A New Set of Academy Rules for Documentaries?

It happens every year. Filmmakers and fans helplessly fume while the Academy overlooks Oscar-worthy movies who don’t even make the voting lineup. And documentaries are no exception. Past oversights include acclaimed classics like Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line and Steve James’s Hoop Dreams, while Asif Kapadia's Senna and Steve James's The Interrupters share the spotlight in this season’s highly regarded omissions.

Today’s Rules

Presently a group of volunteers from the Academy’s documentary branch divide into committees that narrow down documentary entries to an initial shortlist of 15 films. From those 15, the entire branch votes in five final nominees. After that the best documentary vote opens up to all Academy members who can prove they screened all five nominees in a movie theater. The downside: a complex scoring system that allots small committees an inordinate amount of power to propel their picks to the shortlist. Plus screening the massive number of entries (124 films qualified in 2011) has proved so inconvenient that, historically, only retirees had the time to take it on resulting in nominees and winners often thought too safe and out of sync with audiences.

Time for Change

Which is why, academy governor and filmmaker Michael Moore, (whose own documentary Roger & Me notoriously didn’t make the list in 1989) have proposed some new rules. Said Ric Robertson, chief operating officer of the Academy, “Tightening the definition of what a theatrical film is will also help this other part of the process, where the whole branch is obligated to look at all the entries.” “Hopefully . . . that 124 number [of documentary entries] goes down, making it more workable for our branch members, too.”

New Rules

To be eligible for a Best Documentary Oscar according to the new rules, films must be reviewed by either the New York Times or the Los Angeles Times during a qualifying theatrical run of at least one week in both cities. In addition, the academy will send DVD screeners or stream films online for documentary branch members four times a year, rather than require that they see the films in theaters. A shortlist of eligible films and the final five nominees will be voted on by the entire branch of documentary filmmakers, rather than selection committees. Lastly, the entire academy will vote on the final Oscar winner — putting nonfiction films in the same arena as movies contending for Best Picture.

Cheers or Jeers?

The new process certainly has its improvements however, what about that New York or L.A. Times review requirement? This rule could exclude small festival films like Semper Fi: Always Faithful – currently on this year’s shortlist – who lack the advertising budget or platform of mainstream theatrical distribution to guarantee coverage in major newspapers. A hurdle many worthy documentaries would fail to clear.

Yet reportedly Robertson doesn't seem to worried, and says the new rules are part of an effort to ensure Oscars go to “genuine theatrical” movies (rather than films made primarily for television). Asked whether worthwhile films might be excluded, he replied: “We may indeed lose worthy films. But I don’t think we’ll lose worthy theatrical films.” Hmm...

Is a Best Documentary entry and voting process that all involved consider fair impossible? Is there a way to streamline the entries without this Times review restriction? Will these updates stick, or are we in for another 'round of changes? Whatever happens -- between now and this year's Oscars -- may the best doc (or the best doc that makes it past the Academy’s latest rules) win.