April 23, 2021

Is The Awards System Broken? | Beyond Resilience

On Friday, April 23 at 3pm ET, Firelight Media presented a virtual panel discussion about the awards system for documentary films.

In a record-breaking year, 238 documentary features qualified for the 2021 Academy Awards – up from 170 the previous year. While this number represents a diverse array of films and filmmakers, the field is quickly narrowed through a complex and costly awards system. Ultimately, front-runners for major awards need strong commercial backing in order for their film to make it onto the radar of industry voters.

In a system that is largely driven by money, access, and influence, what kinds of films and filmmakers are being left out of the awards conversation? What possibilities exist for a more democratic nominating process? And how can we bring the awards system back to its roots, recognizing masters of their craft?

The event featured film critic Carlos Aguilar; filmmaker Ramona S. Diaz; Carrie Lozano, the director of the Documentary Film Program at Sundance Institute; and David Magdael, CEO of David Magdael & Associates. The event was moderated by Clayton Davis, Film Awards Editor at Variety, and was hosted by Marcia Smith, president of Firelight Media.

The Beyond Resilience Series is sponsored by Open Society Foundations. Beyond Resilience is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. This project is supported in part by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Marcia Smith is president and co-founder of Firelight Media, which produces documentary films, provides artistic and financial support to emerging filmmakers of color, and builds impact campaigns to connect documentaries to audiences and social justice advocates. Under her leadership, Firelight Media was honored with a MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions.

Clayton Davis is the Film Awards Editor for Variety. He founded and was the Editor-in-Chief of AwardsCircuit.com. He's covered awards, film, and television for more than 15 years. He's the founder and president of the Latino Entertainment Journalists Association, and a member of Critics Choice, AAFCA, and NYFCO.


Originally from Mexico City, Carlos Aguilar was chosen as one of 6 young film critics to partake in the first Roger Ebert Fellowship organized by RogerEbert.com, the Sundance Institute and Indiewire in 2014. Aguilar’s work has appeared in prestigious publications such as Los Angeles Times, Variety, The New York Times, The Wrap, Indiewire, Vulture, RogerEbert.com, MovieMaker Magazine, Remezcla, Filmmaker Magazine, among others. He is a member of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA).

Ramona S. Diaz is an award-winning Asian American filmmaker whose films have screened at Sundance, Berlin, Tribeca, SXSW, IDFA, HotDocs, and many other top-tier film festivals. Her first film IMELDA, about the former Philippine First Lady Imelda Marcos, premiered and won an award at Sundance and screened worldwide. Her film Motherland also won an award at Sundance in 2017 and had its international premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival. It was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for Best Documentary and a Peabody Award. Ramona is both a Guggenheim Fellow and a USA Fellow – prestigious awards given to artists with singular visions who have significantly contributed to the arts in this country. She was just named a 2021 Film Fellow by the American Academy in Rome. Ramona was also inducted into the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences (AMPAS) in 2016, and in 2017 received a Women at Sundance Fellowship, a Creative Capital Award, and a Chicken & Egg Pictures Filmmaker Award. Ramona is a graduate of Emerson College and holds an MA from Stanford University.

Carrie Lozano is director of the Sundance Institute’s Documentary Film Program, and is an award-winning documentary filmmaker and journalist. She was most recently director of the International Documentary Association's Enterprise Documentary and Pare Lorentz funds, where she supported more than 60 diverse films and filmmakers at the intersection of documentary and journalism. She is on the advisory board of U.C. Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism, where she is an alumnus and has been a lecturer and editor in its documentary film and investigative reporting programs. Lozano was previously an executive at Al Jazeera America and a senior producer of the network’s investigative series Fault Lines.

With over two decades in PR/marketing for award winning documentary films, indie features and broadcast content, David Magdael and his company DAVID MAGDAEL & ASSOCIATES have become an important leader in the field.  From Oscar® / awards campaigns to theatrical releases to broadcast premieres, Magdael is one of the top media strategists in entertainment.  He’s a longtime member of AMPAS and is the co-director of the LA Asian Pacific Film Festival since 1997 and is on the Advisory Board for SXSW.  He has served as a mentor at the Sundance Institute Docu Producers Lab and with other universities, festivals, media organizations including IDFA, AFI Docs, USC, NYU and more. Films include: A THOUSAND CUTS; 76 DAYS; THROUGH THE NIGHT; THE MOLE AGENT; A CONCERTO IS A CONVERSATION; HUNGER WARD; SOFTIE; FOR SAMA; 63 UP; THE APOLLO; MINDING THE GAP; ABACUS: SMALL ENOUGH TO JAIL; CRAZY RICH ASIANS; TRY HARDER!; SCIENCE FAIR; LA 92; MR. SOUL!; HALSTON; MCQUEEN; MAD HOT BALLROOM; TROUBLE THE WATER; SUPER SIZE ME and more.


  • Read Clayton Davis’s awards coverage in Variety.
  • Read Carlos Aguilar’s recent article, “15 Latino Contenders Oscar Voters Shouldn’t Overlook, from Sonia Braga to ‘La Llorona’” in IndieWire.
  • Ramona S. Diaz’s acclaimed documentary A Thousand Cuts is now streaming via Frontline PBS.
  • Learn more about the Sundance Institute’s Documentary Film Program, directed by Carrie Lozano, on the Sundance Institute website.
  • Learn more about David Magdael’s work with David Magdael & Associates on their website.
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