Fairer play in Oscar docs?

Tinkering with voting system raises hopes, fears

Amid all the debate over rules changes for documentaries at the Academy Awards, there is one question that matters.

Are we closer to the most deserving docs getting nominated — or farther away?

Frustration that the doc branch of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences isn’t doing its job isn’t new. Anyone who pays attention to the genre is still miffed over omissions from both the distant and recent past. Steve James alone provides bookends of aggravation with 1994’s “Hoop Dreams” and last year’s “The Interrupters,” each of which won prizes at the Independent Spirit Awards but were shut out of the Oscar doc noms.

“Every year’s a heartbreak in some sense,” Academy doc branch governor Rob Epstein said, “in that there are incredibly worthy films that don’t make the cut, and everyone kind of scratches their head and says, ‘How the hell did that happen?’ It happens every year, the result of a finite number of slots and how the votes break down in the end.”

So once again, doc branch officials went back to the category drawing board. Their principal changes for the 2012 Oscars, revealed in January, were these:

•Rather than have small committees of volunteers from the 160-member documentary branch whittle the submissions down to a shortlist of 15 films, the entire branch will weigh in.

•A preferential ranking system will be used instead of a scoring system.

•Every contender, in addition to having at least a weeklong theatrical run in Los Angeles or New York, must be reviewed by the New York Times or Los Angeles Times as a validation of its theatrical bonafides.

Using a broader branch base to create the shortlist, though not foolproof, offers the most encouraging possibility that the Academy has taken a step toward a fairer evaluation.

“I think the changes came for a good reason,” said doc branch member Rory Kennedy, whose “Ethel” bows this month. “In years past … a very small number of people could determine the fate of some really spectacular films.”

Prior to 2012, Kennedy and others on shortlist committees would each be assigned approximately 15 docs to view and rate — this gets a 7, that gets an 8.5. That system gave each participant an excessive influence on the fate some of contenders — and no influence at all on the fate of others.

“It really could come down to four or five people,” Kennedy said. “If they didn’t like it, even if it was a terrific film, it wouldn’t get through to the shortlist. Opening it up to a larger group of people feels more democratic.”

The pitfall is that the watchload for Kennedy and the other branch members has multiplied from a portion in the teens to the overall load of 130 — 30% more than the total two years ago and the most submissions ever, according to Epstein.

Epstein revealed Friday that the Academy extended the deadline for turning in shortlist votes by a week, until Nov. 26, though that will only help so much. Those jumping into the voting fray are certainly passionate about their docs, but because they’re also working for a living, it seems unlikely that they will see every last project.

“I’m one of those people,” Academy doc governor Michael Moore told the New York Times. “I don’t have time to watch 132 movies. No one does, and no one will.”

There’s stark reality for you.

It’s fair to say that docs are in no worse a boat than feature films. Nobody, for example, expects Academy members to see every single feature film eligible for an Oscar.

Still, anxiety that the playing field for documentaries hasn’t really leveled re-emerged as enough of a concern for the doc branch to essentially hedge its bets. Recently, the submitted docs were randomly divided into smaller groups, with each branch member invited to promise to view one of the groups.

Sound familiar? While not official, an attempt has been made to integrate the old system with the new.

“The intention behind that is to ask every branch member to commit to watch in their entirety 10 films,” Epstein said, “in addition to viewing at least some portion of all the films. It’s not a mandate, it’s a suggestion. The intention was to guarantee that every film would be seen in its entirety by a certain percentage.

“I think the thinking of the members of the committee was, since we’re instituting a new system, it was a safeguard.”

As all this has been going on, another concern has been raised about the rising number of docs — namely that despite the rules requiring theatrical exhibition, too many vanity projects and TV efforts disguised as features are still qualifying for the race.

While the qualms are understandable, the primary question remains: Are the most deserving docs going to get nominated?

Though the projects that don’t belong muddy the pool, it’s better that a questionable film gets a viewing than a deserving film gets shut out. Meanwhile, unlike in the past, everyone in the branch is able to assert their influence.

Talk about this rule or that, but voters are more capable of doing the right thing than they were before.

Though some films inevitably will get seen more than others, Kennedy connects the new rules to the Winston Churchill aphorism about democracy: that it’s the worst form of government except all those others.

“Films that have had more awareness will probably rise up to the top,” Kennedy said. “There may be some consequence for more independent films which haven’t quite had either the length of time out in the field to be known or don’t have any kind of PR machine behind them. But I still am very hopeful about the process.

“It doesn’t mean there won’t be some films that should be considered shortlisted and aren’t, (but) it probably happens in every category. It’s not a perfect system and I don’t think it could ever be a perfect system. … You can only try to create a system that will do its best to bring the best films to the top of the list.”

And then at some point, no doubt, go back to the drawing board once again.

“We’re always looking to improve in terms of functionality and films getting the fairest shake possible,” Epstein said. “That’s always the goal, and there’s always room for improvement, it seems.”

Jon Weisman blogs about awards season at variety.com/thevote.

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