Known as a notoriously unpredictable bunch, the Academy’s documentary branch has become rather predictable in the past two years.
The evidence lies in the films they choose not to recognize come Oscar time: Films such as Brett Morgen’s 2017 Jane Goodall docu, “Jane,” and two of last year’s biggest nonfiction box office successes — Morgan Neville’s “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” and Tim Wardle’s “Three Identical Strangers.” Both Neville’s Mr. Rogers doc and Wardle’s film about identical triplets separated at birth premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival to critical acclaim. Both films also went on to do the seemingly impossible and strike a chord with audiences all over the country. “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” grossed $22.8 million domestically, making it the 12th-highest-grossing doc of all time. Meanwhile, “Strangers” also defied documentary theatrical odds when it drew in $12.3 million.
Morgen’s “Jane” grossed just $1.7 million in 2017, but like “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” and “Three Identical Strangers,” the film was considered a frontrunner in the docu race. Not only did all three films score awards and nominations from guilds including the PGA and the WGA, they all also received a slew of kudos from critic groups. But to prognosticators’ surprise, the Academy doc branch did not nominate any of the three films.
Instead of “Neighbor” and “Strangers,” this year the branch nominated Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s “Free Solo,” RaMell Ross’ “Hale County This Morning, This Evening,” Bing Liu’s “Minding the Gap,” Talal Derki’s “Of Fathers and Sons” and Betsy West and Julie Cohen’s “RBG.”
At Sundance 2019, a few veteran doc filmmakers who are also Academy branch members said they were happy about each of the five nominated films, but also admittedly upset that “Neighbor” didn’t score a nom.
“We had so many beautiful and worthy works to choose from this year,” says Dawn Porter, who most recently directed the Netflix series “Bobby Kennedy for President.”
“But of course every year there are disappointments. Personally I am extremely disappointed that ‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor?’ wasn’t nominated. I think it was a perfect film and something to aspire to at the same time.”
The theory is that as with “Jane,” “Neighbor” was left off the nominee list due to the Academy’s weighted voting system, which is based on the order in which voters place their top five choices.
Or, in other words, perhaps many voters assumed that “Neighbor” would secure an Oscar nom so instead of placing the film in the first of the five spaces on the nomination ballot, they placed it as number four or five. (A film or individual needs at least one first-place vote. If every single voter puts a film as his second choice, but nobody puts it first, it will not get a nomination.)
“I think people liked Morgan’s film and I think that people like Morgan [Neville],” says doc branch member Marshall Curry, who is nominated this year in the documentary shorts category for “A Night at the Garden.” “ ‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor?’ ” not getting nominated was the result of people using their top ballot positions to help great movies that they thought weren’t going to make it [onto the nominee list] because they were confident Morgan’s movie would.”
Backlash to the 2012 rule change that allowed the feature documentary category winner to be determined by the Academy’s entire voting membership could also be behind recent high profile snubs. The rule change meant that critical attention, overall popularity and a film’s financial resources were more important than ever before. Arguably leaving well-liked films such as Morgen’s “Jane,” Neville’s “Neighbor” and even Steve James’ “Life Itself” off the nomination list allowed social-issue oriented docs including “CitizenFour” and underdog films with shoestring awards budgets — “Last Days of Vietnam” — a chance at achieving Oscar glory.
One of the two most popular films of the five nominees is “RBG.” The Magnolia pic about U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg took in just over $14 million at the box office. “RBG” won two Critics’ Choice Documentary awards, garnered an NBR award and was nominated for PGA and BAFTA prizes.
Chin and Vasarhelyi’s “Free Solo” also intrigued audiences nationwide and grossed an impressive $14.98 million theatrically, the highest of the nominees. And similar to “RBG,” the National Geographic adventure doc about the first free solo rock climb of Yosemite’s El Capitan has awed critic orgs across the country. But unlike “RBG,” the film does not take on any social issues.
Alternatively, the three remaining Oscar-nominated docs this year — Ross’ “Hale County,” Liu’s “Minding the Gap” and Derki’s “Of Fathers and Sons” — address topics including class, race and religion. The trio of films have impressed critics, but cumulatively grossed just over $100,000. Yet, while their films didn’t break any box-office records, what Ross, Liu and Derki have going for them is relative anonymity. Ross and Liu are first-time filmmakers while Derki, an established Syrian director, lives in exile in Germany. In other words, personal politics are not yet a factor in their race for Oscar gold.
Meanwhile, depending on whom you speak to within the branch, high school politics can get in the way of a nomination, which rumor has it is the reason for “Jane” not receiving an Oscar nom. Some say Neville was snubbed this year because he already won an Oscar in 2014 for “20 Feet From Stardom.” In other words, human nature has a way of sneaking into voters’ heads. A director’s likeability, sex or even race could arguably influence branch members.
At a Sundance 2019 event hosted by Discovery and Vulcan Productions, Tabitha Jackson, the director of the Sundance Documentary Film Program, saluted the Academy for diversifying the doc branch. (In 2018 the AMPAS extended a record number of invites to 928 people. The invitations resulted in 38% of the Oscars’ governing body’s new class being consisting of people of color, increasing their representation from 13% in 2017 to 16% in 2018.)
“In the last couple of years the Oscar documentary branch membership has intentionally diversified and as a result become more inclusive,” Jackson said. “Look at this year. There are no white, male directors nominated. [Although] we love them, too.” The remark was met with loud applause.
But neither Julie Goldman, a twice Oscar-nominated producer and docu branch member, nor Curry believe the cheering meant that the nonfiction community has turned its back to white, male documakers.
“I could not be tuned into that part of the discussion, but I didn’t hear people talking about who they were going to vote for or not vote for based on their gender or race,” Curry says. “I have really have never heard someone say to me, ‘I don’t like this movie because it is directed by a white male’ or ‘I like this movie because it’s directed by a female.’”
Goldman agrees with Curry and attributes any applause to the swift pace at which the Academy has diversified. “There are heartbreaks every year,” Goldman says. “But that said, it’s really exciting to see new voices being recognized and to have the diversity that the branch has been working towards be reached in such a profound way.”
Porter adds that progress does not mean the elimination of any ethnic group or gender.
“Progress is when you are recognizing brilliant work by a variety of people,” she says. “That’s what the gender, diversity, and inclusion effort is about. We don’t do ourselves any favors if we don’t recognize the work of everyone. In the end, our hope is that that best film is recognized.”