Universal suffrage

'Byzantine' rules protect smaller Oscar contenders

Imagine actually having to see all the films that are in contention for an Academy Award? Three Oscar categories require just that: Acad voters must see all the films nominated for best foreign-language film or for either of the two documentary awards before they can cast a final vote.

They must also see them in a theatrical setting, attesting via ballot where and when such viewings occurred. Acad members are not audited or quizzed regarding their screening times; eligibility is by honor system.

In an effort at fairness and in part because of the increased number of submissions in both categories, Acad governors have amended voting rules in the foreign-language and documentary categories substantially over the years.

“We’ve done a very good job of keeping the playing field level,” contends producer Mark Johnson (“The Chronicles of Narnia”), Acad governor and chair of the foreign-language film nominating committee. “Not every country has the ability to compete; this way a movie with a significant promo budget doesn’t have an advantage over others.”   

Some films that qualify may not have U.S. distribution, and many smaller countries and distribs can’t afford the cost of mailing more than 6,000 screeners. This way, countries rarely recognized by the Academy for their filmmaking suffer no inherent disadvantage.  “It’s not a big deal to see five films onscreen,” says Johnson. “I think it’s unfair otherwise.” Recent winners such as South Africa’s “Tsotsi” and Bosnia & Herzegovina’s “No Man’s Land” won despite competish from major filmmaking territories.

A number of Acad members also contend that viewing subtitled films on a small screen is a genuine impediment to consideration. “We’ve had complaints about trouble reading subtitles; that doesn’t work. These films were meant to be seen on a movie screen,” Johnson explains.

Ballots for foreign-language voting must be obtained separately; category is not included on the general ballot. For members who have seen films prior to the official Acad screenings, a ballot is mailed. Others can pick them up at Acad screenings (in Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and London), but all must certify date and location of screening.

Although foreign-language voting rules are somewhat confusing, doc rules are even more so and include an additional requirement: theatrical screenings must be 35 mm or projected via the Acad’s approved digital standard, referred to colloquially as “the George Lucas standard.” The format is so advanced that even Hollywood’s ArcLight theater doesn’t have an appropriate projector — one had to brought in for the Intl. Documentary Assn.’s Docu Days Oscar qualifying run. The only exception: Documentary screening committee members who have participated in the preliminary and/or semifinal voting process may vote on the winner without watching all five films in a theatrical setting. 

According to several doc reps, the docu categories’ copious rules delineate a principle — docs that qualify and win should be legitimate theatrical releases.  The Acad wants to avoid films that only go out theatrically in order to qualify, hence the requirement that all contenders must be screened commercially in at least four different states.  However, the rules are now so complicated, “byzantine” according to one rep, that the Acad may not only be limiting the number of films that qualify, but eliminating quality work. 

Most agree that the rule requiring all five films be screened before final voting is beneficial, particularly to smaller films. “It’s positive and protecting and a very democratic process to see all five nominees,” asserts Udy Epstein, principal of Seventh Arts Releasing, which has been involved in more than a half-dozen doc Oscar campaigns. “It does even the playing field; otherwise smaller films and filmmakers would lose out every time.” 

In theory, any Acad member can meet the requirements to vote on the final ballot for both short and feature doc; although the Acad does not release vote tallies, in practice, the voting base tends to be narrowed to only those interested in docs.   

Still the doc categories remain the hardest in which to qualify, notes producer-director Chuck Braverman. “It’s now the golden age of documentary filmmaking; the Academy should be encouraging, not putting up hurdles, making it as difficult as they can,” he says. He points to the fact that most other categories, including cinematography, best picture and art direction, can be evaluated via DVD screeners. And with new rules in place for 2007, the process is further complicated.

“The Academy is trying to protect the theatricality of docs, to keep category going annually,” Epstein surmises. Despite the varying opinions, if docmakers want to be contenders, they must be mindful of the Acad’s revised rules.

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