IT DEPENDS: “Award Winner” Doesn’t Always Take the Prize

The phrase “award winning” is so often heard that we don’t know if we should be impressed or not. Christopher Schiller’s answer is, as always, it depends.


Christopher Schiller is a NY transactional entertainment attorney who counts many independent filmmakers and writers among his diverse client base. Follow Chris on Twitter @chrisschiller.

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The phrase "award winning" is so often heard that we don't know if we should be impressed or not. Christopher Schiller's answer is, as always, it depends.

There is an over-used accolade that sounds great, but, doesn’t always resonate success. You hear it all the time in all kinds of puffery, not only in Hollywood… “by award-winning writer…”, “latest award-winning film by award-winning director…”, but in every day life, “our award-winning service is second to none!”, “Clean up with our award-winning detergent!”

The phrase is so often heard that we likely ignore it and seldom consider whether we are supposed to be impressed by the statement or not. The answer is, as always, it depends.

Awards may be blown out of proportion

I used the term puffery above intentionally. That’s a legal term that means the language used is not to be considered a defensible claim. It is beyond truth value and a product of obvious braggadocianism. It’s like a car dealer claiming to have a “mile of cars” for sale on the lot. Most people will know it’s an exaggeration and not question it too closely or expect it to be true. (Although that implausible scenario did serve as a plot point for a humorous film from the early eighties, Used Cars (1980).) But there is usually the implication that there is some merit behind the puffing up, even if the particulars are left unclear or inflated. You expect the dealership to have a lot of cars on the, ah, lot.

What’s an award?

The first question to deal with is just what exactly qualifies as an “award”? Of course, the OSCAR® – the one given out by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (A.M.P.A.S.®), to be specific – qualifies as an industry award and one of the most prestigious at that. And there are countless other legitimate awards given out by countless organizations of varying merit and degree. But is it enough just being handed an inanimate object by a group of people who seem to like you to constitute an actual award?

When the general public thinks of an award enough to attribute to it an inherent value, that evaluation derives from a few elements of general acceptance necessary for it to be considered an “award”:

1) A group or significant entity related to a common field of interest,
2) decides to competitively single out for meritorious notice,
3) a single recipient from among a number of potentially deserving others,
4) and awards a token of that acknowledgement publicly.

The frequency, competitiveness, prestige of the award giver, qualifications necessary for consideration and many other factors play into how special the award is considered by those within the same field of endeavor as the recipient. The Nobel Peace Prize is pretty special. The Employee of the Month at the Taco Bell down the street, not so much.

And it is this variance between different types of awards that makes it so important to understand whether using the phrase “award winner” is noteworthy, meritorious or puffery.

Script EXTRA: Award Season Movie Genres

Who’s giving them out

An award derives a lot of its prestige from the standing of the ones giving out the award. If the group assessing the winner has renown and respect in the subject category of the award it means more for the recipient. A director receiving an award for Best Director from the Directors Guild’s annual ceremony (fittingly called the DGAs) is a pretty strong pat on the back. That same director being acknowledged as Best Director by the Pasadena Ladies Over 50 Film Lovers Society (PLOFFLS) might not hold the same place of honor on the mantlepiece back home. (I’ve made up the PLOFFLS group that didn’t exist as of this writing, but may some day.)

It may be nice to be vetted and who’d turn down a free dinner and some back patting, but, not all awards are created equal. And if it was just a factor of who gave the award it’d be easier to sort things out. Alas, there is more to consider.

Who’s making the claim

Often publicists and their like look for any angle that can be plied to curry better favor for their clients. Any spin gets better traction. If the client has a legitimate, industry-acknowledged, heavy-weight award in their pocket, you bet it gets put in their bio and press releases at every chance. If the client’s award shelf isn’t yet so golden, then the language makes do with what’s there, though you can’t outright lie about it. Any award giver worth lying about doesn’t take kindly to being false identified or misrepresented. But there are many ways to be “sort of” truthful. If you don’t have those brag worthy, golden statuettes yet among the slowly filling awards shelf at least you have awards. Hey, “multiple award winner” sounds like a good accolade, at least in the aggregate, a lot of people agree, right?

And if you don’t have a publicity team working on making you look good in every light, what are your options for self promotion? Be honest and specific, slightly less honest and vague or say nothing at all about awards?

What’s the harm?

Nearly anybody can call themselves a writer. All they need is a script in hand. Nearly anybody can claim to be an award winner. They just need to have gotten one, any one. The final judgement comes down to what the claim does for your reputation. If the self-claimed writer’s script is bad, then they are a bad writer. Still a writer, but going nowhere in the business fast. If the award that you won isn’t one that’s going to impress those you seek advancement or respect from, then you’re better off not mentioning it and looking elsewhere to establish a good rapport. You’ve got that stellar script in hand, right?

Script EXTRA: Liar, Liar, Career on Fire

And don’t feel like you’re alone. Most in the industry haven’t won the accolades that would readily open doors for them yet. I’ve won awards. And even though I’ve reached the “swag level” of competitions and enjoyed the free meals, I tend not to mention that when I’m talking to the industry people I want to impress. In those cases, if they’ve found me interesting on other merits, I always have scripts I can send them or pitches for ideas I’d like to make. Once the door is open by any legitimate means your job is to sell yourself on what the people inside that room are looking for.

The most important question is, who are you trying to impress? If you’ve just gone home for the holidays and you’re trying to impress your mom, then mentioning the PLOFFLS award you just won might do the trick. If you’ve landed a pitch meeting with a studio lot producer, then better stick to the stories and scripts that got you into that room. As always, it depends.

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