Oscar’s New Documentary Rules Spark Outrage

When Steve James’ “The Interrupters” failed to make the Academy’s shortlist of eligible documentaries this year, fans of the acclaimed feature recalled the similar upset when James’ landmark “Hoop Dreams” failed to dent Oscar’s consciousness back in 1994. It’s clear to many documentary fans that something has been wrong for years with a selection procedure that often fails to recognize work by the likes of James, Werner Herzog, Frederick Wiseman, and other documentary giants in favor of more anodyne non-fiction films that win prizes and are quickly forgotten. Now, however, comes news that the documentary branch is overhauling its rules in ways that (depending on whom you ask) will either broaden the field of movies under consideration or constrict it even further. Some prominent documentarians — notably James himself and Michael Moore (who proposed the new rules) — think the changes will open up the process to more underdog movies. Others, however, fear that the changes will still benefit movies with commercial muscle behind them, at the expense of documentaries with less money to spend on Oscar campaigning.

The new rules seem meant to balance the goal that every worthy documentary should get the consideration it deserves with the Academy members’ practical difficulties in seeing all the worthy films in time to vote. (This year, there were about 124 eligible documentaries, more than usual because of a one-time rule change that added four months to this year’s eligibility period.) Already, the Academy delegates responsibility for picking the shortlist to volunteers from the documentary branch, which numbers about 160 members out of the 6,000 or so in the Academy. The volunteers must see the movies in a theater, and they pick the shortlist (which this year numbered 15 films). The documentary branch also picks the five eventual nominees and the winner as well, meaning that most of the Academy has little say over which documentaries become nominees and winners. “The Academy says it’s decided what the Best Documentary of the year is,” Moore told Awards Daily blogger Sasha Stone. “But if only five percent of the Academy are deciding that we’re not telling the truth. Wouldn’t it be more honest if we let the whole Academy vote?”

That documentary branch members are complaining about having to see 124 movies, especially when each volunteer subcommittee sees only a fraction of the list, doesn’t impress Thom Powers, who programs the documentaries at the Toronto Film Festival and sees well over 124 documentaries a year himself. “The Academy has a problem in how it makes these decisions. It has a body of documentary board members who aren’t that excited to watch documentaries,” he told IndieWire.

Moore himself said, in a separate IndieWire article, that the new rules would probably cut the pool in half, to about 60 movies. It’s hard to see how that qualifies as opening up the process.

Among the new rules, which wouldn’t go into effect until the 2013 Oscar race, the one that’s gotten the most attention says a documentary must be reviewed in the New York Times or Los Angeles Times to be eligible. The reason behind the rule, as Moore has explained, is to cull from the field documentaries that were made for television but have received a token theatrical opening just in order to qualify for Oscar consideration. The argument, one supposes, is that the newspaper critics won’t bother reviewing movies that are going straight to TV. That may or may not be true, depending on what the newspapers’ policies are, but why defer responsibility for selecting the movies to newspaper critics (and their assignment editors), or to anyone outside the Academy, for that matter?

One person who does like the new rule: New York Times co-chief film critic A.O. Scott, who told his own paper, “It’s flattering.” Still, at a time when the layoff of three-decade Village Voice mainstay J. Hoberman proves that no critic’s job is safe, it seems an odd time for the Academy to start relying on critics and their editors to help select eligible movies. “We’ve seen a lot of cutbacks on critics,” Powers told IndieWire.” I don’t have any faith that’s not going to continue.”

Currently, the New York Times has a policy of reviewing every single movie that books a commercial theatrical run of at least a week. (The Los Angeles Times joins the fray because it serves the market where most voters live.) But if a movie must have a commercial run to be viable, doesn’t that discriminate against movies that just play festivals? A lot of documentaries aren’t very commercial to begin with, since that’s the nature of the genre, and wouldn’t exist without TV funding or festival bookings. Indeed some of this year’s shortlist, including “Semper Fi: Always Faithful” (a festival-only movie) and made-for-cable docs “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory,” “Sing Your Song” and “Undefeated” wouldn’t have been eligible under the the new rules.

“While I personally very much value the theatrical release as a legitimizer, I see this as another case of the Academy moving farther away from what I personally value in documentary film,” documentary filmmaker Robert Greene told IndieWire. “This just seems like another step away from acknowledging the best work in nonfiction by an Academy that doesn’t seem to care.”

Other changes do seem more beneficial to smaller films, at least on the surface. “The new rules effectively protect the smaller fish from being chased out because the big fish have more money to manipulate the broken system,” wrote Awards Daily’s Stone, paraphrasing Moore. One new rule allows voters to watch the movies on DVD screeners. Another provides for DVDs to be sent to voters periodically throughout the year, instead of in a year-end deluge, when they’re likely to be overlooked. And the whole documentary branch (not just volunteers) will pick the five nominees, and the whole Academy membership will get to vote on the winner.

Then again, sending out DVDs isn’t necessarily cheap, especially if you’re pressing and shipping 6,000 of them. The cost may again discriminate against films without a commercial distributor or a decent-sized marketing budget.

Letting the whole Academy vote could broaden the narrow range of taste that has prevailed in recent years. Still, the voters at large will see only the five nominees, whose discs could be buried in the avalanche of screeners of fiction features that pile up atop Academy members’ DVD players at the end of the year. Whether voters will watch all five or just pick the ones from big-name distributors and recognizable filmmakers, no one knows.

At least opening up the voting to the entire Academy contains an implicit acknowledgement that the documentary branch alone hasn’t done a good job of picking the best non-fiction films. That’s been a scandal during a period when documentaries have been enjoying a creative and commercial renaissance. Thanks to Moore and other filmmakers inspired by his success, non-fiction films have made a bigger commercial dent over the past 20 years than ever before. And while it’s still hard to get documentaries booked alongside popcorn movies in theaters, new options like Netflix and on-demand cable pay-per-view have increased the platforms for exposure available to documentary filmmakers.

At such a time, it would be a shame for the one moment in the sun that documentaries get each year, at the Oscars, not to open itself up to the widest variety of worthy films, whether or not they’re backed by commercial distributors who can book them in first-run theaters and garner the attention of a handful of particular individuals who aren’t even Academy members. Moore and his supporters say the new rules will help keep that from happening. Let’s hope they’re right.

[Photo: Getty Images (Michael Moore)]

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