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Film academy changes rules for documentary Oscar

To pare the number of entries, feature-length documentaries will have to be reviewed by the L.A. Times and N.Y. Times in order to be eligible for an Academy Award.

January 10, 2012|By Nicole Sperling and Reed Johnson, Los Angeles Times
  • The new rules seem intent on curbing the inclusion of films like the made-for-TV George Harrison documentary by Martin Scorsese, a four-hour film that HBO intended primarily for its cable channel but added a brief theatrical qualifying run to make it eligible for Oscar consideration, even though some critics and documentary makers regarded Scorsese's film as easily among last year's best.
The new rules seem intent on curbing the inclusion of films like the made-for-TV… (Apple Corps Ltd / HBO )

A new requirement that documentary films must be reviewed by the Los Angeles Times or New York Times in order to be eligible for Oscar consideration is being touted by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as a way to pare down a recent glut in the number of feature films submitted — including many that air on television but may only play in one theater for one week.

But the change, which would come into effect for the 2013 Oscars, is raising concerns among some filmmakers, including members of the academy's own documentary branch, that the new rule will favor wealthier documentary makers who have professional publicists over the vast majority of colleagues who typically struggle to finance their films, let alone publicize them.

"A N.Y. Times or L.A. Times review does not make a lot of sense to me, because the academy already requires a one-week run" in a theater, said veteran documentary filmmaker Joe Berlinger, whose most recent film, "Paradise Lost 3," has made this year's shortlist for best feature documentary. "Now in addition to running ads we have to hire publicists and get guaranteed a review."

The L.A. Times already reviews nearly every film released on a commercial screen for a week in Los Angeles. The New York Times' policy is to review every film released on a commercial screen for a week in New York or Los Angeles; it also reviews some new releases screened by nonprofit groups like museums.

Other documentary makers suggested that the new requirement ignores the reality of the varied ways in which high-quality documentaries are being exhibited today, whether in movie theaters or on television.

"The changes do not address the key problem, which is 99% of the documentaries being made are not released in theaters. So tightening up the rules for theatrical release just highlights the issue all the more," Lawrence Hott, a two-time Oscar nominee, said in an email. "I would prefer to see the academy figure out a way to get rid of the theatrical requirement and recognize that the distinction between theatrical and non-theatrical for documentaries is a phony one and makes no sense in the modern world of documentary production."

The new requirement is part of a package of Oscar rule changes affecting documentaries. In addition to the review requirement, all 157 members of the documentary branch of the academy will now vote to select the nominees for best documentary and the winner will be determined by the academy's entire voting membership of 5,783. Previously, only those academy members who had viewed all the nominated documentaries in a theatrical setting were allowed to vote for the winner.

"The mission of the academy is to honor motion pictures intended for theaters," Rob Epstein, chair of the academy's documentary branch executive committee, said in an email. "Over the past two years, the documentary branch has experienced a vast increase in the number of non-theatrical documentaries, specifically, films that will not have real theatrical distribution but are merely running in a theater for one week in order to qualify for academy consideration."

Some of those films include acclaimed made-for-TV documentaries such as Martin Scorsese's George Harrison documentary (a four-hour film that HBO intended primarily for its cable channel but added a brief theatrical qualifying run to make it eligible for Oscar consideration). The new rule seems intent on curbing the inclusion of such films, even though some critics and documentary makers regarded Scorsese's film as easily among last year's best. It was reviewed by both an L.A. Times TV critic and a New York Times TV critic.

Among the films likely to be most severely affected by the rule changes will be smaller, lower-budget movies that have previously been deemed eligible for Oscar consideration after inclusion in the International Documentary Assn.'s annual DocuWeeks program, which is held for three weeks at the end of the summer in both Los Angeles and New York. Those films are often not reviewed by the two major newspapers.

"This new requirement favors wealthy filmmakers. It weights the scales toward people with money and with connections to reviewers," said Victoria Mudd, a former member of the academy's documentary executive committee who won the documentary Oscar for "Broken Rainbow" (1985), about the U.S. government's relocation of Navajo Indians. "I think it puts too much power in publicists and critics."

The new rules come during a highly creative period for documentary filmmaking, both domestically and internationally. With inexpensive digital cameras now widely available, nonfiction filmmakers face fewer technological barriers to entering the field. Still, only a handful of populist documentary makers such as Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock ("Super Size Me"), whose movies are liberally sweetened with irreverent humor, are able to consistently attract relatively large movie theater audiences.

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