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Doc U Recap: And the Award Goes To...

By KJ Relth

Take a look on any film-related website, blog, or events listing over the last month and one thing is clear: It is most decidedly Awards season! With the narrative feature category broadened in recent years to include more Best Picture candidates than ever, you can bet that millions upon millions were glued to their screens on Sunday evening to catch the best (and worst!) dressed on the runway to see whether or not they won their office Oscar pool. We have one over here at the IDA offices, and you can bet there were some upsets this morning!

Each year, the IDA tries to shed some light on the most discussed award in all of Hollywood by bringing together a panel of experts to talk All Things Oscar: what it takes to win, how much it costs to enter, how to create a successful ad campaign, and what winning will mean for one's future. This year, however, the excitement that usually builds before the Academy’s big event was overshadowed by some recent news that could significantly change how, and if, many documentary filmmakers make a run for the gold statuette.

Back in January, the New York Times broke a story about the new rules that would apply to the batch of documentary feature films attempting to qualify for an Academy Award nomination in the 2012 cycle. This opened up an ongoing discussion in the blogosphere and on our Facebook page on the impact of these new rules on the documentary community at large. Together with the Board of Directors, IDA’s Executive Director Michael Lumpkin released a statement regarding the rules change that attempted to take a stance on this new information without jumping to any conclusions.

It was in the wake of these events that IDA Board President Marjan Safinia agreed to moderate a panel that would give experts and supporters in the documentary community a chance to discuss these changes and determine how they would effect filmmakers attempting to qualify for Oscar down the road. Safinia was joined by Dana Harris (Indiewire), James Moll (Executive Committee member of the Documentary Branch at AMPAS), Steve Pond (, and Dustin Smith (Roadside Attractions) to help break down the new rules into identifiable terms and decipherable language. On Monday, February 20, this prestigious group gathered at Cinefamily @ the Silent Movie Theatre in front of a visibly-shaken crown of documentarians to attempt answer some questions and hopefully shed some light onto the significance of the Academy's recently-leaked information.

Fresh off a plane from Montana’s Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, Michael Lumpkin introduced the panel and reiterated IDA’s stance on the Academy’s new rules. While we applaud the Academy for striving toward transparency, Lumpkin stated, everyone there wanted clarification on how these new rules impact not just the documentary community at large, but also programs like DocuWeeks that have a strong history of helping smaller films to qualify for the coveted little gold man.

Marjan got the ball rolling by asking just why that one gold statue is so important. Oscar-, Emmy-, and Grammy-winning filmmaker James Moll answered that it is just so great to be recognized by your peers. For him, winning an Oscar was a dream-come true. And now that he’s part of the Academy's Documentary Branch, he wants to make that process much easier and more democratic for everyone involved. Dana Harris, Editor-in-chief of Indiewire, noted that the peak for traffic on her website for the entire year is right before and during the Oscar ceremony. However, in her eyes receiving the coveted award gives you little more than bragging rights. Certified Oscarologist Steve Pond mentioned that much like Kim Kardashian is famous for being famous, the Oscar is important for being important. He did admit, however, that the hype has really gotten crazy during the last decade. Dustin Smith noted that part of the appeal of the Academy Awards is certainly the fact that we get to see movie stars right there in our living room, with new players up for distinguished recognition every single year.

After not much longer, Marjan jumped right into what would be the crux of the conversation for the next hour and a half: turning almost directly to James Moll, IDA’s Board President wanted to know some of the reasons for the rule change. James noted that after many years of being under-served by the rest of the voting members of the Academy, documentaries fought hard to become their own branch. Now that they have more control over who gets shortlisted and nominated in their category, they wanted to create new rules (which, by the way, they do almost every year) to give the filmmaker the benefit of the doubt. Instead of having to wait until the end of the year to watch every film submitted for consideration, the films they receive will now be spread throughout the year, and each member will get to see each and every film. He and the documentary branch believe that this will increase the quality of the films shortlisted and eventually nominated. 

Dana Harris jumped in to ask what the impetus for the rule change was: is the Academy trying to preserve something by making changes? What is the academy really trying to do with these new rules? Marjan piggybacked by asking why the Academy is making everything so difficult: "The spirit of the rule change makes sense," she said, "but aren't we going to still only get big names?"

The issue that continued to come up was the new rule that a film has to be reviewed by either the New York Times or the Los Angeles Times in order to qualify. Dana Harris called this particular portion of the new rules a "red herring" that is distracting from some of the more important details. The policy of the New York Times is to review every film that gets at least a one-week run in New York City, which would mean only films that have a "legitimate"—and this word was used a lot—run in a theater would get attention, even if that attention was a two-paragraph review online. Even so, if a film plays for one week and for some reason doesn’t get a Times write up, a filmmaker can go through an appeals process with the Academy to prove that their film does indeed qualify.

This prompted a lot of back-and-forth among the panelists, and even a few outbursts from the audience. The lack of clarity of these rules have a lot of people up in arms—even Michael Lumpkin jumped in to ask James to explain something that was unclear concerning the future of IDA's beloved DocuWeeks program. (There's still no clear answer, unfortunately.)

The panel may have come to a conclusion with more questions raised than were answered, but it can be said that a lot of rage and fury that attendees felt before the panel had been at least partially assuaged. Only time will tell how these new rules affect small and big-name filmmakers alike, but one thing is for sure: James Moll proved a great sport for taking the brunt of the audience’s passionate questions and comments. Kudos to him for not losing his cool!

All photos ©2011 Humberto Mendes, IDA

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