Each year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ Board of Governors tweaks rules and regulations, aiming for fairness and dignity on the promo side and consideration of only theatrically released motion pictures on the eligibility side.
Of high importance for the 77th year is a rule prohibiting tactics that cast a negative light on the work of a rival, or in any way name the perceived competition.
This should avoid replay of a dustup last year when a trade ad placed by DreamWorks pitted “House of Sand and Fog’s” Shohreh Aghdashloo against eventual winner Renee Zellweger of “Cold Mountain.”
“The perception is sometimes a company is getting away with something,” explains Academy executive administrator Ric Robertson. “Award marketers want to abide as long as everybody else is.”
Three other major rules changes were adopted. Two affect the documentary category, while the third solidifies the sound-editing award as a permanent kudo.
One of the doc changes — which lengthens the blackout window on TV exposure for documentaries — has already stirred up concern. The new reg declares that to be eligible, both long- and short-form docus can’t be shown on television (or on the Internet) at any time prior to or within the nine months following the first day of qualifying exhibition. Previously, that time frame was six months.
“We wanted to eliminate the idea of four-walling a film and that being the beginning and end to theatrical exhibition,” explains Michael Apted, Academy governor and helmer.
Made-for-TV docs were using Oscar for promotional purposes, with no real intention of theatrical distribution, Acad members had come to believe. Apted acknowledges the difficulties inherent in the doc distribution business, but maintains, “There has to be some evidence that people are serious minded about theatrical distribution.”
The rule change poses a problem in the short term, notes Howard Cohen, co-president of Roadside Attractions, distributor of docs “Super Size Me” and “Tying the Knot,” though he lauds the Acad’s efforts to define what makes a theatrical doc. “Until now most documentaries have been TV financed. Pushing the TV window nine months from theatrical disqualifies many TV-financed docs who may have had to agree to TV airdates when they were financed.”
Execs at IFC Films initially panicked when they learned about the revision. Their “Touching the Void” was already in theatrical release. “We had to really scramble to see that we released it at the right time, which required the cooperation of the film’s co-financiers,” explains Jonathan Sehring, IFC Entertainment’s prexy. “Both PBS and U.K.’s Channel 4 had to move their air dates, which was a dramatic financial consideration.”
But Sehring says he’s satisfied that there’s now a more-level playing field in Oscar competition, without docs strictly aimed at TV in the mix.
Ironically, the rule change disqualified all-time doc box-office champ “Fahrenheit 9/11” from consideration in the docu category due to its pay TV play on the eve of the presidential election. But filmmaker Michael Moore had decided at the outset against competing for the doc award. “A lot of us argued with him, but he wasn’t interested in submitting (to the Acad) and once we didn’t submit, he said, ‘Let’s get it out on pay-per-view,” said Sehring, on behalf of releasing company IFC. Instead, the film is pursuing best picture consideration.
In a second rule revision, short subject docs must qualify via a seven-day, five-city minimum engagement. Qualifying a film via a festival has been nixed.
The Acad is seeking to encourage the theatrical viability of short docs, explains Arthur Dong, Acad governor. Short films rarely screen in commercial theaters, but the docu branch is betting alternatives and solutions will arise. Five docu shorts, such as the National Film Board of Canada’s “Hardwood,” qualified via the IDA’s InFact traveling showcase.
“The rules seem crazy and cumbersome only if theatrical intent isn’t there,” maintains Dong.
The Board of Governors also declared the sound-editing category (formerly sound effects editing) an annual award. Prior to the change, it was a special achievement category, presented continuously since 1981.
“The change was self-evident as the craft has changed dramatically since the late ’70s, when the rules were made,” declares Warner Bros. Post’s Paul Huntsman, one of Acad governors in the sound branch. The nominating process, which includes a bake-off of excerpts from eligible films, will continue.
Oscar marketers should take heed to be cognizant of the fine print, notes Robertson, the Acad administrator, pointing to numerous details among the 17 regulations. “People make mistakes reading regulations. Sometimes they are honest mistakes and sometimes they make calculated mistakes and play dumb.”
Then there are the eligibility requirements that beg for revision. One category that provokes annual complaints is foreign language. The one-country, one-film edict is increasingly problematic in an era of global financing and international co-production. The mixed parentage of Spanish-language film “The Motorcycle Diaries” has made it ineligible, as has been oft reported, while the French-made “A Very Long Engagement” is ineligible as France’s entry because its release in that country came after the Acad’s elegibility date. Both are among the year’s most critically acclaimed.
“If the idea is excellence, the rule of one country/one submission makes no sense,” Roadside Attractions’ Howard Cohen points out. “Italy might have five great films in a year, Latvia might not have even one. The rules are cutting out many great foreign-language films.”