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The Truth Behind the Academy’s Reworking of the Doc Rules

Hoop Dreams

A few facts about today’s news item worth paying attention to — as told to me by Michael Moore himself in a phone call this evening:

1) The entire branch of 166 documentary filmmakers will now get to vote on the doc nominees, where in the past that privilege was limited to private screenings by a selection committee.
2) Screeners for the documentaries will now be sent out to all members where before they had to view them in a theater during a specific time and vote that day.
3) They will get the films quarterly.  They will receive around 15 films every few months to watch instead of having to cram them all in at the end of the year — they still have to qualify, but they will be seen.
4) The new rules effectively protect the smaller fish from being chased out because the big fish have more money to manipulate the broken system.
5) The reviewing policy was written with conditions that heavily benefit the filmmakers, not the critics and not the Academy.  Any filmmaker can appeal if no critic is sent to review their film.  Why was this system implemented?  It’s explained below.

Moore says, though, that after two years of trying to get these rules changed — something I’ve never seen any individual do in the 13 years I’ve been covering the race — the way it all came down was ultimately “heartbreaking.”  Though he was only elected a year and half ago, Moore says it’s a cause that’s been close to his heart as he’s watched year after year the great documentaries virtually ignored, “The Academy says it’s decided what the Best Documentary of the year is. But if only 5% of the Academy are deciding that we’re not telling the truth. Wouldn’t it be more honest,” he said, “if we let the whole Academy vote.”

Today’s news was a classic example of burying the lede.  Somehow the news of the day, that the antiquated rules governing the Academy’s Documentary Branch had been entirely upended, was taken over by the smaller detail that the films had to be reviewed prior to becoming eligible for the doc category.  The other detail that took front and center was the number of documentaries under consideration was to be cut in half. But what didn’t get reported, picked up, and celebrated was how significant this change really is.  I think we’ve missed a significant development in the evolution of the Oscars.  We want to see change? Well, this is change.

But first, to address the reviewing issue, which is what seems to have gotten everyone riled up.  The reason they’re doing it is to prevent documentaries made for TV from having secret screenings in order to qualify but preventing outlets from reviewing them so that the review can then run before the doc is shown on TV.  They want the Oscar to drive up the TV ratings, but doesn’t that run counter to what honoring Best Documentary is about?  Shouldn’t they instead reward docs that have the intent to play in theaters and make money for the distributors?  Imagine a TV movie getting a secret screening qualifying run out in La Canada in order to qualify for the Oscars but then never showing up again in theaters?

Many of the docs headed for TV are what Moore calls “vanity projects,” which are usually top-heavy productions that don’t need to make money at all once they hit theaters but they do need to drive up ratings.  “They have their own award for that,” said Moore, “it’s called an Emmy.”    And indeed, the Oscar race shouldn’t be a platform to publicize TV docs or films intended to be shown on TV.  It ups their prestige but it cockblocks other documentaries that don’t have those sweet deals.

The reason for the NY Times involvement and not, say, NPR or Salon, is that the New York Times says that they will review every film that will play in a theater for one week.  Moore says that in the Academy’s rules they have liberal appeal processes that favor the filmmakers; if there isn’t a critic who can review their movie when it is in theaters, they can appeal to the Academy to wait until a critic has a chance to see the film.

The LA Times was thrown in to facilitate consideration on both coasts but the rules were written to benefit the filmmakers; should there ever be an occasion where the LA Times discontinues film reviews (you never know), Moore says they will work instead to get rid of the secret screenings all together.  By forcing filmmakers to have their films reviewed, that removes any possibility of manipulating the system for the sole purpose of generating Oscar buzz for a film destined for television anyway.  We see this every year.  And usually, the more powerful the production company or distributor (like HBO, for instance) the better publicity, the better chance for Oscar buzz, the better chance for a nomination.  By ridding the process of these secret screenings, it puts the filmmakers on a more level playing field.

What will likely happen is that outlets will send critics to the movies anyway so it won’t be just the New York Times or the LA Times that reviews them, though they are the designated outlets for qualification.  That is a detail that can be changed later. The important thing, for Moore and the Academy, was finally getting rid of the secret screenings and selection committees.

Much was made of Docuweek and how it afforded filmmakers a chance to have their films qualify without having a qualifying run.  To enter a film in Docuweek, though, does cost a pretty penny – anywhere from $20 to $30,000.  Most smaller projects don’t have that kind of money on hand.  Moore points out that had he made Roger and Me today with the same financing he couldn’t have afforded to have his film shown at Docuweek either.   But yes, it also means that the sheer number of docs entering the race does get smaller.  But the benefits far outweigh the disadvantages because simply having more documentaries for the committees to watch at the end of the year does not necessarily insure, in fact we know it does anything but, that the best docs will get a nomination.

The best part of today’s news, though, is that the entire Academy will vote on Best Picture because they will now be getting them via screener.  They will even have live streaming of the qualifying docs next year.  That means that the Best Documentary will no longer only have to be decided by those few people who could get out to an actual theater and watch the documentaries and then vote on them that day.  This makes the category more like the other categories – in fact, much more improved.

Moore also told me that the doc shorts will follow suit and that it will overhaul its voting system so that more members will be able to vote on them.

What is probably most disappointing about today’s news is how the story broke — sure, it’s a reporter’s job to chase the heat.  In this case, though, the whole story wasn’t told and the most significant development was lost in the noise.   I am personally gobsmacked that one person took it upon himself to change things.  And that the Academy voted unanimously towards this kind of change.  We give them a lot of shit for nearly every decision they make regarding the Oscars. We rarely applaud their decisions.  But this time, you have to give it to them – this is the first step towards real change in the documentary branch.