talked to [former film board director] Randy Adamsick, and he told me that the best way to do it was to run a little campaign. It is confusing."

The idea of canvassing for votes leaves some filmmakers cold, though. "It is, pure and simple, a popularity contest," says another director who preferred not to be identified. "Or maybe 'publicity contest' would be more accurate. Basically it comes down to, 'Who's gonna put in the most time trying to get everyone they know to fill out a ballot nominating their film?' If people are willing to spend the telephone time or the postage to solicit everyone they know to nominate their movie, they're probably going to get a nomination."

Filmmakers also complain that the film board's standards for eligibility are, at best, confusing. For instance, of the five finalists in the feature category, one film, Tim VandeSteeg's Mulligan, had its first public showing in 2000. (The film board's Nelson explains that the film was re-edited after its premiere, and so remained eligible.) Adding to the confusion, a press release announcing this year's finalists included two films, Chris Orr and Peter Mullin's "A Breath of Life Story" and Jon Springer's "Heaven 17," that weren't actually in contention. (Nelson says he isn't sure why the former was bounced in favor of Orr's "Normal." The latter, he explains, had been inadvertently classified as a feature, and when it was reclassified as a short, it hadn't garnered enough votes to break the top five. "It was a terrible mistake, a miscalculation," he says.)

Such slips, say some, are indicative of a basic unfamiliarity with local indie production. "There's a seeming lack of knowledge of what's going on in the film community," says one director. "If they're going to do these, they should have some grasp of what's going on. What it all boils down to is that if they're not willing to do what it takes to facilitate the award properly, maybe the task should be given to someone more committed to honoring local filmmakers."

Rolf Belgum, whose documentary The Atlas Moth is nominated in the feature category this year, has been slighted by Maberys past: His Driver 23 was somehow left off the ballot in 1999, even after garnering rave reviews at the previous year's film festival. "It's a tough thing because you don't want to sound ungrateful," says Belgum, noting that Driver 23 eventually received a special prize from the critics on the Mabery jury. "Personally, I try to just concentrate on my work and let the chips fall where they may."

Even Dean Lincoln Hyers, whose Bill's Gun Shop is probably the most high-profile of the nominated features, agrees that the film board could do a better job of spotlighting worthy indies. "I won't feel bad if I don't win," Hyers says. "Every creative expression is a risk. Sometimes you get picked, sometimes you don't. That's okay. But being passed over, or forgotten, or missed--that's not okay."

Hyers points out, though, that the measure of recognition afforded by a Mabery is better than none at all. "An analogy is if you're in a boat that's flipped over and you may be about to drown, someone may or may not rescue you. But you can't hate them for their effort. You can't hate them if they don't help you in the way you want them to."

And certainly, not every local filmmaker is equally exercised. For one, Matt Ehling, co-creator of the documentary-cum-satire "An Idiot's Guide to Running for President"--nominated as a short despite the fact that its feature incarnation, Run Some Idiot, premiered this past year--adopts a laissez-faire attitude toward the whole messy business. "I guess it's nice to get nominated and get the attention," says Ehling. "But the main thing for me is, if you get nominated, you get a free chicken dinner. The only thing filmmakers want more than a screening is a free meal."


The D.L. Mabery Award winners will be announced during the Minnesota AIDS Project's Hollywood 2002 benefit at the Orpheum Theatre Sunday, March 24. For information call 612.373.2407.

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