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).