Just when you thought the Oscars couldn't possibly screw up the nomination and voting process for Best Documentary Feature any further, Deadline is reporting that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has instituted a policy in which all entries must receive a review in either the New York Times or the Los Angeles Times in order to be eligible for consideration.
This new rule is just the latest in a long and increasingly exasperating series of hurdles for potential nominees.
Over the last three decades, the Oscars have consistently failed to recognize some of the greatest achievements of each year in the documentary category. Films like "The Thin Blue Line," "Roger & Me," "Hoop Dreams," "Fahrenheit 9/11," "Grizzly Man" and "Waiting For Superman" all either failed to secure a nomination or were deemed ineligible for a variety of provincial, outdated or genuinely arbitrary reasons. For example, Werner Herzog’s "Grizzly Man" was considered ineligible because of an Academy rule disqualifying documentaries made up entirely of archival footage, despite the fact that Herzog did shoot new footage for the film.
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Meanwhile, even more shameful than the Academy's rule and limitations is the impatience and laziness of the documentary committee, whose members infamously turned off "Hoop Dreams" after just 15 minutes. Thankfully, that incident -- and the absence of both that and Terry Zwigoff’s "Crumb" as nominees -- led to a campaign to change Academy rules, but in subsequent years, the committee has seemed determined to ignore critically acclaimed or commercially successful documentaries in favor of more obscure or unknown titles.
Superficially, the new rule requiring a review from the the New York Times or the Los Angeles Times may level the playing field for those larger documentaries, since they’re more likely to receive a review than something with lesser distribution or marketing behind it. (Sadly, that isn’t the sort of help those films need.)
But as the rationale for making this change, Deadline’s Pete Hammond reported Academy COO Ric Robinson saying, "There were over 100 entries in the category this year and it is just too much, it's getting out of hand." That is ridiculous, and again, lazy; it is quite literally the committee's job to watch all eligible entries and make an educated determination, based on the quality of the films (and nothing else), which titles will receive nominations. To impose rules making it easier for them to select the nominees, but more difficult for struggling documentaries and documentary filmmakers to get their work seen, is an abuse of the Academy’s authority, and further compromises the tenuous credibility of the documentary committee as a champion for what are the best documentary features of each year.
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Perhaps the worst part of this change is the Academy’s decision to consider only the New York Times and Los Angeles Times as eligible publications in which to publish reviews of eligible films. It's absolutely true that the credibility of these two publications is unassailable, but given the decreasing prominence of print media -- which has resulted in smaller reporting staffs with less time and fewer column inches to work with -- to elect even these two venerable outlets as arbiters, or even primary filters, of worthy films is a delusional vote for print media that quite frankly it doesn’t deserve. There are countless highly reputable online publications that attend every film festival, watch every documentary, and write reviews for all of them, and if a printed review is criteria for eligibility, their reporting should be included as well.
But ultimately, it’s not a question of print versus online, or old media versus new. It’s about how to determine which films are the best documentaries of a given calendar year. And the Academy documentary committee continues to add insult to injury by not only insisting that its potential nominees adhere to rules which exclude a wide variety of candidates for arbitrary or outdated reasons, but also now requiring them to add another level of effort (and of course, money) in campaigning to get their films reviewed in two publications that continue to reduce the number of films they cover each year, documentary or otherwise.
But then again, maybe the solution is more obvious: Make a documentary about the Academy's bizarre history of mistakes and missteps in the category. It may not get nominated, but it would at least be seen.