New rules for Oscar documentaries

Films must be reviewed in L.A or N.Y. Times starting next year

New rules governing documentaries at the Oscars will bring more voters into the mix, expand their opportunities to view the contenders and — in a point generating some controversy — require a review in the New York Times or the Los Angeles Times for a film to be eligible.

Animated short and live-action short categories were also affected by the regulations announced Thursday by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ board of governors. They’ll take effect in the next cycle, for 2013’s 85th Academy Awards.

The doc feature changes, which the board voted to enact on Dec. 6, are meant to limit the number of films that qualify and ensure that nominees in the category have had a “legitimate theatrical release,” Robertson said. “We can’t judge every documentary made for every possible audience.”

Some have criticized the new rules as less inclusive: The documentary category was one of the few in which a film without distribution could be nominated. The category has also eschewed commercially appealing docs in favor of niche fare, mostly because of the small committees that were used to screen the contenders. The new rules resolve both of these issues.

How the changes could affect an event like DocuWeeks, for which filmmakers pay an entry fee and receive a de facto Oscar-qualifying theatrical run, has yet to be determined, but DocuWeeks exec director Michael Lumpkin is keeping an open mind.

“It’s great that they’re trying to make the process more transparent and democratic,” Lumpkin said. “They’re very clear about what their goals are and what they’re trying to do.”

Lumpkin added that the majority of films in DocuWeeks are reviewed, but he’s eager to hear more details about what the Academy will consider a proper review. “In the festival world, a lot of the reviews are capsules,” Lumpkin said. “Big reviews are saved for theatrical releases. A lot of details have yet to be worked out.”

DocuWeeks, which usually qualifies fewer than 20 films per awards season, will likely adapt to the changes once the details are more clear.

For HBO, the new rules represent a line in the sand. Though its “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory” is currently in contention for an Oscar, subsequent HBO documentaries will not be eligible without a theatrical release. Academy governor Michael Moore, who has been touting the changes in interviews all week, has not specifically targeted HBO but is quick to point out that TV docs can contend for Emmys.

Once a film has qualified, the new rules state that the entire documentary branch will receive all eligible titles beginning in the first round of voting. Filmmakers must submit 200 DVDs, an increase from the 30 that had been required in previous years and a bigger expense for people generally working on a tight budget. In the final round of voting in this category, members must still see all the nominated films, but viewing films on digital or DVD screeners will now be an option for satisfying this requirement.

A documentary feature film’s eligibility will continue to depend on completing seven-day qualifying runs in both New York and Los Angeles that are advertised in at least one major newspaper in each city as specified by Academy rules. For the 85th Academy Awards, however, a review by a movie critic in the New York Times and/or the Los Angeles Times will also be required.

In the animated short and live-action short categories, members will still have to see all the nominated films before casting their final ballots, but viewing the films on screeners will now satisfy this requirement. Films shown during their theatrical run in a nonstandard format, such as Imax, will have to be submitted to the Academy in a standard theatrical aspect ratio and in a format currently accepted for Academy exhibition to be eligible. Producers may provide additional screenings of their films in nonstandard formats, but members’ attendance at such screenings will not be required for voting purposes.

Other rules changes for the documentary and short films categories include normal date changes and minor “housekeeping” changes.

Rules are reviewed annually by individual branch and category committees. The Awards Rules Committee then reviews all proposed changes before presenting its recommendations to the board of governors for approval.

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