This year’s documentary Academy Award feature race is historical on many fronts. Four of the five nominated films were directed by people of color; Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s “Flee” made history by scoring three Oscar nominations: not only the doc feature category but also in the animated feature and international feature categories; Sushmit Ghosh and Rintu Thomas’ “Writing With Fire” became the first feature doc from India to earn a nom in the race; and four of the six nominated helmers are first-time feature docu directors.
But perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this year’s nonfiction feature Oscar race is the dominance of nascent doc distributors and production units.
Paramount Plus, Showtime Documentary Films and Music Box Films each received their inaugural Oscar nomination in the documentary feature category Feb. 8 for: Jessica Kingdon’s “Ascension” (MTV Documentary Films/Paramount Plus), Stanley Nelson’s “Attica” (Showtime Documentary Films) and Ghosh and Thomas’ “Writing with Fire” (Music Box Films). Meanwhile Neon and Hulu garnered their second noms in the category for Rasmussen’s “Flee” and Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” respectively.
It’s a remarkable feat given Netflix’s five-year stronghold on the feature docu category. The streaming service garnered six Academy Awards nominations between 2017 and 2021 and three wins for “Icarus” (2018), “American Factory” (2020) and “My Octopus Teacher” (2021). But this year, like fellow top docu distributors including Amazon, National Geographic, Apple TV Plus and HBO, Netflix was left out of the race.
While each established heavyweight distributor had multimillion-dollar campaign budgets for films that made the 2021 feature documentary Oscar short list including Todd Haynes’ “The Velvet Underground” (Apple), Robert Greene’s “Procession” (Netflix), and Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s “The Rescue” (Nat. Geo), in the end it didn’t matter.
“When it comes to the awards process, it comes down to the greatest storytelling of the year. The most impactful filmmaking,” says Vinnie Malhotra, Showtime’s executive vice president of nonfiction programming.
Sheila Nevins, head of MTV Documentary Films, acquired “Ascension” following the docu’s Tribeca Film Festival premiere in June. In November the film went out to general audiences via Paramount Plus, which only launched in March 2021.
“Docus are a new element in the visibility race,” says Nevins, a nonfiction powerhouse who ran HBO Documentary Films for nearly four decades. “If you are a good businessman and you want your country to shine, you have got to be doing worthwhile documentary programming. You follow the trend and the trend is docu.”
She hopes that garnering the first Oscar nomination for Paramount Plus will lead to growth.
“The nomination is very important to the organization because when you say MTV people tend to think music and kids,” says Nevins. “Everybody says to me, ‘This project is perfect for you because it’s about a band or this singer.’ But we are the documentary division of MTV and we have docus about all different subjects, for all age groups, from all different countries.”
She adds: “I think [the nomination] will change the freedom with which MTV Documentary Films can make new [docs]. If you can get visibility on this level as an underdog, maybe your future will be brighter in terms of doing more and getting more funds to support docus.”
But when it comes to Showtime Documentary Films, the nom for Nelson’s “Attica” isn’t a sign of change to come, but more of a marker in the unit’s nearly decade-long investment in nonfiction filmmaking.
“I’ve been at Showtime for almost eight years, and we’ve been trying to create this brand and really grow Showtime Documentary Films,” Malhotra says. “We have worked very hard to get here and we are already on this path. We are true lovers, believers, supporters, patrons of documentary, and will continue to work with filmmakers of Stanley’s caliber and level.”
“Summer of Soul” marks Disney’s Onyx Collective’s first Academy Award nomination. Launched in 2021, the content brand was designed to curate a slate of programming by artists of color and underrepresented voices on Hulu. The release of “Summer of Soul” provided Onyx head Tara Duncan with a roadmap for the future.
“We gave [‘Summer of Soul’] a bespoke and a really intentional distribution plan that was successful,” Duncan says. “[Disney] is now organized to make sure that we are all working synergistically, meaning we can get content into the audience’s hands wherever they may be. That will continue to be a priority for us at Onyx.”
So how much money will Oscar’s newest players throw at campaigns meant to ensure that the entire Academy sees and votes on their titles? It all depends on whom you talk to.
Showtime made “Attica” available on YouTube (and in front of the paywall across the company’s partner platforms) during February’s Black History Month. The company will also have retrospective screenings in New York and Los Angeles in early March, which will celebrate Nelson’s career and body of work. “Attica” will also be part of those screenings.
“Are we going to spend as much as Netflix or Nat Geo or Amazon or whomever? Maybe not,” Malhotra says. “The idea is to try to make sure as many people can see it. As the Academy has shifted and changed over the past two years, I have to say that the very idea that there’s an [Academy screening] portal where you can calmly and deliberately go through and watch everything is beneficial. So, you can launch as many screenings as you want, but in the age of COVID-19, how many people are going to be at a screening? They are going to use their access to these films on the Academy site.”
Having Disney money behind “Summer of Soul” does not necessarily give the film a leg up in the race, according to Duncan. She says that the conglomerate’s reach is what really matters.
“We definitely have an ecosystem at our fingertips that gives us the ability to get the content out to an audience on a global scale. It feels like Disney launching this brand couldn’t have come at a better time, and hopefully it’s a sign of things to come. Hopefully we will continue to see the stories that sometimes get overlooked or haven’t been championed get support all the way through awards season.”
Nevins is relying on the alphabet.
“You know A’s are good because people in the broad Academy, they don’t watch docus, but as they go down the list they vote for the first [doc] they see,” she quips. “So, for ‘Ascension,’ that’s a good thing.”