Eye on the Oscars: Documentaries Preview

Thanks to the Academy’s intricate, ever-changing system of qualifying rules, the documentary category is proving once again to be among the most contentious.

A new rule requiring a review in the New York Times or Los Angeles Times for a film to register eligible was intended to both narrow the number of qualifying pics as well as validate a doc’s theatrical bonafides. It failed to accomplish either.

Instead, a record-breaking 126 docs are eligible this year.

That, in part, was due to the International Documentary Assn.’s DocuWeeks going off without a hitch. For a fee, DocuWeeks series is designed to enable pics that might not have theatrical distribution in place to qualify for Academy Award consideration by providing a de facto Oscar-qualifying run in New York and Los Angeles. While org had to scramble when the rule change was announced in January, they managed to make an arrangement with the L.A. Times, thus allowing the annual event to continue.

Since its 1997 preem, the fest has qualified more than 205 pics, shorts and features for Oscar consideration. Sixteen feature-length docs that qualified at DocuWeeks went on to be nommed for an Academy Award, while three –“Taxi to the Dark Side,” “Born Into Brothels” and “The Last Days” — took home the Oscar.

This year, DocuWeeks featured 17 full-length docs, all of which went on to qualify for Oscar consideration.

With both doc and narrative theatrical auds shrinking and digital auds steadily increasing, some in the nonfiction film community question AMPAS’ desire for a “legitimate theatrical release.”

“It makes no sense,” says HBO’s president of documentary programming Sheila Nevins. “It’s some sort of theatrical bombast. I recently watched “Arbitrage” (a narrative) in a small independent movie theater and my co-worker watched it on (OnDemand) that same night at home. So which one is theatrical? The film I saw or the one that she saw?”

In spite of any reservations, Nevins plays by the rules.

In past years HBO and other television distribs, who are instrumental in funding docs, could rent a theater for a week — a tactic known as “four-walling” — thereby quietly qualifying their docs and saving the majority of press for pic’s future television premiere.

With this year’s rule changes, that technique went out the window. HBO narrowed down their list to just four films: Matthew Akers’ “Marina Abramovic the Artist Is Present,” Liz Garbus’ “Love Marilyn,” Alex Gibney’s “Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God” and Rory Kennedy’s “Ethel.”

“At the end of the day, the award is about excellence,” says Gibney, an Oscar winner and Acad member.

But when the 178-member doc branch received a package of 80 eligible docs last month to view and vote on by Nov. 26, some wonder if a few “excellent” films may fall by the wayside; it seems unlikely that each and every working member will see every last film.

“The films that have garnered attention, popularity and have budgets to get them out there they are going to have the advantage,” says Steve James, director of “Head Games” and “Hoop Dreams,” which was infamously left of the shortlist. “But I think on some level that’s what (the branch) always wanted.”

Eye on the Oscars: Documentaries Preview
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