As nonfiction profile grows, rule changes squeeze smaller pics
Governors: Michael Apted (chair), Freida Lee Mock, Rob Epstein
Voting: The 12-15 film shortlist and the final five nominees are determined by two separate committees selected from the docu branch.
Before Michael Moore hit box office and Oscar gold with “Bowling for Columbine” in 2002, breaking $1 million at box office with a documentary was about as common as rolling a 300 on Saturday night. Since then, the profile of nonfiction films has skyrocketed, most notably with Moore’s 2004 smash, “Fahrenheit 9/11,” which took home an astonishing $119 million during its theatrical run, and 2005’s “March of the Penguins,” which earned $77 million and an Academy Award.
The big gorilla of this year’s race is unquestionably Davis Guggenheim’s “An Inconvenient Truth,” the global warming expose featuring Al Gore that grossed $24 million for Paramount Vantage. And while no other docu came close to that B.O. this year, a number of the nonfiction contenders did do solid business.
Those include Patrick Creadon’s “Wordplay” ($3.1 million, IFC Films), Jonathan Demme’s “Neil Young: Heart of Gold” ($1.8 million, Par Vantage), Chris Paine’s “Who Killed the Electric Car?” ($1.6 million and counting, Sony Classics), Lian Lunson’s “Leonard Cohen I’m Your Man” ($1 million, Lionsgate), David Leif and John Scheinfeld’s “The U.S. vs. John Lennon” ($1 million and counting, Lionsgate), Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing’s “Jesus Camp” ($600,000 and counting, Magnolia), Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck’s “Shut Up & Sing” ($248,000 and counting, Weinstein Co.).
But despite the solid numbers, the Acad’s short list of 15 docs that will move forward in the Oscar race was interesting mix of high-profile pics (“An Inconvenient Truth,” “Shut Up & Sing”) and less well-known titles (“Sisters in Law,” “Storm of Emotions”). Among the other critical faves gunning for a nod are “The Ground Truth” (Focus Features), “Iraq in Fragments” (HBO/Typecast), “The Trials of Darryl Hunt” (HBO/Think-Film), “Jesus Camp” (Magnolia) and “The War Tapes” (SenArt Films).
Despite the fact that two of the past three nonfiction Oscar winners also happened to be their respective years’ biggest money earners in the genre, B.O. success doesn’t necessarily translate into a nomination, thanks to the category’s unique rules for qualifying.
Unlike the other major awards, the list of nominees is chosen by members of the documentary branch and not the entire Academy membership.
“The introduction of the documentary branch in 2001 has made a huge difference in the fairness of the process and the quality of the nominees,” says Intl. Documentary Assn. executive director Sandra Ruch. “Branch members have made choices that are more informed and sophisticated. The days when films like ‘Hoop Dreams’ or ‘The Thin Blue Line’ didn’t get a nomination are definitely behind us.”
Since an Academy docu branch member must prove he or she has seen all films in a theatrical venue, the usual marketing advantage afforded to studios and their unlimited supplies of DVD screeners has little to no effect in determining the winner.
“Even after the nominations are announced, there’s only so much you can do with a documentary,” says Lionsgate topper Tom Ortenberg. “The only important, effective thing to do for a doc campaign is to get your picture seen by the people who need to see it.”
But qualifying for the documentary prize can get complicated, especially for the smaller films. This year, the Academy expanded its theatrical requirements to include a multicity rollout (in addition to a one-week showing in either Manhattan or Los Angeles) of eight additional commercial public exhibitions of two consecutive days in at least four states.
Many filmmakers who don’t have the backing of a deep-pocketed distributor turn to the IDA, which qualifies films during its DocuWeek program for a fee of $1,800, provided the filmmakers have a film print or digital version that meets Academy guidelines. Occasionally, a well-regarded docu can accidentally disqualify itself, as was the case with Jehane Noujaim’s “Control Room” in 2004. This year’s high-profile casualty is Eugene Jarecki’s “Why We Fight” (Sony Pictures Classics). The Sundance grand jury prizewinner earned rave reviews and $1.4 million at the U.S. box office, but was disqualified from contention when the Acad learned it had aired on the BBC in the U.K. prior to its U.S. theatrical release.
Jarecki claims that both he and the BBC (which partially financed the film) were misled by a confusing press release issued by the Academy in January 2005. “While I appreciate the Academy’s good effort to preserve the sanctity of the American theatrical experience, there are casualties in the gunfire, and ‘Why We Fight’ was one of them,” Jarecki says. “I’m extremely disappointed by what has occurred.”
Controversy aside, the documentary community remains as united as it was before seven- and eight-figure grosses became commonplace. Kopple, who took home statues in 1977 (“Harlan County, U.S.A.”) and 1991 (“American”) and will be competing for a nod this year with “Shut Up & Sing,” says that “documentarians are a very close group. A win for one of us is a win for all of us, and that’s not going to change.”