They Can’t Handle the Truth! Oscar Voters Overwhelmed by Glut of 149 Docs

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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  1. Connie Field says:

    “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.” The facts are that there was no documentary branch when these films were release. Those who judged these films for the Academy consisted of a volunteer committee most of whom were elders, retired members of the academy from other branches. So please do not keep bringing this up as key to what is wrong in the doc branch now. We have a doc branch now and that makes a big difference.
    Right now what is wrong is that most of the films that are entered will not get seen by anyone. And that the New York Times review scheme does not work as a means for guaranteeing that a film has a real theatrical release, and thus keeping the numbers down. And relying on festivals is not the answer. Many made for TV films go to many festivals. There are docs that are actually theatrically released and go to cities all over the country and this is what distinguishes them from TV docs (and thus what makes this award different from the Emmy’s). Most of the films that have a theatrical release will also be shown on TV but at a later date. And funding by TV should not be an issue if the film indeed has a real release with an adequate amount of time between that release and its TV broadcast, and is not just four walled in NY or LA for a week so it can get a review and qualify, or show in NY to get the review and then immediately get shown on TV. And I beg to differ with “Films weren’t always being judged on their merits,” –. “Instead people were basing their votes on individual agendas, so films that should have been celebrated by the Academy were not.” This really isn’t true of the doc committees… there weren’t agendas anymore than there are this year with everyone getting a chance to nominate. There are individual opinions… only difference now is that most films do not get seen by anyone. Where before all films got seen by at least a few people. But the distributors and critics will be happy because most doc branch folks will watch the films that get the best promotion. But then again this is what happens to the dramatic features, so the question is why should docs be any different. That could be part of Moore’s thinking. But tweaking is definitely in order here.

    • DHall says:

      Nicely worded Connie…couldn’t agree with you more. I too think there are agendas now more than ever…and what is really disheartening is that many of the qualifying films will not be seen as you pointed out whereas in the past all fims were seen even if it was by a smaller percentage of viewers.
      Not sure why the Doc. Branch doesn’t divide the films up among small gorups comprised of all 210 memebers of the branch. Perhaps each group views ten films. Highest 15 films are shortlisted. Then again, I’m sure this idea has probably been thought of as it seems to easy. Fina, having film festivals be a barometer of is not a solution. Bad idea on Ms. Grady’s part. The playing field would be even more unfair.

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