5 Reasons Why the Academy's New Documentary Rules Mean Nothing

The New York Times reported Sunday that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' documentary branch is tweaking its qualification rules once again, allowing only theatrical nonfiction feature films that have been reviewed by the NY or LA Times to be considered for Oscar nominations. Furthermore, voting on nominees will be expanded to the entire 166-member Documentary Branch (as opposed to individual committees), and the Academy as a whole can vote for Best Documentary, regardless of how or where members saw the nominated films. The revisions have prompted more than a little hand-wringing around the doc community -- for no especially good reason, alas. Here's why:

1. Films they're seeking to block will still get through.
In a year when the Doc Branch fielded an unprecedented volume of submissions (thanks entirely to the 2010 rule change that expanded the 2011 awards year to 16 months), the Academy wants to screen out docs conceived and produced primarily for television but which qualify for the Oscars with a one-week theatrical run in Manhattan and Los Angeles County. By requiring a newspaper review, said Academy COO Ric Robertson, the Oscars are likelier to reward "genuine theatrical" documentaries. Which would be fine -- if it were true: The same HBO-produced docs that are presently, quietly four-walled at the Coliseum Cinemas in Washington Heights or the Playhouse 7 in Pasadena are just going to do the same old thing in slightly more upmarket venues.

2. The process has always favored bigger films.
Michael Moore, who made his name putatively fighting on behalf of the little guy in the face of outsized institutional malevolence, apparently helped engineer the expanded voting-bloc change in what the NYT's Michael Cieply termed an effort to recognize more "popular and culturally significant films." Ha. It not clear what these films would be except for maybe things like Moore's own Capitalism: A Love Story and certain high-profile oversights like Werner Herzog's long-playing 3-D doc Cave of Forgotten Dreams -- a theatrical nonfiction treat if ever there were one. But the reality is that despite the annual snub ritual known as the documentary short list, theatrically geared films released by well-known specialty distributors win the majority of Academy attention when it matters -- in the nominations -- and the lion's share of Best Documentary Feature wins. Even Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, arguably this year's frontrunner and a perfect example of the type of made-for-TV doc the Academy would hope to deflect, is a product of the well-heeled HBO Documentary Films.

3. It's still all about the awards-season resources.
Moore also told Sasha Stone that, in effect, "the new rules effectively protect the smaller fish from being chased out because the big fish have more money to manipulate the broken system." I'll believe it when I see it. The new screener permission alone plays right into those larger interests' hands -- or rather, into their campaigners' hands: Guys like Harvey Weinstein, for example, can now flex their Academy muscle across the entire voting body while independently distributed docs will still only advance as far as their grassroots word-of-mouth (and thus their seasonal Oscar publicist) takes them. Suggesting that a film's awards cred relies on critical and theatrical integrity is like saying Mitt Romney will win the Republican presidential nomination based on values. Please.

4. The NY and LA Times already review virtually everything -- and filmmakers can appeal being omitted.
The most vocal opposition to the new rules invokes such films as the current short-lister Semper Fi: Always Faithful, which qualified via the International Documentary Association's DocuWeek program and has no record of a review in either newspaper. Would it be barred from consideration in future years? Probably not: As Stone also notes, DocuWeek inclusion costs not much less than four-walling a theater and sending an e-mail to a couple editors, and in the off chance that that tack fails, filmmakers and producers can appeal directly to the Documentary Branch for consideration. Which actually might be a disadvantage for the movies, simply because...

5.The Documentary Branch has no taste.
Nonfiction greats like Herzog or Steve James or Frederick Wiseman aren't routinely overlooked because of some qualification quirks or because some TV-oriented doc usurped their spots on the short list. They're snubbed because year after year, no single Academy voting bloc has proven its intellectual laziness and lack of judgment more assiduously than the Doc Branch. Expanding the actual Documentary Feature Oscar voting across the entire Academy only proves that the form's practitioners have next to no faith in the branch's members to either recognize "popular" documentaries (which isn't even the branch's job anyway) or defend the short-list selections and eventual nominees it does choose. If they really wanted change, they would just burn the place down, split the insurance money 166 ways, and outsource the Best Documentary voting to the Cinema Eye Honors or another reputable awards body. Until then? The more things change, the more they stay the same.

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  • Having the gatekeepers of heritage media filtering what's worthy or culturally relevant is a joke. I think we'll see this decision reversed soon. It's a major step backward.

  • Jake says:

    No surprise that Michael Moore is involved in this. He's an embarrassment to true documentary filmmakers everywhere. Moore cares not for truth or true stories. He is a propagandist, so it makes sense he would take an elitist position of limiting other docs from competing with his own garbage films. It's pathetic. What a jerk.

  • Bradley says:

    Hasn't one of the main complaints always been that votes are bought by advertising or gift bags or any way that they can be? Money bias will always go on. A nomination just means more sales and more marketability for the people associated with a film. It does not make a film a 'good film'.

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