The Hollywood Reporter
April 29, 2004

Truth Be Told
Prisms shine a light on social change and the war on substance abuse

By Christina MacDonald

In a city known for its glamorous awards season, Hollywood is tipping its hat to the gritty underworld of substance abuse and addiction as portrayed accurately by nominees for the eighth annual Prism Awards, to be handed out tonight at the Hollywood Palladium. Building bridges among Tinseltown, congressional leaders and health experts, the Prisms recognize proactive entertainment messages about dealing with substance abuse.

In all, 100 nominees will vie in 14 categories. Nominated films include Focus Features' darkly suspenseful "21 Grams," which centers on a recovering alcoholic involved in a hit-and-run accident that kills a father and his two children, and Fox Searchlight's "thirteen," an unnverving potrait of teen drug use. Both movies epitomize what the Prisms champion: stark, truthful representations of the repercussions of drug and alcohol abuse.

"These awards are based on the prism of human culture," says Brian Dyak, executive producer of the Prism Awards and president and CEO of the Entertainment Industries Council, which presents the trophy show. "If you put a message into this prism, the interpretation is in the eye of the beholder."

Nominated in the telefilm category are productions including the Lifetime/Hallmark Entertainment miniseries "On Thin Ice," starring Diane Keaton in the real-life tale of Patsy McCartle, a widow who battled methamphetamine addiction after turning to drug-dealing to support her sons.

Television series also have upheld their part, with ABC's "NYPD Blue" landing a nom for the Tom Szentgyorgyi-penned episode "I Kid You Not," in which each of the series' characteristic intermingled story lines deals with substance abuse.

Other contenders include Miramax's Oscar-nominated feature "City of God," the TV dramas "Queer as Folk" (Showtime) and "Six Feet Under" (HBO) and a smattering of E! Entertainment Television biographies, documentaries and talk shows.

"These projects get people to digest this information without beating them over the head with it," Dyak says.

The Prism Awards, spearheaded by the EIC in partnership with The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the National Institute on Drug Abuse, will air May 16 on FX, their second consecutive airing on the Fox-owned cable network. (The show previously had a three-year syndication agreement with Tribune Entertainment.) In addition, this is the fourth year the taped ceremony will premiere, ahead of its tv airing, before an audience of congressional leaders on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Beginning in 1997 with 35 entries and 100 attendees, the show has grown to the point where more than 500 attendees showed up at last year's event, which drew more than 1 million TV viewers. The event's sponsors focus not on those numbers but on industry recognition of the importance of the material being honored.

Past Prism winners include the feature films "Traffic" (a 2000 domestic theatrical release) and "Blow" (2001), the NBC drama "ER" and a laundry list of other works that feature realistic depictions of the potential perils of substance abuse, but this year's nominees have touched a younger, more contemporary demographic. TV shows such as the WB Network's "Reba" and Fox's "Bernie Mac" "use a mix of comedy and drama" to get their message out to audiences, Dyak says.

Adds nominee Reba McEntire: "In dealing with tough issues like substance abuse, I think when you lose your sense of humor, you lose your balance, and you're not much good to anybody including yourself. I think anytime that we can talk about a subject like drugs on a TV show, a family can sit down and watch that TV show and maybe find it easier to talk about the subject at home."

With a vast population getting its health information from the media, Dyak estimates that Prism-recognized material reaches more than 1 billion people a year. Entries are submitted in August and then screened based on substance-related criteria. In January, a group of 65 people half of which are memebrs of the entertainment community, half of the science community screen segments for accuracy, entertainment value and reach.

Nabbing audiences with A-list talent and groundbreaking storylines, the material nominated for this year's Prism Awards allows the entertainment industry to participate in the war on drugs. Drawing attention away from expoitative material in which substance abuse is glamorized and doused in sex appeal, the Prism nods often champion films that are hard to watch in the theaters but nonetheless are necessary and thought-provoking in their contribution to the national dialogue.

"Beneath the prevalent addiction and drug use in our country are significant problems we need to take a closer look at," "Six Feet" star Peter Krause says.

Looking at them through a Prism might make that view easier to bear.