The idea that there should be a new honor for nonfiction that recognizes the breadth of the genre and includes the crafts of cinematography and editing and producing, has been simmering in the mind of AJ Schnack for more than a year. While he was serving on the documentary jury at the Denver Film Festival, the Oscar shortlist was announced. For those who had spent the previous year on the road watching nonfiction films at festivals from Toronto to Park City to Oxford to Columbia, MO to Durham, NC to New York (and on and on), the list was staggering. One might expect that one or two of your favorites might not be selected. That always happens. But many felt that the Academy’s choices failed to fully represent the year they had experienced. With a sense of immediacy, AJ began to talk again about the idea of a new honor. After writing two pieces about the Oscar shortlist on his popular blog on nonfiction, “All These Wonderful Things,” there was an outpouring of support from the community.
Feeling that the moment must be seized, AJ reached out to Danielle DiGiacomo, Documentary Film Coordinator of New York-based distributor Indiepix, who quickly came on board to help shepherd this effort. With the unflinching support of Indiepix President Bob Alexander, the company became the presenting sponsor of the new honors. Meanwhile, John Vanco of New York’s IFC CENTER, an independent cinema house that has been a true champion for documentaries this year, offered his venue, and Thom Powers, the Documentary Programmer for the Toronto International Film Festival and the programmer/host of NYC’s Stranger Than Fiction documentary series, signed on as co-chair.
In the words of IndiePix’s Bob Alexander, “The exceptional talent and craftsmanship within the film industry has been under-acknowledged. Documentary filmmaking is so intricate, yet the men and women behind the scenes rarely receive acknowledgement for the outstanding work they produce. We really want to show our support to nonfiction filmmakers and focus on explicitly honoring the craft involved.”

The Cinema Eye Honors for Nonfiction Filmmaking were founded in late 2007 to recognize and honor exemplary craft and innovation in nonfiction film.  Cinema Eye’s mission is to advocate for, recognize and promote the highest commitment to rigor and artistry in the nonfiction field.  The Cinema Eye Honors are traditionally held in early January at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, New York.  The awards ceremony is preceded by film screenings (prior to the 2014 Honors, these screenings happened in Toronto, Los Angeles and New York City) and a series of events honoring the year’s nominees.


At its inception, Cinema Eye was the first US or international organization to present annual awards for documentary in the fields of cinematography, original score and graphic design.  It remains the only organization, aside from the guilds, to recognize outstanding direction and production.  The Cinema Eye Honors recognize feature and short-length films with an emphasis on nonfiction films made for public distribution, whether primarily theatrical, festival or television.

While the genesis of Cinema Eye grew out of frustrations over the yearly controversies surrounding the Academy Awards’ process for recognizing documentary, the founders of Cinema Eye were primarily driven by a desire to change the conversation that film critics, festivals and awards bodies were having about documentary film, shifting the emphasis from importance of topic to artistic craft.  Importantly, Cinema Eye seeks to encourage audiences to engage with nonfiction work that crosses all genres, whether observational, journalistic, activist, essayistic, light-hearted or provocative as well as those exciting works that blur the lines between nonfiction and fiction.  Further, Cinema Eye seeks to serve an important community-building role that links

The inaugural Cinema Eye Honors were held at New York City’s IFC Center on March 17, 2008.  Jason Kohn’s MANDA BALA (SEND A BULLET) received three awards that evening, including Outstanding Achievement in Nonfiction Feature Filmmaking.  Alex Gibney followed up his Oscar win for TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE with the Cinema Eye for Outstanding Achievement in Direction.  Gibney also served as a presenter at the event, along with filmmakers Barbara Kopple, Joe Berlinger & Bruce Sinofsky, Sam Pollard, Alan Berliner and Ross Kauffman.

The second edition of Cinema Eye was held at New York City’s TimesCenter on 41st Street on March 29, 2009.  Ari Folman’s WALTZ WITH BASHIR received four honors, including Oustanding Achievement in Direction, and James Marsh’s MAN ON WIRE took three, including Outstanding Achievement in Nonfiction Feature Filmmaking.  Presenters at the event included Al Maysles, DA Pennebaker & Chris Hegedus, Morgan Spurlock and musician/artist Laurie Anderson.

After two years of finding its footing, Cinema Eye began a series of changes in its third year that dramatically transformed the organization and created the event that exists today.  The event moved from March to January; the ceremony moved to the newly-remodeled Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, NY; awards were added for Nonfiction Short, the Spotlight Award for films that have yet to receive proper attention, the Heterodox Award for narrative films and the Legacy Award for the films that inspired today’s filmmakers.  With the help of our longtime sponsors, HBO Documentary Films, A&E IndieFilms, Hot Docs, the Camden International Film Festival (and others), Cinema Eye became a multi-day event celebrating the nonfiction community and the year’s creative and artistic achievements.

The third edition of Cinema Eye was held on January 15, 2010.  Louie Psihoyos’ THE COVE received the top award for Outstanding Feature and Agnes Varda was presented with the Outstanding Directing Award for THE BEACHES OF AGNES.  The Spotlight Award was presented for the first time (it went to Jessica Oreck’s BEETLE QUEEN CONQUERS TOKYO) and Cinema Eye presented its first Legacy Award to Ross McElwee for SHERMAN’S MARCH.  McElwee also served as a presenter at the event, along with filmmakers Peter Davis, Barbara Kopple, Albert Maysles, Bill Plympton and Ellen Kuras.

The Fourth Annual Cinema Eye Honors were presented on January 18, 2011. Banksy’s EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP was named Outstanding Feature and Laura Poitras received the Directing prize for THE OATH.  Lixin Fan’s LAST TRAIN HOME won three awards, including Cinematography and Production.  Legendary filmmakers Al Maysles and Muffie Meyer accepted the Legacy Award on behalf of GREY GARDENS.  Cinema Eye presented its first Nonfiction Short Film award (it went to THE POODLE TRAINER by Vance Malone) and first Heterodox Award, recognizing fiction films which imaginatively incorporate nonfiction strategies, content and/or modes of production.  That award went to Matt Porterfield’s PUTTY HILL.  Previous Cinema Eye winners James Marsh and Louie Psihoyos were among the presenters, along with Morgan Spurlock, They Might Be Giants’ John Flansburgh and actor/filmmaker Harry Shearer.

In 2012, the 5th edition of Cinema Eye took place on January 11, with Steve James and Alex Kotlowitz’ THE INTERRUPTERS receiving the top two awards, Outstanding Nonfiction Feature and Outstanding Direction.  It was the first time in Cinema Eye history that one film had won both awards.  Frederick Wiseman accepted the Legacy Award on behalf of his debut film, TITICUT FOLLIES, and Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky received the first ever Hell Yeah Prize for their PARADISE LOST series of films, which inspired a groundswell of public outrage over the case of the West Memphis Three.  Presenters at the 5th annual event included Michael Moore, Alex Gibney, Peter Davis, Andrea Meditch, Josh Fox, Nanette Burstein and Robert Krulwich.

The 6th Annual Cinema Eye Honors were held on January 9, 2013.  Emad Burnat & Guy Davidi’s 5 BROKEN CAMERAS took home the award for Outstanding Nonfiction Feature, while Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady were named Outstanding Directors for DETROPIA.  Michael Moore presented the Legacy Award to the 1993 political verite THE WAR ROOM, which was accepted by directors Chris Hegedus & D.A. Pennebaker and producers Wendy Ettinger and Frazer Pennebaker.  Presenters included Susan Froemke, Jennie Livingston, Jonathan Caouette, Darius Marder and Marshall Curry.

In 2014, Cinema Eye returned to the Museum of the Moving Image on January 8, following several days of film screenings in Toronto, Los Angeles and New York as well as a number of events that honored the work of that year’s nominees.  Joshua Oppenheimer and Signe Byrge Sørensen’s THE ACT OF KILLING was named Outstanding Feature Film and Outstanding Production.  Sarah Polley received the award for Outstanding Direction for STORIES WE TELL, while Zachary Heinzerling’s CUTIE AND THE BOXER picked up three awards, including Oustanding Debut.  The Legacy Award was presented to Barbara Kopple for HARLAN COUNTY, USA, while the 2nd Hell Yeah Prize was given to Josh Fox for his GASLAND films.  Presenters included Michael Moore, Jehane Noujaim and Chris Hegedus, Jennifer Fox, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, Thelma Schooonmaker and Steve James.


Cinema Eye is led by a core team that includes filmmakers Andrea Meditch (Board Chair), Will Lennon (Producer), Esther Robinson (Honors Chair), AJ Schnack (Founding Director) and Nathan Truesdell (Honors Director).  Charlotte Cook, Director of Programming for the Hot Docs Film Festival, serves as the Chair of the Cinema Eye Nominations Committee.  The work of Cinema Eye is supported year-round by our sponsors and by a number of filmmakers and members of the larger documentary community.  

Feature film submissions for the 8th Annual Cinema Eye Honors will open in June 2014 and television award submissions will open in April 2014, with nominees to be announced in the fall and the award ceremony scheduled for January 2015.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do films become eligible for Cinema Eye?

Films become eligible by fulfilling one of five criteria:

1. Screening at three of the following international film festivals (listed chronologically): Sundance, Berlin, True/False, SXSW, Full Frame, Tribeca, San Francisco, Hot Docs, Cannes, Sheffield, AFIDOCS, Los Angeles, Toronto, Camden, New York, CPH:DOX or IDFA.

2. Screening at two of the above film festivals and winning a grand jury prize at one of them.

3. Screening at two of the above film festivals and reporting at least $5,000 in North American theatrical box office.

4. Screening at two of the above film festivals and screening at one of the following festivals represented on our Nominations Committee: Ambulante, Ashland, Sarasota, It’s All True, Planete Doc Review, Dokufest Kosovo, Hamptons, DOK Leipzig, DOCNYC and RIDM.

5. Reporting at least $20,000 in North American theatrical box office.

Films are eligible so long as they had their first premiere no earlier than January 1, 2013.  Films that submitted in a previous year are not eligible, even if they fulfilled a different eligibility requirement in a following year.

Who is responsible for confirming Cinema Eye eligibility?

While the Cinema Eye team makes every effort to track festival screenings and theatrical receipts, it’s the responsibility of the filmmaker to make sure that Cinema Eye is aware of a film’s eligibility.  The deadline for Cinema Eye eligibility for feature films is usually at the end of August.  Deadlines for television entries will be in the spring.  If you have questions, you can email willlennonATcinemaeyehonorsDOTcom.

Who nominates films for Cinema Eye?

Representatives from top film festivals showcasing nonfiction work are invited to participate by nominating five films in each category from the list of eligible films.  For the 2014 Honors, the feature film nominations committee included the following members: Nominations Chair Charlotte Cook (Hot Docs), David Courier (Sundance), Heather Croall (Sheffield), Hussain Currimbhoy (Sheffield), Joanne Feinberg (Ashland), Tine Fischer (CPH:DOX), Elena Fortes (Morelia/Ambulante), Ben Fowlie (Camden), Tom Hall (Sarasota), Doug Jones (Los Angeles), Jim Kolmar (SXSW), Amir Labaki (It’s All True), Grit Lemke (Dok Leipzig), Artur Liebhart (Planete Doc Review), David Nugent (Hamptons), Veton Nurkollari (Dokufest Kosovo), Janet Pierson (SXSW), Thom Powers (Toronto/DOC NYC), Rachel Rosen (San Francisco), Charlotte Selb (RIDM), Sky Sitney (AFI DOCS), Genna Terranova (Tribeca), Sadie Tillery (Full Frame) and David Wilson (True/False).

The nonfiction short film nominations committee Karen Cirillo (True/False), Charlotte Cook (Hot Docs), Hussain Currimbhoy (Sheffield), Ben Fowlie (Camden), Charlotte Godfrey (SXSW), Ted Mott (Full Frame), Veton Nurkollari (Dokufest Kosovo), Rachel Rosen (San Francisco), Sky Sitney (AFI DOCS) and Kim Yutani (Sundance).

Once there are nominees, who votes for the actual awards?

More than 650 people comprise Cinema Eye’s voting membership and typically approximately 200-300 of those members cast their votes in a given year.  Invitations to vote are sent to the following individuals:

1. The directors of each submitted feature film that particular year.

2. All current and previous Cinema Eye nominees, winners, presenters, jury members, committee and board members.

3. Top distributors, commissioners, grantors, curators, programmers, writers, critics, sales agents and publicists who specialize in the nonfiction field.

We encourage voters to view all of the nominated films in a given category before voting for a winner in a particular category.  To help voters view films, we have partnered with the Hot Docs film festival to allow voters to watch films via their secure online viewing platform.

A few Cinema Eye categories are decided by juries.  In 2014, these included the awards the Spotlight Award, the Heterodox Award and the award for Television films.

Is the Cinema Eye leadership team involved in nominating films for the Honors?

For the 2014 awards, Charlotte Cook, Chair of the Cinema Eye Nominations Committee, voted for nominations in her role as a festival programmer. 2014 Core Team Members Will Lennon, Andrea Meditch, Esther Robinson, AJ Schnack and Nathan Truesdell do not vote during the nominations process.

If you still have questions, please email willlennonATcinemaeyehonorsDOTcom and we will do our best to answer them.

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