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Breaking Down the Pros and Cons of Oscar Campaigns for Documentary Filmmakers

In May, ABC News’ Lincoln Square Prods. decided against submitting John Ridley’s “Let It Fall: 1982-1992” for Primetime Emmy consideration. The reason? The television company hoped that the 140-minute docu, which tackles the 1992 Los Angeles riots, would receive feature film recognition via the Academy Awards. Oscar consultants concluded that a pre-existing Emmy profile could potentially hurt the doc’s chances at a little gold man.

ABC’s decision to forgo a possible Primetime Emmy in favor of Oscar glory wasn’t exactly surprising.

Oscar is the entertainment industry’s most esteemed accolade, and AMPAS recognition represents a coveted chance for not only the highest form of industry peer recognition, but also mainstream audience attention — a feat rarely achieved in the nonfiction film world.

“The feature doc business has never been so vibrant and, in part, that’s because there is the perception of the possibility of real Academy Award glory down the road in the life of a feature doc,” says Passion Pictures’ John Battsek, the producer behind Oscar-winning docus “One Day in September” and “Searching for Sugarman.” “That’s very seductive for financiers and producers alike.”

Oscar’s allure has made the Primetime Emmys a nice afterthought, a kudofest that re-celebrates Oscar-nominated docus.

Case in point: last year’s Oscar-winning docu, ESPN Film’s “O.J.: Made in America,” nabbed six Primetime Emmy noms and took home two statues. Netflix’s “13th,” which received an Academy Award nom alongside “O.J.,” went on to score nine Primetime Emmy noms and four wins.

In the past decade alone, half of all Academy Award-nominated docs garnered a Primetime, News and Doc or Intl. Emmy nomination. Along with “O.J.: Made in America,” Oscar winners including “Citizenfour,” “Taxi to the Dark Side” and “Born Into Brothels” can also tout Emmy wins. But Emmys’ sheer abundance makes them less desirable than an Academy Award, so despite technically being in the small-screen business, streamers such as Netflix and Amazon, as well as veteran TV distributors including HBO and PBS, put in a great deal of time and money to obtain the hard-to-get Oscar.

It’s a cutthroat campaign that involves screenings, Q&As, boozy lunches, cocktail hours, billboards, celebrities and plenty of ads. It’s also a long race that begins as early as January’s Sundance Film Festival and, this awards season, concludes 14 months later. For the docu community, it’s a relatively new race that can be demanding, overwhelming and, for some, morally compromising.

While the Academy has been honoring documentaries since 1941, it wasn’t until 2001 that an official documentary branch was formed. Prior to that a small, anonymous committee system determined the shortlist and the subsequent five nominees, making a large campaign pre-nomination impractical. After the formation of the doc branch, all members of the branch could vote on the final five nominees. This marked the beginning of the nonfiction feature Oscar campaign.

Marshall Curry was nominated for an Academy Award in 2006 for “Street Fight” and in 2012 for “If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front.” He lost to “March of the Penguins” and the football doc “Undefeated,” respectively. He remembers money, or lack thereof, being a deciding factor in both campaigns. While he could only afford to buy a small advertisement in the trades, “March of the Penguins” bought cover ads. Then in 2012 the Weinstein Co. invited him to a fancy lunch in Manhattan to celebrate the New York Giants. Curry quickly realized that ads had become quaint.

“I’m not really a football fan, so I wasn’t sure why I’d been invited, but when I go to the lunch, Harvey was slapping backs of all these celebrities, and I realized it was an under-the-radar campaign event for ‘Undefeated,’” Curry says. “I realized then that when it comes to the Oscars, there were some people playing checkers and other people playing chess.”

Things got increasingly competitive in 2013 when all active doc branch members were provided access to all the eligible entries. Their votes determined the 15-title shortlist and, in a second round of balloting, the five nominees. Another new rule that year allowed the Academy’s entire voting membership to determine the category winner.

“Today, the entire branch votes to pick the shortlist, which is more democratic, but it also means that every film starts lobbying voters to get on the shortlist from the day it premieres,” Curry points out. “So instead of 15 films lobbying for a couple months, you have 170 eligible films lobbying year-round. That’s a real problem because it means that tons of films are wasting huge amounts of money targeting 260 Academy voters when they could be using that money to build real audiences for their films.”

Netflix has a real audience via the company’s 53 million domestic subscribers, but it is still hungry for Oscar gold. Four years ago the streamer started pouring money into Oscar campaigns for docs. Films such as “Virunga” (in 2015) and “What Happened, Miss Simone?” (in 2016) nabbed noms.

Liz Garbus, who directed “Simone” was also nominated in 1999 for “The Farm: Angola, USA.” She remembers that before “The Farm” was nominated there was no lobbying, nor parties or outreach.

“We didn’t have the money to do it, nor the know-how,” Garbus recalls. “Once the films were nominated, that changed a bit. One of our competitors, ‘The Last Days,’ which ultimately won, had a larger P&A budget and Steven Spielberg was an executive producer. That did make a difference, of course.”

Her second time around the Oscar bandwagon, Netflix held plenty of Academy voter-targeted soirees, and plastered billboards and building-sized ads across Los Angeles. Despite losing to Asif Kapadia’s “Amy,” Garbus was happy with the campaign and views the current Oscar docu climate positively.

“It’s a reflection of the increased visibility of and appreciation for docs in the marketplace,” Garbus says. “It makes more people want to get into the field — both creatively and financially, and that’s good for the industry as a whole.”

While Battsek agrees, he also sees a downside. “The real reward of making feature docs is that we are working in a medium that is all about authenticity, integrity and honesty. However, the nature of the campaigning that we as the filmmakers are asked, encouraged and sometimes demanded to do sits extremely uncomfortably with that set of values,” he says. “It can often feel like the actual merit of the film is secondary to the spend and the PR push. Try as we may to stick to our core values, it is really very hard not to get caught up in it all if you have a film in the mix. This doesn’t sit well with me and many of my like-minded colleagues at all.”

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