Skip to main content

The Oscar House Rules--and Why They Need an Extreme Makeover

By Michael Tucker

From Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein's Gunner Palace

Debating the Academy's rules that determine eligibility for feature documentaries has become an annual event within these pages and the documentary community at large. Inevitably, each year when the shortlist is announced, a handful of critically acclaimed and/or box-office successes are passed over or disqualified from potential Oscar nomination. Part of this might be taste, but more often than not, it's because of the rules.

Recent shortlist announcements have become fodder for entertainment columnists who rightfully point out the disparity in the selection by naming a few films that they have never heard of that were short-listed, as well as their favorites that were passed over. Why We Fight, Control Room, Wordplay, Grizzly Man and The Corporation are all fine examples of the latter--films that collectively did $15 million worth of business at the box office and filled critics' top ten lists, but failed to get short-listed. By any standard--certainly the one that should define "Best Feature Documentary"--these films represent the "best" of their respective years and exemplify the commercial exploitation of a genre previously banished to PBS and late-night cable, but is now a mainstream cultural phenomena.

The Documentary Branch of the Academy seems to be in denial of this. To an outsider, the members of the branch seem to be stuck in the 1980s, a time when voices like Michael Moore and Errol Morris were ignored by the Academy, while smaller, distinctly non-theatrical works were nominated and awarded. Nearly 20 years later, in large part thanks to Moore, documentary is now an integral part of the independent film business.

 One look at the Sundance sales of 2007 confirms that docs are competing dollar for dollar with narrative features. A low-budget feature documentary sold there for $1.8 million. The buyer, a subsidiary of an international corporation, will no doubt spend at least an equal amount marketing the film to the masses. Another doc sold for nearly $2.5 million. The purchase was shared by a mid-sized theatrical distributor and a global brand. Come Oscar time next year, you'll see the marketing teams of both of these films fighting for an Academy Award. There will be full page ads, Web banners, special screenings and the necessary "Oscar consultant" hired to navigate the waters of the Academy and to lobby members. It's not just an award; it's an endorsement. The difference between having one and not having one can be millions of dollars in revenue. Anyone who doubts this should take a look at An Inconvenient Truth, where an Oscar win could mean hundreds of thousands of DVD units sold.

The Oscar-winning documentary now receives as much attention as its siblings. This is only a bad thing if the criteria to select that winner do not reflect the realities of the market.

As the demand for documentaries has grown, so has the technology to distribute them. Today, you can see Mad Hot Ballroom prominently placed for download on iTunes next to $50 million feature films. Super Size Me is consistently in the top 100 rentals on Netflix, where the Academy Award-winning Born into Brothels has been "turned" over 600,000 times. Meanwhile, companies like IFC are seeing audiences embrace cable-on-demand programming. Not surprisingly, release windows are narrowing at the same time. Night at the Museum, the Ben Stiller comedy vehicle, just went to DVD three months after its theatrical release. HDNET and others are experimenting with day-and-date release. In theater chains, the technology is changing too, and digital server/projection is becoming the norm, making cost-effective distribution a reality for the majority of documentary filmmakers who are now shooting on DV and HD.

All of this is good for filmmakers--and even better for audiences who want to be able to choose where and how they see films. But all these technologies and release strategies will demand a change in eligibility rules. Theatrical will always be the cornerstone of a release--largely because of much needed critical ink--but it is only one part. For average filmmakers, beyond a theatrical advance, most of their revenue will come from domestic television, foreign sales and ancillary markets. And that's where the eligibility rules begin to show signs of being completely out of step with the commercial realities of film production and distribution.

The most glaring and damaging example that I can think of is the television holdback--especially in regards to foreign sales. There are limited sources of funding in the US documentary community and many filmmakers are supported generously by European broadcasters. Often, with timely and topical subject matters, the broadcasters would like to go to air with the films as soon as possible. From the filmmaker's perspective, this is good thing. After all, we make often make films as a reaction to the world we live in. Should a film about an ongoing war, upcoming election politics or humanitarian disaster sit on the shelf for a year, or should it reach the widest audience possible? Ask the producers of Control Room and Why We Fight. Both films were disqualified for foreign television broadcasts, yet were embraced by audiences and critics alike when they went on to have year-long theatrical runs.

But still, no matter the writing on the wall, the academy's Documentary Branch often behaves like the jury of an obscure press association at an even more obscure festival, short-listing films based not on their public and critical success, but their adherence to rules. The shortlists often represent the best placed, rather than the "best," and are far from serving as a barometer of what captured the critical and public imagination in any given year.

Real awards are not given; they are earned. It's about time that the Documentary Branch redefine the rules to better support the films that are out earning their way to audiences. Does "theatrical" mean four-walling in theaters with limited advertising to minimally qualify, or does it mean acknowledging the films to which the public and critics responded?


Michael Tucker is the co-director (with Petra Epperlein) of Gunner Palace and The Prisoner or: How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair.