With New Documentary Requirements, Oscar Is Just Being Oscar

New rules from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences governing documentary submissions for Oscar consideration have inspired extensive commentary this week.

The proposed changes affect those submitting their works for consideration and those voting on them within the Academy. For those submitting, they must have had their titles reviewed in either The New York Times or the Los Angeles Times. The New York Times policy requires a review of every title that gets a one-week theatrical run in New York or Los Angeles, while this story claims the L.A. paper “already reviews nearly every film released on a commercial screen for a week in Los Angeles,” though without an attribution to an official source.

For those voting, the changes include moving away from committee-based nominations within the documentary branch of the Academy toward all 157 members screening submissions initially. Once the pool has been narrowed, the entire Academy membership gets the opportunity to vote on the winner through a screener. Previous rules required that voting members viewed the documentaries in theaters.

These requirements come on top of the Academy’s already existing theatrical run requirement, which states, “To be eligible for 84th Academy Awards consideration, a documentary feature must complete both a seven-day commercial run in a theater in Los Angeles County, and a seven-day commercial run in a theater in the Borough of Manhattan during the eligibility period.” Programs such as the International Documentary Association’s DocuWeeks Theatrical Documentary Showcase help makers with meeting this requirement. The program is not one of automatic inclusion: Titles appearing on the program must go through a screening committee.

The review requirement gets the most attention among critics of these changes, I suspect, in part, because it is out of the documentary maker’s hands whether a title gets reviewed or not. While both newspapers have rules that require films to be reviewed if shown theatrically for a week or more, those rules appear to offer little consolation. The rule does beg some questions, though. One, why force such a responsibility on newspaper reviewers? Shouldn’t the Academy do its own screening of the applications? Two, why only these two papers out of the many major metropolitan papers throughout the country? Why not permit a review from Roger Ebert at the Chicago Sun-Times? Or from The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, The Denver Post, or the Detroit Free Press? Chicago, Boston, North Carolina, and other parts of the country have vibrant documentary communities, so why not include those within the geographical reach as well? Documentary makers can appeal this requirement with the Academy, but for some this option offers little consolation.

Another question raised among those responding to the rules refers to reducing the number of the documentaries eligible for consideration. This question raises two points, particularly from the Academy’s perspective: the number of submissions and the types of submissions. Michael Cieply notes in The New York Times that the Academy considered 124 titles in 2011, an increase of 23 from the 101 in 2010. Those amounts and their subsequent increases create a quandary for those trying to view the submissions within a set period, though the new rules allow for year-round screenings, which might ease that load a bit.

The types of submissions become another question. Academy member Michael Moore raised the point in a Twitter exchange with me that some television documentary makers try to qualify for Oscar consideration through a process called “four-walling,” which refers to renting a theater to show a film. Larger-budget television productions potentially have the money for this practice, though some get theatrical screenings alongside television scheduling anyway, such as Martin Scorsese’s George Harrison: Living in the Material World. The Academy, though, wants to keep television productions out of consideration, ensuring the place of national, theatrical documentaries.

Critics raised concerns about how these rules affected documentaries working on smaller budgets. In a blog post, IDA Executive Director Michael Lumpkin writes, “Some [of the rules] seem to favor the well-funded films as well as the better-known filmmakers, but as with any new system the real test will be implementing these rules in 2012.” When I asked how these changes benefited documentary makers working on smaller budgets, Moore replied, “Letting everyone watch on screeners will mean more participation, more chance for smaller films.” That way, films such as The Interrupters would have had more fair consideration, as many felt the well-received Kartemquin title got snubbed for not even landing on the shortlist this year. Of course, doubts will remain until the rules become practice.

Moore strongly advocates for the changes, but other documentary makers such as Joe Berlinger (the Paradise Lost series, Brother’s Keeper) and Robert Greene (Kati With An I, Fake It So Real) offer more mixed reactions. Still others have weighed in with support and dismissal.

One key point to remember is that the documentary form has always had a weird relationship with the Academy. While the awards started in 1927, the Academy didn’t begin recognizing documentary with an award until 1942 with Churchill’s Island. That date might not be a coincidence, as World War II saw some Hollywood directors such as John Huston (The Maltese Falcon) and Frank Capra (It Happened One Night, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) making documentaries about and for the war. Huston made Report from the Aleutians, The Battle of San Pietro, and Let There Be Light, while Capra was in charge of the the seven-part Why We Fight series. In general, though, the Academy strongly represents Hollywood, the old studios, and their “dream factory” image, while some powerful documentaries can shatter those dreams with the horrific, stark, and bleak realities they represent.

Another point to remember is that while the Academy emphasizes theatrical documentaries, documentaries appear in multiple other forms including not only moving images with television and video, but also still images, sound, and writing. Among makers working with moving images, though, not all possess the same goals outside wanting to get their works seen by audiences. Some seek specific audiences because they want to help, while others seek specific exhibition venues because they feel that’s where their audiences are. Some find the festival circuit, then going to video-on-demand and digital streaming, enough for their needs. In other words, not all seek Academy-level exposure.

Further, many of the award recognitions are medium-specific — the Oscar for film, for example, and the Emmy for television, for another example. With the increasing digital convergence, this medium-specificity is fast becoming (if not is already) a dated idea. Yet the Academy rules for documentary exhibition begin with requiring its showing on 16mm, 35mm, or 70mm film, and other, more complicated technical specifications refining these requirements further. With many makers opting for digital, this requirement means that for consideration and exhibition they must covert to the film medium, which is an expensive undertaking. At some point, this digital convergence will overtake medium-based production and exhibition, thus rendering this technical qualification obsolete.

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