In the past decade, the inclusion of streaming services in the documentary market has made it increasingly harder for smaller docus struggling with funding to break into the nonfiction feature Oscar race. But in spite of the deep pockets they are up against, a number of cash-strapped docs inevitably make it onto the shortlist every year. This year was no exception.
Jessica Beshir’s “Faya Dayi” (Janus Films, pictured above), Camilla Nielsson’s “President” (Greenwich Entertainment) and Sushmit Ghosh and Rintu Thomas’ “Writing with Fire” (Music Box Films) are three films on this year’s feature doc shortlist that are up against competitors with multi-million-dollar campaign budgets being paid by media and tech conglomerates including Apple, Netflix, ViacomCBS, the Walt Disney Co. and WarnerMedia.
As the field narrows and lobbying and marketing takeover, it’s clear that money and brand recognition are key factors in the race for Oscar gold, which makes “Faya Dayi,” “President” and “Writing With Fire’s” odds of receiving an Academy nom over Todd Haynes’ “The Velvet Underground” (Apple Original Films), Robert Greene’s “Procession” (Netflix), or Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s “The Rescue” (National Geographic) slim.
That’s not to say it won’t happen. In the past three years, docus without big backers including “Collective,” “The Mole Agent,” “Hale County This Morning, This Evening” and “Of Fathers and Sons” all received Oscar nominations. But a win seems out of the question. (Netflix garnered the previous two feature docu Academy Awards while Nat Geo took home the little gold man in 2019 for “Free Solo.”)
An argument can be made that the Oscar doc race has never been a completely level playing field, but there is no denying that corporate dollars and a 2012 rule change that allowed the entire Academy — not just the docu branch — to vote on the five nominated nonfiction features altered not only how the race is won, but what type of film wins.
So-called popular documentaries — or films that have had the most exposure and have garnered pre-Oscar kudos — have the advantage in the current race. This year the most popular kids in the documentary shortlist cafeteria are, debatably, Jonas Poher Rasmussen, director of “Flee” (Neon) and Ahmir Thompson better known as Questlove, director of “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” (Hulu/Searchlight Pictures).
Rasmussen’s “Flee” — an animated doc — was invited to every major award season festival including Sundance, Telluride, Toronto and New York. The film was submitted by Neon for Oscar best picture consideration in addition to the documentary, animation, and international film categories. (“Flee,” a Norway entry, made AMPAS’ docu and international film shortlist.) In December “Flee,” which has already garnered hardware from the New York Film Critics Circle and the Gotham Independent Film Awards, was nominated for a Golden Globe in the animated feature category.
While some in the nonfiction branch complain that “Flee” is an animated project and not a docu, the film will most likely receive a nomination in part due to the huge block of documentary branch voters not based in the U.S, which has turned more foreign docs into Oscar finalists and nominees in recent years.
Like “Flee,” Questlove’s “Summer of Soul” has been in the spotlight since January 2020 when it debuted at Sundance and was acquired by Hulu and Searchlight for $12 million.
In November the film won six Critics Choice Documentary awards including doc feature of the year. “Summer of Soul” is Questlove’s documentary fea-ture debut and there is no denying that the nonfiction branch likes newbie directors.
In the past two decades, nine helmers have taken home the Academy Award for their very first documentary theatrical feature. They include Ezra Edelman (“O.J.: Made in America”), Louie Psihoyos (“The Cove”) and Pippa Ehrlich (“My Octopus Teacher”).
In addition to Questlove, there are five first-time feature docu directors on this year’s shortlist: Ghosh and Thomas (“Writing With Fire”), Haynes (“The Velvet Underground”), Beshir (“Faya Dayi”) and “Ascension” director Jessica Kingdon.
They are competing with a slew of veteran nonfiction filmmakers that made the shortlist including Stanley Nelson (“Attica”), R.J. Cutler (“Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry”), Matthew Heineman (“The First Wave”), Nanfu Wang (“In the Same Breath”), Julie Cohen and Betsy West (“Julia”) and Megan Mylan (“Simple as Water”).
Whether they were made by a first-time director or a veteran director, each of the 15 films on this year’s shortlist is premium content created by skillful hands. But when it comes to the nonfiction Oscar race, the work is not necessarily what’s being judged.