Awards of substance

The Prism Awards shine a light on some of the most pressing issues of our time

It's hardly surprising that Jason Reitman brought such an expert touch to his feature directorial debut, last year's sophisticated social satire "Thank You for Smoking": The gift for irreverent comedy is in his DNA. Reitman's father, Ivan Reitman, produced what is generally regarded as one of the greatest comedies of all time, 1978's "Animal House," and brought his infant son to the set of the raunchy laughfest when he was only 11 days old.

"My dad's film ('Animal House') broke down social barriers, so that (we) could make the kind of movies I want to make, films that are anti-establishment like 'Thank You for Smoking,'" Jason Reitman says.

Anti-establishment perhaps, but it's precisely the kind of project that the Entertainment Industries Council's Prism Awards were designed to honor. Now in its 11th year, the Prisms fete productions and performances that accurately depict drug, alcohol and tobacco use and addiction, as well as issues related to mental health. "Smoking" will be competing in the wide-release feature-film category in tonight's ceremony, which is set to take place at the Beverly Hills Hotel and will air in November on FX.

Nor is it the only critically acclaimed indie in the running. The 2006 smash hit "Little Miss Sunshine" is up for the same prize, and the film's Alan Arkin also is nominated for his work as a heroin-snorting, profanity-spouting grandfather alongside Samuel L. Jackson for his turn in director Irwin Winkler's Iraq War drama, 2006's "Home of
the Brave."

Other feature-film performance nominations include Aaron Eckhart for "Smoking," Jessica Biel for "Home" and Maggie Gyllenhaal for her starring turn as a recovering addict recently released from prison in writer-director Laurie Collyer's 2006 drama "Sherrybaby."

All told, tonight's ceremony will present prizes in 25 categories in film and television, where nominees include ABC's hit series "Desperate Housewives" and "Ugly Betty," Fox's "House" and NBC's "Law & Order" and "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit."

But, as they always say, earning those nominations is a thrill in and of itself, according to Prism Awards host Melissa Rivers, who also is chair of the EIC's Creative Professional Network. "The Prism Awards are not so much about who wins. It's more about honoring and thanking everyone who's nominated."

EIC president and CEO Brian Dyak agrees. "The value for the creator is really just that you've been nominated," he says. "You're being told that you've contributed to the good works of our industry, and whether you win or not, your production is helping people."

Public recognition of Hollywood's "good works" is extremely important, now more so than ever, Dyak says. "Washington is starting to take note of the industry's efforts (to responsibly depict the health impacts of smoking and substance abuse), and the Prism Awards have become the measure of what Hollywood is doing to address these issues," he says.\

To that end, the event's organizers decided to add two new categories to this year's roster, honoring depictions of mental health issues in general and bipolar disorder in

"Suicide and depression have touched my life in a very significant way," Rivers says. "And you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone whose life hasn't been touched by these problems, especially now with all the Iraq (War) vets coming back home with severe depression and our mental health system just being unable to deal with it."

One of the unique aspects of the Prism Awards is the emphasis placed on the accurate depiction of drug, alcohol and mental health issues without, in the EIC's words, "taking a moral ground to award productions that are 'right' or 'wrong.'"

"I was shocked to find out that most Americans make their own diagnoses regarding mental health, physical health and addiction based on what they get from the media," Rivers says. "So, presenting the information accurately is very important because of that."

The best education involves simply telling the "unvarnished, unromanticized, unsensationalized truth," says Martin Torgoff, writer and consulting producer of VH1's "The Drug Years," which is nominated for a Prism Award in the TV documentary category. "So much of what's done on this subject is laden with ideologies and agendas -- whether it's the 'drug-free America' agenda or those who want to see drug laws reformed or liberalized.

"To have our show nominated for this particular award is an honor because we didn't set out to promote a point of view -- either that it's OK to use drugs or that you should be morally stigmatized for it," Torgoff continues. "It's uncommon to tell the story without an agenda and uncommon to be nominated for an award for doing so."

According to Dyak, there's another new twist to "the story" that's just now starting to be told. "It's a continuum that needs to be depicted," he says. "It starts with the recognition that addiction is a disease and not a character flaw, which is a totally different approach than in the past. And that continuum moves through treatment and on to the reality that recovery is possible.

"This has shifted the discussion from a question of morality and character values to a health issue," he adds. "And it has expanded the palette for the creator to paint the picture and move away from a strict public-service announcement approach to a storytelling approach."

Through the years, the Prism Awards have grown in stature, not to mention sheer volume. As Dyak says, "It's taken time, but this year, I believe we passed through the gates to become ingrained in the creative community.

"The first time we did this," he says, "there were 35 submissions in 11 categories. This time, there were 430, 100 of which were in the mental health category alone. We were really pleased and excited by all the submissions, but it meant we also had to roll up our sleeves higher than ever before."

Among TV networks, NBC again leads the pack for the 11th straight year in the number of Prism nominations received with 13, while NBC Universal leads all the TV studios with 11 mentions. Additionally, NBC Entertainment president Kevin Reilly will receive this year's Larry Stewart Leadership & Inspiration Award, named for founding EIC board director Larry Stewart, a veteran writer/producer/director who was instrumental in the EIC's efforts to collaborate with the industry on promoting and facilitating the accurate depiction of health and social issues.

The ceremony serves as more than just another kudosfest for Hollywood A-listers, though. The EIC distributes copies of the event along with discussion guides to an estimated 11,000 treatment facilities involved in rehabilitation and recovery, Dyak says, in an effort to instigate an important dialogue among patients and counselors.

"What we hear is that patients look at these depictions and say, 'Wow, that's what I was like!'" Dyak explains. "And the counselors in turn say the show really opens the door to having conversations with clients they'd never be able to have otherwise."