This past summer, as distributors across the U.S. were racing to line up qualifying runs of their nonfiction films for the documentary Oscar, Michael Moore’s juggernaut “Fahrenheit 9/11” loomed especially large. That all changed on Sept. 6, when Moore announced that he was withdrawing his $120-million grosser from the doc category in order to give other filmmakers a chance to compete for the prize — and to leave open the possibility of airing his Bush bash on TV before the election (a move that disqualifies it from the docu race). In an instant, a contest that many considered might become unfairly slanted was suddenly wide open.
With Moore and his distributors now shooting to become the first nonfiction pic to take home the best picture prize and other major kudos, the rest of this year’s doc contenders are hoping to be among the final five nominees chosen by the members of the Academy’s documentary branch.
While no other nonfiction pic has come close to “Fahrenheit” at the box office, five films have broken the coveted $1 million mark domestically. That group includes Morgan Spurlock’s “Super Size Me” (Roadside Attractions/Samuel Goldwyn), Kevin MacDonald’s “Touching the Void” (IFC), Byambasuren Davaa and Luigi Falorni’s “The Story of the Weeping Camel” (ThinkFilm), Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster” (IFC), and Bob Smeaton’s “Festival Express” (ThinkFilm).
But don’t be surprised if none of those commercial winners makes the final cut. With the exception of “Super Size Me,” which employed a first-person, comic approach to investigate America’s dangerous dependence on fast-food, none of the top grossers have socially-conscious themes or stories, which in past years has been an unofficial prerequisite for nomination.
“‘Metallica’ is such a well-made documentary that I don’t want to believe it won’t get nominated because it doesn’t deal with social issues,” says IFC Films topper Jonathan Sehring. “I believe the committee will select the right films.”
Magnolia Pictures prexy Eamonn Bowles is less optimistic about pop-culture entries. “Rock and roll is a subject that tends to get bypassed, regardless of the quality of the filmmaking,” says Bowles, who’s awaiting word on Jim Fields and Michael Gramaglia’s “End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones” and John Dullaghan’s “Bukowski: Born Into This.” “That might be why the Ramones and Metallica movies don’t get chosen.” Magnolia should have a better chance with Robert Stone’s politically-charged “Guerilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst,” which qualified for this year’s race but won’t open until November 26.
Micah Green of Gotham indie consultancy Cinetic Media agrees that this year’s top performers, including “Super Size Me,” will be facing an uphill battle. “‘Metallica,’ ‘Touching the Void’ and ‘Super Size Me’ are so mainstream they make ‘Spellbound’ look academic by comparison, so I doubt their big grosses will necessarily help their chances of getting nominated,” says Green. “That being said, I don’t think anything’s a forgone conclusion.”
The consensus in the doc community is that the creation of the documentary branch five years ago — which ensured that the nominees would be determined by a smaller group and not the entire Acad membership — helped dispel the perception that obvious choices like “Hoop Dreams,” “Roger & Me” and “The Thin Blue Line” would routinely be ignored. Still, many feel the rules could be improved.
One complaint among distributors is the stipulation that Academy members must see all five nominees in a theater. “The Academy should open up the category even more, with less restrictions,” says Bowles. “Now all a distributor has to do is limit the showings of a film that hasn’t opened yet, then pack the theater with your cronies. That way, only their supporters will have been able to see all the movies, which can skew the vote.”
Samuel Goldwyn’s Meyer Gottleib agrees. “I’d like to think that if you had 6,000 people voting instead of a few hundred, the race wouldn’t be as close as it’s going to be,” he says. “When there’s only a few hundred people who’ve seen the films, 60 or 80 votes can win you the Oscar. I’d like that to change.”
One top doc that most likely won’t make the cut is “Control Room,” Jehane Noujaim’s behind-the-scenes look at Arab broadcaster Al Jazeera during the war in Iraq. The film, which grossed $2.5 million for Magnolia, was shown on television overseas, thus violating the Academy’s restriction on TV airplay. Bowles hopes for a reversal and says that Oscar winners Errol Morris and Moore have both written letters to the Academy on the film’s behalf.
Other contenders include several films scheduled for release, including: Zana Briski and Ross Kaufman’s “Born into Brothels” (ThinkFilm), Mark Wexler’s “Tell Them Who You Are” (ThinkFilm), Jessica Yu’s “In the Realms of the Unreal” (Wellspring), and Christian Bauer’s “The Ritchie Boys.” Jonathan Caouette’s “Tarnation” (Wellspring), currently playing on the arthouse circuit, also has an outside shot.
Political docs such as “Bush’s Brain” and “Uncovered: The War in Iraq” were not submitted.