Germany's Lolas in a tug-of-war

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BERLIN -- Awards by themselves don't necessarily bring out the worst in people. When they're connected to sizable prize money, though, discontent can brew faster than you can say "the winner is ...." That's what the German Film Academy is finding out.

Three years after taking over Germany's version of the Oscars, the German Film Prize called the Lolas, the Academy is embroiled in a behind-the-scenes battle over the country's most prestigious and, with €2.9 million ($4.1 million) in prize money, most profitable award.

The main problem lies in a change that occurred two years ago. After coming into existence in the early '50s, the Bundesfilmpreis, as it was called, was a government award -- with winners decided upon by juries that were staffed with lots of politicians and a few film luminaries. In 2005, the German industry set up an academy based on the AMPAS model to nominate and vote on Lola winners. The cash still came from the government, but the academy decided how it got divided up.

From the start there was grumbling, particularly from independent producers, who claimed that established (and well-funded) producers such as Constantin Film's Bernd Eichinger and Stefan Arndt of X Filme, were being favored with nominations and awards.

While the German Academy has been fairly even-handed in its pick of Lola winners -- this year the independent effort "Four Minutes" took the top prize -- critics claim big-name producers are overrepresented in the nominations. Nominees also get a share of the government prize money.

The discontent has now gathered momentum with a group of academy critics, which include German filmmakers Hans-Christian Schmid, Andres Veiel and Hans Weingartner, several German film festival directors and the German association of film critics, launching a behind-the-scenes attack. They have opened up talks with German Culture Minister Bernd Neumann, whose office signs the Lola checks.

Their goal is to turn back the clock and let politicians and critics, not academy members, decide who gets the government-backed prize money.

"The prize money does not belong to the academy. These are public funds, so they belong to the German people. But the academy is acting like it's the owner of the award," said Rudiger Suchsland, a board member of the German Film Critics Assn. and one of the academy's harshest critics. According to Suchsland, the current nomination process is "not transparent," "chaotic" and subject to "lobbying efforts" by influential producers. The German Film Academy has about 1,000 members.

Suchsland and other critics believe a lot more people should be involved in selecting Lola nominees.

The debate could hardly have come at more inopportune time for the German Academy. It is currently screening submissions for next year's Lolas. Nominees will be announced March 28, with the awards to be handed out in Berlin on April 25.

"We agreed to an evaluation period that will be concluded after next year's awards," said producer Stefan Arndt, who heads the academy's managing board, but he stressed that the criticism is by no means universal: "Nobody really criticizes the entire system. The only thing that's being criticized is the nomination process."

Arndt is taking a more relaxed approach to the debate.

"I can remember saying three years ago that it was my dream that one day we would not need the award money, because the award itself had become important enough," he said. "That's when some people in the academy demanded my resignation. The same people are now demanding that we give the money back."

Whatever the case, next year's Lolas will be closely watched. But insiders don't expect a counter-revolution to return the awards to government control.

"We try to keep the government out of it as much as we can," said a culture ministry employee, adding that while the current system might have its kinks, its most vocal critics have not come up with a plan on how to change it.
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