Skip to main content

Notes from the Reel World: The Board President's Column, December 2003

By Michael Donaldson

Dear IDA Members:

As we go to press, it looks like our comrades in the independent film movement are making some headway with the Motion Picture Association of America and its declared ban on "for your consideration" screeners. The documentary community has been watching this from a different perspective. There have always been some pretty tight rules about viewing all the documentaries in contention before voting for any of them.  It takes a little extra work, but it sure levels the playing field.

The documentary Oscar competition works like this: Documentaries are eligible if they run commercially for one week in either New York or Los Angeles, followed by a commercial run of at least two days in each of four other cities. If there is no commercial run outside of Los Angeles and New York, then the documentary must be held from television or Internet exhibition for a period of nine months. 

All eligible documentaries are divided into several groups. Each group of films is given to members of the academy's documentary branch, who view and score all of them. The highest scoring documentaries are placed on a semi-final list of 12 films for feature documentaries and eight films for short documentaries. These semi-finalists are viewed by the entire group of members, who select the five nominees, using the same scoring system that created the semi-final list.

All academy members may vote on which film will receive the Oscar, as long as they have seen all the nominated films. The members must sign in and out of official screenings, or they must fill out a declaration that sets forth specifically when and where the film was seen theatrically. 

This procedure contrasts sharply with that of screeners from the feature categories that are sent out to a wide portion of the membership of the academy that can vote whether or not they saw a film, let alone all of the films in a category.

Documentary makers have also weighed in on the FCC ruling on media consolidation and ownership. The fight to overturn the FCC rules allowing greater concentration of media ownership continues to unfold in Congress. It is gratifying that this kind of issue has received this much attention.

And speaking of public attention, how about the issue of downloading music? Watch this battle carefully. The technology for downloading music is way ahead of that for downloading films, but the legal issues for both media are the same. The public attitude toward paying to download and view movies, however, seems to be much more accepting than it is toward music. This attitudinal difference may shape different legislative results, but watch the progress of the downloading wars over music as a partial forecast of the future of movie downloading. Surely there will be some similarities.



Michael C. Donaldson
IDA President