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The New York Times broke the story today that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will be announcing new rules for Oscar’s documentary category that will have far-reaching implications for the race. The biggest change is that in order for any film to qualify for the 2012-2013 period, it must have been reviewed by either the New York Times or the Los Angeles Times.

The change solves two issues for the documentary branch of the Academy, according to Ric Robertson, who spoke with Variety on Sunday: First, it will reduce the number of films that branch members must watch for the nomination process. Second, and perhaps more importantly, it ensures that that films that are nominated have distribution and have had a theatrical release.

In general, both LAT and NYT reviewers write only about documentaries that are shown in theaters, which, by default, limits the pool to films with theatrical distribution.

“We can’t judge every documentary made for every possible audience,” Robertson said, adding that the branch’s executive committee has been looking for ways to ensure that nominated films have a “legitimate theatrical release.”

“This isn’t a new quest for the documentary branch, it’s just a different way of trying to solve the puzzle.”

The change is likely to hit New York’s DocuWeeks fairly hard because the festival has always served as place for films to have a de facto Oscar-qualifying run by simply paying a fee. The way the system existed previously (and the way it exists for next month’s ceremony) could mean a film without distribution ends up with an Oscar nom, something that couldn’t happen with any of the other categories within the Oscar ceremony.

Robertson acknowledges that DocuWeeks was a good way for filmmakers to get their work out, “but we have to have our own criteria.”

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