Sifting Through the Weird New Rules for Oscar’s Documentaries

The Academy Award for Best Documentary has always been, let’s face it, problematic. For decades the Documentary branch was notorious for snubbing, on an almost yearly basis, any doc that’d had the good fortune of actually accomplishing box office success; some of the most acclaimed nonfiction feature films of recent years (including Grey Gardens, The Thin Blue Line, Roger & Me, and Sherman’s March) weren’t even nominated for the award. In 1994, amidst charges of unfair rules and cronyism, the critical outcry following the snubs of Hoop Dreams and Crumb prompted the Academy to change, at long last, the way it nominated and voted on documentary films. The new rules certainly improved matters, and well-regarded, deserving pics like The Fog of War, Man on Wire, and Inside Job won the award.

But it’s still an imperfect system, and this year’s 15-film “short list” had several puzzling exclusions: Werner Herzog’s masterful Cave of Forgotten Dreams and powerful Into the Abyss, Errol Morris’ Tabloid, and the sharp and moving The Interrupters (from Hoop Dreams director Steve James). It’s hard to say if the louder-than-normal response to those snubs caused the new round of just-announced changes to the documentary nominating and voting procedure; what we can say is that they are a decidedly mixed bag.

Basically, you’ve got two big new changes in the works:

1. A shakeup of the nominating and voting process. According to Oscar-winning director (and conservative gadfly) Michael Moore, a member of the Academy’s governing board (we’re as surprised as you are), the previous method for nominating documentaries divvied up the qualifying films (124 films this year; 101 in 2010) among several committees among the 157-member documentary branch. Those committee members would view them and score them numerically, and the average score among the smaller committees would determine whether it moved on — so, in other words, if one or two people in the committee disliked a film, they could torpedo it from moving on.

That explains how something like Into the Abyss might not make the shortlist (remember, not everyone finds Herzog’s accent as delightful as we do), and that will change. According to Moore, the entire documentary branch will determine the shortlist, and vote from it to determine the nominees — much as in other categories. Also gone is the old rule on who could vote for the award winner; the previous regulation was that only Academy members who had demonstrably seen the nominated films “in a theatrical setting” (read: no screener DVDs) could cast a vote for the year’s best documentary. Now, viewing by screener is allowed (again, as in most other categories).

“The process will be more transparent and more democratic than it’s been in two decades,” Moore told The New York Times. “The idea is to get this thing fixed.”

And that change could help fix it. Except…

2. A strange change to the qualifications. Here’s the one that’s got everyone scratching their heads. The previous qualification for a Best Documentary nomination was a theatrical run of at least one week in New York or Los Angeles, but that’s been amended; now, not only does your film have to have played that week, but it has to have been reviewed by either The New York Times or The Los Angeles Times. Yay, critics are important!

Except, eh, that would knock some good films out of contention. The primary target, it appears, are folks like HBO, which acquire documentaries to run on their network, quietly four-wall them in out-of-the-way theaters like the Coliseum Cinemas in New York’s Washington Heights neighborhood solely to meet the one-week Oscar qualification (and where, as your author can attest from personal experience, they sometimes aren’t even actually running them), and then submit them for consideration. They did that last fall for Paradise Lost 3, one of the year’s best docs; it was not reviewed, presumably because New York Times readers are less likely to schlep uptown during its miniscule one-week run, and more likely to watch it when it airs on HBO in January.

But the new rule also targets films that run in DocuWeeks, a program that lets filmmakers pay a fee to get that Oscar-qualifying theatrical run; Semper Fi: Always Faithful (which I’ve seen, and is very, very good) qualified for this year’s short list thanks to DocuWeeks, but it wouldn’t qualify next year, because neither of the papers of record reviewed it.

So what’s the purpose of the new rule? Ric Robertson, the Academy’s chief operating officer, told The New York Times that it was a move to spotlight only “genuine theatrical” films. But many have surmised that the documentary branch is merely seeking to lighten a workload that is increasing with the rise in popularity and productivity of nonfiction cinema.

Point is, this new rule disregards the changing face of movie-going; we watch movies differently now, which the new rules embrace on one hand (with the screener allowance for viewers) and ignores them on the other (by insisting on a one-week, advertised, reviewed run for any documentary — a requirement that gets increasingly difficult in today’s compromised indie and specialized cinema landscape). Movieline’s S.T. Vanairsdale points out that there are ways in which the new rules could make very little difference, both in terms of logistical application and ultimate appeals to Academy voters’ (occasionally non-existent) taste. And as Moore points out, films that don’t get reviewed can always get an appeal from the Academy: “We have a very liberal appeals process.” (SEE WHAT HE DID THERE?)

But it comes down to this: Once again, building the Best Documentary Oscar is a matter of two steps forward and one step back.