In 1941, Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane” was duking it out with John Ford’s “How Green Was My Valley” for the best picture Oscar. It also was the first year that the Academy Awards officially recognized documentary films. The governors of the Academy, in a patriotic flourish, made the decision to honor nonfiction film, a vital component of the war effort.
In the course of five and a half decades of saluting decidedly non-Hollywood efforts, the Oscar documentary section has evolved into one the organization’s most controversial arenas. Rules of eligibility have changed radically, nominations have been questioned and criticized, and its very existence has been put into jeopardy.
It’s persevered largely via the determination of a handful of people. This year some 68 films will vie for the 1996 feature doc Oscar.
“We have an extraordinary range of movies that encompass every aspect of nonfiction filmmaking,” committee chairman Walter Shenson said. “There’s really too much for one category. Unless you serve, there’s no way to fully appreciate the time and dedication of the committee members.”
Shenson and others who’ve been part of the committee for years have taken hard blows in recent time for the exclusion of such critically lauded films as “Roger and Me,” “The Thin Blue Line,” “Brother’s Keeper” and “Hoop Dreams” on the final ballots. The outcry over the last film’s failure to secure a nomination prompted the Academy board to review long-standing procedures. Its verdict: Expand the committee and tighten up the rules.
Last year, the viewing panel increased to 200 from 50 and split into four groups – three in L.A. and one in Manhattan. Each of the groups viewed about 17 films and the top four vote-getters in each section were ultimately screened for all doc members to determine the final voting ballot.
With the easing of the screening schedule, the infamous practice of the flashing red light was eliminated. When there was a single viewing group, members could stop a film after 20 minutes if a majority of those present turned on a pen light to indicate they had seen enough of a movie. The latest revision in documentary rules has eliminated film festival screenings and prizes as a means of qualification. All submissions must, like their fiction counterparts, play a minimum one-week commercial engagement in L.A. or Gotham.
There were exactly the same number of films submitted this year as last. However, “To Speak the Unspeakable: The Message of Elie Wiesel” was disqualified because it had been broadcast by Hungarian TV.
“It’s an unfortunate situation,” Shenson conceded. “But the rules are very specific about showing first on TV. The fact is, so many of these films need television financing and are obliged to meet a set air date. That’s the deal that’s made and it just doesn’t conform to our rules.”
Jan Rofekamp, whose company Film Transit handles sales of the Wiesel film – and last year’s nominees “The Battle Over Citizen Kane” and “Fiddlefest” (aka “Small Wonders”) – supports most of the new changes but finds the Academy’s insistence on theatrical play to be ill founded.
“Basically there’s not much commercial play for documentaries in the United States,” Rofekamp noted. “That’s just how the marketplace has evolved. Most of these films are financed through television outlets and the only way they reach theaters is to win awards like the Oscar. The process is being turned upside-down by the rules – it’s a total blindness and a disservice to the commercial prospects of these films.”
Not surprisingly, only a few of the submissions have had legitimate theatrical play. Higher-profile candidates are “Looking for Richard,” Al Pacino’s rumination on mounting a production of “Richard III”; a portrait of caricaturist Al Hirschfeld titled “The Line King” and an examination of the insect world in Cannes-premiered “Microcosmos.”
Skirting the rules
Most films qualified under the radar, playing limited, early morning runs at sometimes small venues. Ironically, success and notoriety have been historic disadvantages.
“I know it’s popular to spin conspiracy theories but there’s simply no organized movement to preclude better-known pictures from the ballot,” a committee member said. “A lot of energy goes into viewing these films and it’s only natural that when something unexpected pops up, one’s sense of discovery will advantage it in the voting.”
Rofekamp gives his own personal Oscar to L.A.-based Laemmle theaters, which has played many of these pictures, often waiving fees so the pics could qualify.
Clearly for U.S.-made productions, renting a theater for a week – a tactic known as “fourwalling” – may be a difficult cost to absorb but not an impossibility. Of greater concern to lovers of nonfiction film is the fact that fewer films produced abroad are getting submitted, prompting one committee member to recommend that countries submit both a fiction and nonfiction movie each year.
“There are fewer foreign films and that’s a shame,” Shenson said. “Maybe that will change on its own. There’s a tremendous desire to be able to judge the best documentaries produced regardless of where they come from. We keep on making changes in the category so we can accomplish that goal, and I think we do a pretty good job despite all the problems.”