Nonfiction filmmakers wrestle with Academy

Docu category has some of the toughest qualifying rules

Thanks to Oscar’s intricate, ever- changing system of qualifying rules, the documentary category is among the most contentious for its participating filmmakers.

Movies must play at least twice for one week in both L.A. and New York, not before noon, projected in specific formats and not shown on the Internet or TV until 60 days after their theatrical runs. (Foreign broadcasts have disqualified many strong docs in recent years.)

Up until last year, docs were also required to meet the above requirements before Sept. 1, but after pressure from the nonfiction industry, the deadline was moved to Sept. 30.

According to Toronto fest docu programmer Thom Powers, who led the 2008 protest, the move allowed many of this year’s most prominent nonfiction films — Michael Moore’s “Capitalism: A Love Story,” Vogue chronicle “The September Issue,” Chris Rock starrer “Good Hair” and basketball tribute “More Than a Game” — to “qualify in a way more keeping with their release schedule.” (That said, Michael Jackson docu “This Is It” still opened too late to qualify.)

Ironically, however, fall releases and box office actually mean little when nomination time comes. Moore’s latest screed may be one of the year’s top-grossing docs, but last year’s nonfiction champs — for example, “Religulous,” “Shine a Light” and “Young@Heart” — were all overlooked by the Academy. Recent nominees such as “The Betrayal,” “The Garden” and 2006’s “My Country, My Country” didn’t even crack $100,000 at the box office.

This year, the range of possible contenders is numerous, whether they be the aforementioned fall releases or crowdpleasers such as “Anvil! The Story of Anvil,” “Valentino: The Last Emperor,” “Every Little Step,” “It Might Get Loud” and Sundance winner “We Live in Public”; eco-docus such as Disney’s “Earth,” Magnolia’s “Food, Inc.” and Roadside’s “The Cove”; or little-seen but politically potent films including autumn fest traveler “Mugabe and the White African” and Rwanda-set Gotham docu nominee “My Neighbor My Killer.”

If kudos controversies are in short supply this year, docu watchers say the nonfiction community will inevitably clash again with AMPAS over the increasing day-and-date distribution of docs — which violates the 60-day window rule.

Outspoken critic Mark Lipsky, president of Gigantic Digital Cinema, has already come to blows with the Academy over the issue. And judging from the response (AMPAS exec director Bruce Davis wrote, “We have no interest in becoming an Academy that evaluates and honors the ever-tinier pictures delivered on each new generation of techno-gadgets”), Lipsky has decided not to fight it further.

“Instead,” he says, “I’ve been working on gathering a coalition to launch an entity whose recognition … would equal or outweigh an Oscar nomination, thus rendering the Oscars moot for documentaries.”

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