New Oscar Eligibility Rules Could Shut Out Great Documentaries

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Oscar Statue

I sometimes wonder not only if the Academy of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences realizes it’s imposing 1930’s sensibilities on a 2012 world, but if in a sense it is pushing a Norma Desmondesque notion that, “I am big — It’s the pictures that got small.”

When it comes to documentaries, they did get small, and I think that’s wonderful. Small, numerous and meaningful – the antithesis of the studio system that created the Oscars as a self-congratulatory big-business exercise.

That silent-movie attitude about the way the Academy decides what’s good is appalling.

According to reporting Sunday by The New York Times, the Academy has decided, in its infinite wisdom, that it would only consider documentaries reviewed in one of the Two Timeses, The New York Times or the Los Angeles Times, as if those two newspapers are the ultimate arbiters of what’s good.

On one coast is a bankrupt newspaper whose owner may not survive. On the other is a city where acclaim is recognized as coming from a panoply of critics, such as the double Davids, Denby and Edelstein. In between is a vast middle of people with names like Chris Vognar, Lisa Kennedy and Roger Ebert, who might as well stop reviewing nonfiction.

The fact that The New York Times posted what I read as a somewhat chagrined article indicates it has taken a “What, me?” approach. Suddenly, A.O. Scott is the go-to guy. Scott politely called the rule change “flattering,” but his tone may have also been one of sadness.

If power becomes concentrated, and publicists rule the game, will documentarians, who are all essentially independent filmmakers, have the money to play?

Read: The 10 Most Powerful People in the Documentary World

Look at the numbers. According to the Times article, the Academy considered 124 movies in 2011. That’s it? 2.4 docs a week? What were they watching otherwise? “Desperate Housewives?”

I’d love it if the arbiters were documentary lovers who wanted to see many more than that on a weekly basis. Armchair Joe watches many more hours of football each week, and then he goes to work in the morning.

In its Saul Steinberg view of America, the Academy only thinks a documentary film is real if it plays in New York or Los Angeles – not Park City, not Austin, not Columbia, Missouri. Certainly not Toronto, or Sheffield, or Edinburgh.

There are stunning and meaningful documentaries being produced at an unprecedented rate, which is the most happy outcome of the digital age — amazing work by “outsiders” who lack the speed dial of the L.A. players but who know how to tell a damned good story. They use cheap camcorders and HDSLRs and other DIY tactics to tell sublime and gripping tales. And there have never been so many channels to distribute them, but the Academy has yet to fully support them. It continues to shun screeners for documentary consideration. Though there are hints this might be relaxed, according to its official rules, “the Academy remains firmly committed to the principal that motion pictures competing for Academy Awards should be seen and heard in a theatrical setting.”

You’d have to go back a few decades to see sense in this. Since it wasn’t practical to ship reels to Academy members, documentary producers made sure their films played in NYC or LA for a week so voters could pop in and see them. (Academy voters in those days only lived in New York or LA, but don’t get me going on that.)

The stated policy that The New York Times reviews every film released on a commercial screen for a week in New York or Los Angeles, and reviews some new releases screened by nonprofit groups like the Museum of Modern Art, presumes they always will. Unlikely. Shrinking news holes defy that, and make me wonder why two newspapers suddenly have such cachet.

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Edward J. Delaney
Edward J. Delaney
Edward J. Delaney is a journalist, author, filmmaker and editor of DocumentaryTech, an online project that explores documentary filmmaking techniques and technology.
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  • doc side

    While I have my fair share of qualms with the Academy as well, I think it’s important to note that “small and numerous” does not always equal “meaningful.” Similar to how one can criticize the studio system and how it churns out movies as products, this “unprecedented rate” that documentaries are being produced at does not guarantee quality. Just because someone can film a la fly-on-the-wall for a few hours, slap on some helvetica and indie rock music, does not make a documentary “sublime” or “meaningful,” rather it creates a new breed of home-video documentaries.

    I do believe that the Academy is unfair and does not let some quality documentaries get screened, but let’s be real, since when has the Academy been fair? 

    I love a great documentary. And the wealth of documentaries you refer to cannot all be great. Though I’m sure there are wonderful one’s getting shafted by the new rules, I think it’s important to continue to sift through them and sometimes shut them out. Whether or not the Academy is doing  an effective job is another question, but it’s important to remember that quantity does not mean quality.

  • Anonymous

    Doc (or shall I call you Dr. Side?),

    Points well taken. Quantity doesn’t always mean quality, but: It used to be that talent without big funding was useless, and big funding without talent equally so. A lot of filmmakers were simply disenfranchised. Now talent can flourish with very little funding. Some, and certainly not all, are doing amazing work.
    The changes in the dynamic, in which someone with a bag of inexpensive equipment might be able to legitimately be in the game based on passion, skill and talent is, to me, wonderful. Imagine a filmmaker with a HDSLR who, with no funding, no connections and no “insider” status makes a film that is sublime, but few people know about it. Will that filmmaker be able to get past the we-they mentality of Corporate Film?
    It seems to me that the number of excellent documentaries has definitely risen simply because cheap equipment has democratized the process. Sundance seems to be understanding that, the Academy, no. The Academy rules (as we agree) don’t seem to embrace what to me is the most excitign thing about film these days.
    But of course that all premises on the Academy holding continued sway. Obviously, there are lots of ways we as viewers can find out what the can’t-miss docs are. I’d love to see those options flourish as well.