Oscar Documentary

Rule changes designed to focus the category have actually resulted in an increased number of films for Academy members to decide between

In an effort to make the documentary feature category more democratic, the Academy’s nonfiction branch changed its qualifying rules last year. A review in the New York Times or Los Angeles Times for a doc to register as eligible was intended to narrow the number of qualifying pics and validate a doc’s theatrical bonafides. For the second year in a row, the rules failed to accomplish either.

Instead, a record-breaking 149 docs are eligible this year. That’s up 23 from last year and 87 from a decade ago.

Despite the closure of the Intl. Documentary Assn.’s DocuWeeks, which former branch governor Michael Moore criticized as an outlet to “buy eligibility,” more filmmakers than ever before are spending their own money (thousands of dollars) for qualifying weeklong runs in New York and L.A. (In its 16-year run, DocuWeeks qualified 30 Oscar nominees and seven winning documentaries.)

Another rule change initiated last year made it possible for all 210 members of the doc branch to weigh in on the shortlist. (Up until 2011, small volunteer branch committees were in charge of viewing the year’s eligible entries, in their entirety, in order to form a shortlist.)

But this year’s large batch of contenders has left many branch members, including Oscar-nominated helmer Rachel Grady (“Jesus Camp”), wondering about time constraints. “They are sending 149 feature-length films to people who have full-time jobs,” she says.

Despite such concerns, Grady and fellow branch member Liz Garbus (“The Farm: Angola, USA”) are glad the committee system is a thing of the past. “Films weren’t always being judged on their merits,” Garbus says. “Instead people were basing their votes on individual agendas, so films that should have been celebrated by the Academy were not.”

Steve James’ “Hoop Dreams,” Errol Morris’ “The Thin Blue Line” and Terry Zwigoff’s “Crumb” are among the many pics infamously excluded from the shortlist in years past.
But with 149 docs in contention, the issue of time and politics threatens to produce a shortsighted shortlist.

“The underdog is not going to make any noise,” says HBO president of documentary programming Sheila Nevins. “Only the ones that are most known will be seen.”

Grady and Garbus agree. Despite an internal Web-based chatroom in which doc branch members can bring up individual films without lobbying for one over another, Grady acknowledges that many gems are still being overlooked.

“Let’s just say that 120 of the (eligible docs) are not being discussed on that board,” Grady says.

“Money, P&A and having a big distributor behind a film are going to make a big difference,” Garbus adds. “But I also think that there are a lot of people who resent (big studios) for not having picked up their film. So the politics and popularity can cut both ways within the doc branch.”

Oscar-winning short-doc directors Roger Ross Williams (“Music by Prudence”) as well as Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine (“Inocente”) are new to the branch. Williams’ “God Loves Uganda” and Fine’s “Life According to Sam” premiered at the Sundance film fest in January.

Williams says he is focused on sizing up the competition: “I spend a lot of time on trains and planes, so (viewing) gives me something meaningful and important to do,” he says.

Fine’s “Life According to Sam” is one of 13 docs HBO qualified this year. “You won’t find the same (large) number next year,” says Nevins, who attributes the bulk to outstanding contractual obligations. “That doesn’t mean we will never qualify an HBO doc again, but it’s just not the nature of our business. We are in the television business. For years we were able to walk a fine line between both (theatrical and television exposure), but Michael (Moore) made sure we couldn’t.”

Moore, who was influential in crafting the current set of rules, made it clear last year that it was his intention to attract only truly theatrical docs and discourage TV documentaries or “vanity” projects from being allowed in the race.

Problem is, docs traditionally have a hard time attracting ticketbuyers. (Last year’s category winner, “Searching for Sugar Man,” took in just over $3.5 million — a genre feat, even after winning an Oscar.) Theatrical play for the majority of docs happens on the festival circuit, which is why Grady believes fest play should factor into Oscar’s eligibility rules.

“There needs to be another barrier of entry — maybe that (each film) has gotten into at least one of the top 15 regional film festivals,” Grady says. “If you didn’t get into any of those, no offense, but let’s not watch it.”

The other issue is that the majority of feature documentaries find the bulk of their funding and ultimately their largest audiences via networks such as HBO, PBS, CNN Films and Al Jazeera Documentaries.

While Nix Fine concedes that theatrical release remains “the highest way to convey your film,” “Life According to Sam” played for just one week in cinemas in order to qualify before premiering on HBO on Oct. 21.

Rob Epstein, Academy governor and chair of the doc branch, admits that the current set of rules need tweaking.

“We are always analyzing and discussing the qualification criteria,” Epstein says. “Looking to see how it can be improved upon to best reflect the mission of the Academy, which is to honor theatrical films.”

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