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Awards Budgets, Streaming Services Shake Up Oscar Documentary Race

There’s no denying the race for documentary Oscar has changed dramatically in the past decade and even more so in the past five years. The reason for the shift? Money. What is debatable is if the shift is for the better.

There are many reasons for the recent exponential rise in docu campaign budgets. One is the 2012 Academy rule change that allowed for all members of the documentary branch to weigh in on the shortlist. Until 2011, small volunteer branch committees were in charge of viewing the year’s eligible entries, in their entirety, in order to form a shortlist. With an average of 100-plus docus eligible for Oscar consideration each year (this year there are 166 eligible films), ensuring a doc doesn’t get overlooked is a challenge for the majority of the qualified filmmakers. That challenge can be overcome with money, which leads to the second reason for the doc campaign’s shifting landscape: streamers.

Netflix, Amazon and Hulu all have deep pockets and aren’t afraid to make that known during Oscar season. (This year Netflix and Hulu boast docs like “Shirkers,” “Minding the Gap” and “Crime + Punishment.”) Netflix started to campaign heavily in 2014 when “The Square” was nominated. Earlier this year its efforts paid off when “Icarus” won the little gold man. Streamers’ inclusion in the doc market has made it harder for not only their competitors who once dominated the nonfiction race — including HBO Documentary Films — but also smaller documentaries struggling with funding to break into the race.

Jeremiah Zagar’s first feature doc, “In a Dream,” was shortlisted for Oscar in 2008. While HBO was behind the film, Zagar doesn’t believe that in today’s climate the movie would have made the coveted list.

“It was a much more egalitarian playing field back then,” he says. “Nobody was backing documentaries in the way they do now, so a movie like mine was treated the same way as a bigger movie like ‘Man on Wire.’ Giant billboards and best-of lists weren’t swaying doc voters. They were just watching the movies and deciding which ones they thought were best.”

Thom Powers, TIFF documentary programmer and artistic director of DOC NY, is behind a best-of list that some in the nonfiction industry consider the most influential. His DOC NYC Short List launched in 2011 with just four films and then expanded to 10 films in 2012, before arriving at its current 15 in 2014. Last year Powers’ list included “Icarus” as well as all but one of the other four Oscar-nominated documentaries. In all, Powers 2017 shortlist overlapped with eight of the Academy’s 15 shortlisted docs.

“For documentary branch members who are faced with a daunting number of films each year, they are looking for ways to seek out the highlights,” Powers says. “The films they shouldn’t miss. So our list has always tried to include the obvious, most-buzzed-about films of the year, while also pushing forward films that we have very high admiration for that we are worried might otherwise go overlooked.”

As a governor of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, veteran docu filmmaker Rory Kennedy says there are also policies in place within the Academy to counter and compensate for films without big backers, also known as the underdogs. For instance, to ensure that every eligible docu is seen, doc branch members are randomly assigned a certain number to view. Additionally there is an internal Academy web-based chat room that allows branch members to discuss films without lobbying.

“We are working very hard to make sure that we’re not just voting for films because they have big campaigns associated with them,” Kennedy says. “But we can’t say to Netflix, ‘You can’t put any money behind that film’ or ‘You can’t have any parties’ without probably getting into First Amendment issues. It’s hard to grapple with because we certainly don’t want films that just have more money to be nominated. We want it to be a meritocracy.”

Kennedy, whose Discovery doc “Above and Beyond: NASA’s Journey to Tomorrow” is eligible for Oscar this year, cites her 2014 Academy Award nomination for “Last Days of Vietnam,” a PBS film, as an example of a smaller doc making it into the race.

“We were up against Netflix films,” Kennedy remembers. “So I certainly felt the financial support some of my counterparts were getting, which was harder to get from PBS because they couldn’t spend millions of dollars [the on race].”

Four years after Kennedy’s nod, Powers says despite the rise in docu campaign funds there is still room for underdogs to go the distance.

“Last year, ‘Last Men in Aleppo’ was nominated and a few years ago, ‘Cutie and the Boxer’ was nominated,” he says. “Both films were overlooked on the DOC NYC short list. So there’s still plenty of room for a documentary branch members to make up their own minds. They’re a very independent-minded bunch.”

While Powers is adamant that the docu Oscar race has never been a completely level playing field, he, Kennedy and Zagar do agree that all the money and attention being thrown at documentaries these days is ultimately a good thing.

“It means more people are watching docs,” Zagar says. “And more people are focused on the art form of documentary filmmaking. That’s a great thing.”

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