OSCARS: Academy Tightens Documentary Rules; Too Much Power To LA-NY Times?

EXCLUSIVE: Next week the Academy of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences will announce a major change in the way documentaries will be eligible for the Best Feature Documentary Oscar competition, and it gives newfound power to the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times in determining what movies make the cut. Currently, rules only require a seven-day run in Los Angeles County and New York City that must be advertised in a major newspaper (defined as LA Times or LA Weekly in LA, and NY Times or Village Voice or Time Out New York in NY). But now, in an attempt to further weed out the influx of docs generally designed to run only on television, a review of the film MUST appear in either the LA Times or the NY Times at the time of opening along with adhering to the previous rules. According to Academy COO Ric Robertson, the new requirement is a further step
in eliminating docs that have no real intention of gaining distribution or having a legitimate theatrical run. A common practice in recent years has been for faux theatrical docs (and even some animated feature and VOD entries) to attempt to skirt the rules by quietly “four walling” a qualifying run on an obscure screen — often on the outskirts of the city. In some cases, it is the last movie screen these movies play on their way to TV. The new rule will confirm the credibility of a legitimate contender by requiring a movie (not TV) review, tied to the opening of the film, in one of those two major newspapers. Trade reviews out of a film festival would not meet the requirement.

Last year, the Academy changed dates for eligible docs to fall within the calendar year, so 2012 Oscar hopefuls now have a full 12 months to get their film opened and reviewed by the LA Times or NY Times. For those who will complain that the new rule puts too much power over the process of Oscar eligibility in the hands of two major-market newspapers, Robertson says there will be an appeals process available to the filmmaker and/or distributor to state their case.

“There were over 100 entries in the category this year and it is just too much, it’s getting out of hand,” said Robertson, who noted the Academy’s Documentary Executive Committee has been active and aggressive in trying to ensure only true motion picture docs with theatrical distribution be considered. He added that so far these new rules only apply to feature docs, but it might not be out of the question to apply them to other films such as smaller animated features or even VOD movies. Those sometimes skirt the Acad’s rules against films first seen on TV by quietly sneaking in a low-key seven-day qualifying run in some out-of-the-way screen where it won’t be noticed or necessarily reviewed. Among movies using that gambit this year were Roadside’s Margin Call and Magnolia’s Melacholia, which both launched their regular theatrical runs after VOD debuts.

Robertson stresses that the new documentary rule is for 2012 films and doesn’t affect the current race, for which 15 finalists have already been shortlisted before being whittled down to five when nominations are announced January 24. In fact, he says the Academy wanted to wait until March before making the announcement to avoid confusion (but Deadline uncovered it).

  1. The Academy is such a mockery…

    I’d nominate 95% of those docs they believe are “too much” over the shit they’ll be celebrating come awards night.

  2. Long overdue! There’s nothing worse than getting blocked in the nominating process by a film no one ever saw which didn’t even play anywhere! N

  3. The Academy is again looking backward and wanting to go back to 1950 rather than look forward. Such a shame that they again try to stifle competition so all their hack cronies can win… Without television revenues there would be no viable financial model for any docs. Nearly all would lose money at the theatrical level otherwise.

  4. @bill, I agree. It seems the last bastion of creativity and intelligent film entertainment largely lies in the category of “documentary.”

  5. HBO and ITVS have been playing this game for years. Last year’s “short list” was embarrassing. This year is a bit better. The documentary committee should also check out the credits to see who has funded some of these “films,” or rather, glorified home videos.

  6. It seems to me this might actually be a fair constraint in one way and impossible the next.

    Since this is the docu category, opening one in a small house no one knows about only to then run on TV fairly quickly, it feels like this practice might be a safe way of qualifying.

    But then having them need to be reviewed in L.A. or NY? That feels a little limited.

    If you’re a documentary maker just getting your docu seen at all appears to be a challenge.

    Maybe open the locations to few more cities like Dallas, Chicago and San Francisco or something.

    With newspapers dying (as we’re told) it feels like this practice would overwhelm the reviewing staffs of papers in NY and L.A. No?

  7. As a long time member of the Academy and a member of the Doc branch, I am not surprised by this action. But I am very disappointed that the execs at the Academy are so short sighted. A couple years ago at a public meeting someone in the audience said the Academy should make every attempt to get the best doc films every year and then CEO Bruce Davis said they “didn’t want the best films.” He went on to complain that they already got too many entries and it was a burden. Of course the Academy does not understand the value of the unique docs that are nominated as they really want to get rid of the shorts and and docs to shorten the tv show. They have forgotten their mission statement.

  8. Half-stupid, half-smart. YES to a public theatrical run LA and New York but f’r’Chrisake DON’T make a published review the criterion for eligibility. Newspaper arts sections, or what’s left of them, are the last entities you want as arbiters, especially with layoffs (e.g. Hoberman) and inexperienced, uninformed editors — and sometimes the advertising departments — deciding coverage.

  9. This rule change is enormously shortsighted. The circulation of these papers has been declining for years. At the very least the “review” rule should be extended to any major daily in the top 10 MSAs which opens to Dallas, Philadelphia, DC, Chicago, Miami, Atlanta, Boston, And Houston in addition to NY and LA.

  10. Wow. A published review in print newspaper as a prerequisite for Academy Award qualification? Soy ink, dead trees, the thwunk! on the doorstep at 5 AM?
    By such an action, the Academy would be giving over nominating power to the people who destroyed the LA Times and raided the employees’ pension fund to line their own pockets. I wish the Doc branch of the Academy would stop changing the capricious qualifying rules every year, and start treating docs like other features.

  11. Clearly no one in the Academy has ever worked for a newspaper.

    It’s always a challenge to get a review or story to run because editors have space constraints and their own ideas about what matters to readers. With arts coverage, it’s far worse, since there’s so much to choose from and the criteria are so subjective. For just one example, I once had an editor turn down a story about Jennifer Lopez because, “I’ve never heard of her.”

    And the Academy wants to put the hard work of documentarians up against THAT?

    As a journalist, I hope the Academy reconsiders.

  12. Why the Academy would allow the Arts Editors of two newspapers to determine which films qualify for the documentary Oscar and which don’t is inexplicable. This is a role for distributors, theater owners, and the theater-going public – as evidenced through the ability to achieve theatrical release and draw box office.

  13. Newspapers are on the cutting edge …of oblivion. Nice relevance move, Academy. Maybe you can get Louella Parsons and Walter Winchell to help out too.

  14. May the morons at the Oscars plese look up the “For Your Consideration for Best Director” ads for Jean Claude Van Damme. Seeing how in the future, there will be no more 35mm film releases running in theaters, they need to quit getting to be a pack of snobs.

  15. Someday a filmmaker will get to say “I would have qualified for an Oscar nomination but my review got bumped for a Pampers coupon.”

    Advertising always gets first priority over content in any newspaper.

    This move is so 1986, when print was king.

  16. No offense to those that care about docs, but the majority of people don’t. Sorry. Oscar docs should be relegated to the oblivion of the tech awards and just bring out the winners for a quick wave. It’s a mundane showstopper whose only purpose is to screw up everyone’s oscar pool (unless there’s a holocaust doc…vote for that and you’re a winner.)

    Throw out the docs and the shorts and get on with the show.

  17. Melancholia is widely perceived to be one of the best (to some, the absolute best) films of 2011. It had a highly publicized and extended year end theatrical release in New York, and I am am certain in additional major cities. Citing its on pre theatrical release on-demand showings under the marketing plan of HD Net and Magnolia Pictures as making its theatrical release illigitiment exposes the entire puerile premise of the column and the asinine premise that a NY/LA Times review should/win determine a movie’s Oscar eligibility.

  18. I’m seriously lost here. Someone please explain to me why the Academy would not want to honor the best documentaries of the year? If the documentary that played on some Podunk, out-of-town screen for a sparrow-fart amount of time is better than the doc that played at the “in town” megaplex for a month….then it is the BETTER MOVIE! Why does it matter where it played?

    Quality is Quality. Better is Better. And an organization that bestows the honor of Best Documentary should be looking for the…wait for it…BEST DOCUMENTARY!

  19. So far no one has explained why the Academy’s Documentary Executive Committee — the whole DOCUMENTARY BRANCH of the Academy — can not watch 100 movies in a year?

    How is this onerous?

  20. Where does this rule leave those documentaries that do open in LA/NY, but which the critics are too busy (read: too lazy) to see/review?

  21. Well, documentaries makers seem to live in “interesting times” If the rules are like that why enter a documentary at all.

    Anyway, the solution seems te be to outsource the whole works. In the Netherlands we had last year the IDFA. This International Documentary Festival in Amsterdam showed 300 titles of which 88 were new. In 12 days about 200.000 people visited the festival.

    If the, oh so poor, Academy members are so very much pressed for time as I seem to understand, then we’ll take it of their hands, how about that? We’re nice people, we like giving developmental aid to a poor country. Enough qualified people around here. 8-)))
    Cheers! Hans

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