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Making the Lists: The "Best" Documentaries of 1994

By Mitchell Block

A group of people overlook a colorful large-scale memorial quilt to pay homage to those who've died from AIDS, from 'Common Threads,' which won the 1989 Oscar over the better-known 'Roger and Me.'

Those of us who love the nonfiction film and have seen many of the documentaries released each year are often surprised by the choices made by the film and television critics for their annual "best" lists, but rarely are we surprised by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences' Oscar nominations. One might ask, why Hoop Dreams? How does one get on these critics' lists? And, finally, how does one get an Academy nomination?

Every year, critics who are mem­bers of the Los Angeles, New York, and other national and local critics' associations select the year's "best" films, actors, directors, and writers, and sometimes they select the year's "best" nonfiction films. Many of these critics publicize their own lists in their columns or on their radio or television shows. These December and January selections then are promoted in the media and in ads to pull audiences into theaters and to help get Academy Award and other nominations. Over the years, such highly acclaimed nonfiction films as A Brief History of Time, The Civil War, The Thin Blue Line, 28 Up, Roger and Me, and Sherman's March, to name a few, make the year's best lists for television and theatrical films and then are not nominated for Academy Awards. Hoop Dreams is this year's anointed "best" nonfiction film. In Feb­ruary, the academy's list of nonfiction nominees will be announced. When the academy (for various reasons) ignores the critics' lists, the critics will write about the academy's omissions. Sometimes controversy will swirl, and tickets to films will be sold. The press and in some cases the non-nominated filmmakers and their distributors will attack the academy's documentary committee for not going along with their choices. Since Michael Moore turned attacking the academy into an almost annual event (to sell tickets) when his films were not selected for nomination, one might expect a similar scenario to take place this year if Hoop Dreams is not nominated.

As a member of the academy documentary committee for the past 15 years and as a distributor, academic, and film­maker, it has become evident to me that the academy omissions do not usually mean the academy missed the boat or that any academy member is rigging the awards. Academy members who have any conflict of interest have always had to follow the academy's rigid conflict—of—interest rules. Rather, television critics, local critics, and the various academy nominating committees actually see different films. It is a case of apples versus oranges. There are really many different ways of becoming the "best" film of the year, but most independent filmmakers and small distributors do not understand the critics' or the academy's different processes.

First, the critics. There are a number of major national critics' associations for feature theatrical films, of which New York, Los Angeles, and the National Society of Film Critics are the most visible. The Hollywood Foreign Press Association (which gives the Golden Globes) and the National Television Press bestow awards to television nonfiction programs, among others. The foreign press also gives awards to nonfiction theatrical films from time to time. Each has a slightly different way of selecting their best (if any) nonfiction films and television shows. Both the Los Angeles and the New York press associations require that the film open in their respective cities. "Open," however , means different things to these different groups and changes from year to year. Thus major works like Ken Burns's The Civil War and Baseball, which had only limited theatrical showings (to make them eligible for Academy Awards), would be overlooked by the film critics since these films would be seen as television shows and not theatrical films. American Dream by Barbara Kopple won numerous awards at film festivals and from theatrical critics, but was not widely known among the public when it won the Oscar, because Kopple was seeking a distributor at the time and the film was as yet unreleased.

Documentaries have won Academy Awards and never appeared on theatrical critics' best lists because the critics have never considered them theatrical films. The critics who make up the groups feel that the films need to play theatrically in their markets to be considered. Of course, theatrical critics will also select films that have not been released in their markets if they have seen them at film festivals and feel they are theatrical. Television critics will usually not deal with theatrical films. Theatrical films, when shown on television, generally cannot qualify for television awards such as Emmys, CableAce Awards, and the like. Also, television films that show first on television cannot compete for motion picture Academy Awards. Many of the best nonfiction works are not screened for theatrical film critics because they are produced as television programs and are never given a major theatrical release. These films also do not get to play in film festivals, since the festivals generally will not program films if they have been on television before the festival. Of course, exceptions always exist, like Hearts of Darkness, the Showtime-produced documentary on the making of Apocalypse Now that played theatrically after being aired on Showtime. Another example, HBO's Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt by Bill Couturie, Robert Epstein, and Jeffrey Friedman, won numerous awards, including the Academy Award for best documentary and Em­mys, ACE, Peabody, Dupont, and IDA awards, but was not on a single theatrical critic's "best" list. This was because HBO, the film's funder, put Common Thread's on pay cable first and the public theatrical showings were played down. This also happened with the HBO-fund­ed 1993 Oscar winner, I Am a Promise: The Children of Stanton Elementary School by Alan and Susan Raymond.

Michael Moore's Roger and Me got the applause, the theatrical audiences, and the listing on many of the theatrical critics' list, but Common Threads won the Oscar that year. Moore took the position that he was robbed. Yet it is clear in a critical sense that Common Threads is the far better of the two films; it just did not have any support from the theatrical critics because it was not seen by them as a theatrical film. HBO's film was released theatrically in over 50 venues on a limited basis by Direct Cinema, but because HBO "premiered" it on cable, it was difficult to get film critics to review it as a theatrical film. Newspaper editors do not want to give valuable space to non­fiction works as both theatrical films and television specials. The same thing happened the next year with Ken Burns's The Civil War. Because of its success with the television critics, the newspapers' theatrical critics would not review it as a movie. This is a work that won every possible prize, including an IDA Distinguished Documentary

Achievement Award, but was ignored by the theatrical critics. The academy didn't nominate it (Barbara Kopple's film got the Oscar), but Burns did not create a fuss about the academy "oversight." The motion picture academy process for documentaries is different from the processes followed by the critics' groups. It is also different than those used for the Emmy and the ACE awards, which are run by both local and national law academies. The movie academy screens films that are submitted and that have qualified for showing by playing a week in Los Angeles or by being screened at selected film festivals prior to being shown on television. Usually over half of the films the academy screens each year have not played theatrically—yet. Many will premiere at Sundance (in January) or Berlin (in February), and many are still looking for a theatrical distributor. The academy deadline is November 1. Thus a film can be finished at the end of October, rushed into a theater to qualify, and then submitted to the academy without any critics ever seeing it. It can also premiere at previous festivals and be held for future theatrical release, as was Sony's Martha and Ethel, which despite premiering at Sundance in 1993 was unreleased a year later.

The movie academy is screening a number of outstanding nonfiction films this year, including Arthur Ashe: Citizen of the World, Baseball: Inning Five: Shadow Ball, Coming Out Under Fire, Crumb, D­-Day Remembered, Dialogues with Madwomen, Eagle Scout: The Story of Henry Nicols, Eternity, Freedom on My Mind, Hoop Dreams, and Kanensatake: 270 Years of Re­sistance. It is possible that some of these films will be Oscar nominees without making any critics' list. Some of the films have been on the festival circuit for some time, like Mad Women, while others are brand new, like Eagle Scout. Yet none of the critics' groups that selected Hoop Dreams have seen all or even many of the 62 feature films that the academy nominating committee is screening. The same does not hold true for the television academy's Emmy Awards juries and the ACE Awards juries for cable films. These films are not eligible to compete unless they have been on television pri­or to the deadline.

Many of the international award winning films that are competing for the Oscar are premiering after the academy entry deadlines, such as the Australian film Eternity (see Talking Heads: Eternity's Lawrence Johnston and Susan MacKinnon), which is scheduled to premiere in New York in March, and a number of films that premiered at Sundance in January. Baseball premiered at Telluride but did not play theatrically in New York or Los Angeles. Coming Out Under Fire and Freedom on My Mind, winners of prestigious awards from Sundance and the IDA with limited theatrical showings, are also in consideration and have not had major theatrical support.

Hoop Dreams, which won the audience award at Sundance and an IDA Distinguished Documentary Achievement Award in 1993, is being distributed by Fine Line. Fine Line, as did Warner Brothers with Roger and Me and October Films with The War Room in years past, is trying to position Hoop Dreams for a Best Picture Academy Award nomination. (Any movie that played in Los Angeles County in 35mm may compete for all Academy Awards, including best picture, best director, and so forth.) Fine Line is sending out 5,000 cassettes of Hoop Dreams to academy members to generate support for more Academy Award nominations. Few small distributors can afford the $50,000-plus expense that these larger distributors incur for screenings, ads, and cassettes. In theory, all of this is done to sell tickets at the box office and improve the televi­sion and future home video sales. It is good business to be on "best" lists.

Yet the academy committee that nominates the films is basing its choice on seeing more than 60 films. This committee, made up of volunteers from all of the academy's 13 branches, is required to see 80 percent of all of the eligible films in their entirety for their secret ballot to be counted. No voting member of this committee may have worked on or been involved with any of the entries. Thus its chairwoman, Freida Lee Mock, cannot participate in the process this year, since her new film, Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision, is being considered, and this writer as the distributor of at least one of the entries is also not allowed to vote or attend these screenings.

The academy process makes it im­possible for active, working nonfiction feature filmmakers to be involved in the nominating process (unlike other academy nominations, where members can vote for their own films). In theory, this policy also makes it hard to attack the academy for conflicts of interest. The committee members vote for each of the 60-plus films individually, and the films with the highest average scores are nominated. Thus films that expand the envelope of film art and form (Thin Blue Line), films that are controversial (Roger and Me), or films that do not appeal to the broad—based academy jury have a difficult time scoring the votes needed to be nominated. The academy's process produces a compromise, since a numeric average is used. This is different than the process used by the critics, since the films being considered are different and more people are selecting for one list. This also is different from the television awards process, as the television committees are smaller. With the exception of our own IDA Awards, there is no level playing field for all documentaries to compete on. Every competition is judging a different group of films and videos.

So on February 14, when the Oscar nominations are announced, what will it mean if Hoop Dreams does not make the list? That the filmmakers were robbed? Or that the academy, after viewing some 60 films, simply picked five "better" films?

Mitchell W. Block is president of Direct Cinema Limited, a Santa Monica, California, company that distributes nonfiction films. He is also an adjunct professor at USC, an Emmy Award-winning filmmaker, and a member of the IDA Board of Directors.