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New Oscar Qualifying Rules: A Worthwhile Challenge

By Pamela Yoder

For filmmakers, the changes at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences may seem a little mind-bending. There are new rules regarding theatrical exhibition (see for details), lots of adjustments and the promise that the policies and guidelines may be modified again. That was the basic message that Michael Apted, Arthur Dong and Frieda Lee Mock, the governors on the Academy's Documentary Branch, made very clear during their standing-room-only presentation at the House of Docs at Sundance in January.

After their explanation, filmmakers were grumbling. But the new rules deserve a more thoughtful exploration, especially given that Apted, Dong and Mock are all working filmmakers with strong track records. These members of the Academy's Board of Governors are certainly not bureaucrats, and their decisions weren't made lightly.

 The first question one has to ask is this: Is the idea of theatrical documentaries a long-lost fantasy, or a reality just around the corner? The truth is, it's been a very long time since documentaries had a real home in theaters. Yes, there are exceptions, and there are theater chains that have made a place for documentaries—chains like Sunshine, Laemmle and Landmark.

 But with the future of home theaters, Hi-Def TVs, projectors in the living room and flat screen TVs, it can be argued that the future of documentary is in the den, rather than the multiplex.

 I'm of the generation that didn't fully understand the debate of theaters over TV. But that all changed for me last summer when my feature doc, 7 Days In September, was accepted by both Loews and Regal Cinemas in New York and LA. I soon found myself sitting in the dark with a few hundred strangers watching the film in the velvety silence and community of a movie theater. Everything changed that day. It was a life-changing experience, an understanding of the community of an auditorium and the power of experiencing a film in this cocoon-like setting. So, while I've been guilty of "qualifying" a film so as to comply with the Academy rules in the past, the latest rule revisions from the governors make an extraordinary amount of sense to me.

Digital screenings are popping up. Multiplexes are rethinking ways to bring new audiences to their theaters. Digital technology is making the basic tools of filmmaking available to the masses. And festivals like Sundance, TriBeca, and FullFrame remind us that there is extraordinary work out there, begging for a home.

So at this important crossroads of technology and commerce, the governors have upped the ante, saying, "We want to make it harder for TV to just grab the best stuff before it has the opportunity to hit the theaters." Harder, yes. More difficult for filmmakers? Sure, a little.

But if you've ever had a film shown in a theater—in the dark, with strangers—and listened to their breathing...their coats rustling...the change jangling in their pockets...then you realize that it's the only way to know that they're paying complete attention to the film you made, and are not distracted by the world swirling around outside.

 It's the right set of rules, and the right time to implement them. Challenging work for us?  Sure, but no one gets into documentary film looking for the easy way to tell a story or earn a dollar. Those guys quit long ago.


Steve Rosenbaum can be reached at