The documentary world has been abuzz this week with the news that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is changing its Oscar rule yet again for the long-vexed documentary feature category.
To be eligible for a Best Documentary Oscar, movies now must be reviewed by either the New York Times or the Los Angeles Times during a qualifying theatrical run of at least one week in both cities. In addition, the academy will send DVD screeners or stream films online for documentary branch members four times a year, rather than require that they see the films in theaters, as has been the case in the past. A short list of eligible films and the final five nominees will be voted on by the entire branch of 166 documentary filmmakers, rather than by selection committees.
Finally, the entire academy will vote on the final Oscar winner — putting nonfiction films in the same realm as the movies that compete for Best Picture.
(Qualifying films still must play for at least one week in Manhattan and Los Angeles, accompanied by ad campaigns in the New York Times, the L.A. Times, the Village Voice or L.A. Weekly.)
Nearly every year, the academy has tweaked and refined the rule governing documentary submissions, often following outcries about an opaque and labyrinthine selection process that results in newsworthy omissions. But this year’s modifications are different, having been suggested by academy governor and filmmaker Michael Moore, whose 1989 film “Roger & Me” was notoriously snubbed by the academy, along with Errol Morris’s “The Thin Blue Line,” Steve James’s “Hoop Dreams” and Terry Zwigoff’s “Crumb,” among several others. (This year’s most talked-about oversights were the highly regarded films “Senna” and “The Interrupters.”)
In many quarters, Moore’s changes have been met with enthusiasm by filmmakers and fans who have long lamented the Oscar branch’s unwieldy structure and arcane guidelines, which made it difficult to screen the large number of entries (124 films qualified for consideration in 2011).
The process was so time-consuming and inconvenient that, historically, only retirees had the time to commit to it, resulting in nominees and winners that were often deemed too safe, too conventional and, as documentaries began achieving purchase in the marketplace, woefully out of step with audiences.
“Tightening the definition of what a theatrical film is will also help this other part of the process, where the whole branch is obligated to look at all the entries,” said Ric Robertson, chief operating officer of the Academy. “Hopefully . . . that 124 number goes down, making it more workable for our branch members, too.”
But if streamlining the viewing and voting processes bodes well, plenty of nonfiction filmmakers expressed concern — if not outrage — at the rule requiring a New York Times or L.A. Times review, noting that films such as “Semper Fi: Always Faithful,” which is on this year’s short list, would not have qualified (the film played at the Silverdocs documentary festival in 2011).
“No distributor stepped forward to give it a theatrical release, but you cannot tell me that ‘Semper Fi’ is not a film,” said Josh Levin, a documentary producer who also co-owns the West End Cinema. “It is a film by every definition: by film festival definition, film viewer definition, artistic definition.”
On Sunday, Moore told the Web trade publication IndieWire that part of his rationale for insisting on reviews from only two newspapers is to winnow out made-for-TV movies that qualified for Oscars only because they rented a theater for a week (known in industry parlance as “four-walling”). “TV movies have an awards system. It’s called the Emmys,” he told IndieWire. “I have one. I’m proud of it.” (Lest Moore’s intentions be misunderstood, the new requirements include the line: “A television critic review will not be accepted.”)
“The reason for this change was because we were getting a lot of films that were never really intended for theatrical release,” Roberson explained. “Our rules were broad enough that a lot of films were qualifying that really did not belong in our competition.” Robertson added that if an otherwise qualified film fails to get a necessary review, “a filmmaker can make the case why that happened, whether it was changing circumstances or whatever. We tend to err on the side of inclusion rather than exclusion.”
Levin, for one, disagrees with the anti-TV logic. “It just so happens that in this current marketplace, documentaries are likely to find a home on television,” he said. “But to penalize or look down your nose at documentarians who make their films for television as opposed to a very expensive, very rigged theatrical release system is ridiculous.”
Levin continued: “If you’re worried that essentially people are submitting films that are TV movies for Oscar consideration, you declare that [a filmmaker is] either eligible for the Oscar or the Emmy, but not both. You let the artist determine what the true nature of his or her documentary is.”
Sky Sitney, the director of Silverdocs, called the new rules “a mixed bag.”
“I think some of the new rules are going to allow more voices to be a part of the greater consensus, especially documentary experts being part of the short-listing process,” Sitney said. But she was dismayed at the review requirement. “If it wasn’t already difficult enough for independent filmmakers to have a theatrical run, now they have the added burden of having that accompanied by a review.”
Although the New York Times has a policy of reviewing every movie that plays in a New York theater for at least one week, many observers questioned the academy ceding so much power to outside institutions that are supposed to be objective observers of the process, rather than participants in it. What’s more, the move seemed almost quaintly old-media at a time when movies are increasingly being seen through video on demand or streaming on Netflix, further blurring the lines between theatrical and television movies.
In the case of documentaries, they’re as likely to be seen at a local festival as on television or in a multiplex.
“As much as documentaries have progressed in a commercial sense, with ‘March of the Penguins’ and the Michael Moore films and ‘Super Size Me,’ they’re still closer to something like the foreign language or short categories,” says Maryland Film Festival founder Jed Dietz, “where almost by definition the excitement for the art form is in things that have likely not had theatrical distribution. That’s where the Academy has an opportunity to lift things into the public sphere. . . . Why not try to make it more inclusive?”
It’s a question that may very well be answered in the future. One rule that will never change in the world of the documentary Oscars: There’s always next year.
Nominations for the 84th Academy Awards will be announced Jan. 24. Winners will be announced Feb. 26.