Rewriting the rules

Acad still tinkering with docus

For the 6,000-plus members of the Academy, they’re but a blip on the screen. For the movie-going public they’re not even on the radar. For documentary filmmakers, however, this year’s rules changes affecting the way longform docs are nominated could go a long way toward helping the Academy avoid what some see as its repeated sins of omission.

A number of high-profile and successful docs have been incongruously left off the contender list in the past 10 years. Among others: “Roger & Me,” “Hoop Dreams,” “Crumb,” “Paris Is Burning” and “The Thin Blue Line,” all critically acclaimed and audience favorites, did not make it to the final list of five. Though the consensus is far from unanimous, some doc-makers say the new rules will change the face of those that make it through to non-fiction Oscar glory. “The craft of filmmaking is more likely to be rewarded under the new rules,” says three-time Oscar nominee Kirk Simon.

Chief among the changes are rules that amend both the makeup of the pre-judging committee, and the manner in which entries can been judged.

First, the committees that winnow the submission pool down to 12 semi-finalists are, for the first time, constituted of doc-makers only. Second, committee members can watch the docs by plugging a cassette into their home VCR. Until this year, rules required that all docs had to be viewed in a theater — a burdensome and sometimes near-impossible task that limited the number of volunteers who could take part in the process.

This being the world of non-fiction film — a field populated with scrappy iconoclasts — opinions as to whether the changes will improve the process are sharply divided.

“It’s ironic that the same Academy that campaigned to get people to go to the theater to see films in the race for best picture is now in the middle of an effort to let people see documentary contenders at home,” says Susan Raymond, who, with filmmaker husband Alan, won the 1993 best doc Oscar for “I Am a Promise: The Children of Stanton Elementary School.”

The new nom rules brings the doc category in line with other major awards. Actors only can nominate actors, for example, and directors only can nom fellow helmers.

This year, 80 of the Acad’s 130-strong doc contingent participated in the preliminary stage. Divided into four sub-committees around the country, the 80 members viewed and rated the 55 feature-length docs up for consideration.

Based on a point system, the initial group in any year is boiled down to a field of 12 semifinalists. Until this year, semifinalists were screened in L.A. only. Under the new system however, the committee in L.A. has been joined by two more committees: in San Francisco and Gotham.

It’s from the consensus of the three that the list of five nominees emerges. (For its part, the short-form doc Oscar process remains unchanged. An L.A.-based, all-branch volunteer committee boils down the eligible film pool to a list of nominees.) For both short and longform docs, the wider membership votes for the Oscar, but only if members attest to seeing all five nominees, a restriction not imposed on contests for best pic, acting, directing, writing, score, etc.

Controversy aside, this year’s list of contenders has some strong candidates — some well known, some not. Wim Wenders’ “Buena Vista Social Club,” for one, has become one of the most successful docs ever. In addition to garnering $19 million in worldwide ticket sales so far, “Buena Vista” won December kudos from the National Board of Review, the New York Film Critics Circle and the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn.

Errol Morris, snubbed repeatedly by the Acad, has “Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter Jr.” (Lions Gate Films) in contention. The pic was runner-up to “Buena Vista” in the L.A. crix awards. Rory Kennedy’s “American Hollow,” now showing on HBO, is likewise a well-regarded, high-profile prospect for best doc.

Among darkhorse candidates, some committee members single out Barry Blaustein’s behind-the-scenes wrestling entry “Beyond the Mat” (Lions Gate Films), Paola di Florio’s “Speaking in Strings” (Seventh Art Releasing) and “American Movie” (Sony Picture Classics) from Chris Smith and Sarah Price.

“(‘American Movie’) is the kind of film that will benefit from the rule changes,” doc-maker Simon maintains. With the old nom process largely centered in L.A., the films that made it through tended to reflect the older, conservative tastes of the Acad-at-large. Films with groundbreaking style or challenging content were often nixed.

“Well-made films with an interesting subject and interesting perspective will do better when they’re screened by documentary makers,” Simon concludes.

Doc-maker Alan Raymond, who, with his wife, will be following the fortunes of “Children in War,” the Raymonds’ latest pic that’s eligible for best feature-length doc, feels Oscar voting will always have its own peculiar logic.

“The process has always been political,” says Raymond, “and it probably always will be.”

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