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Oscar's Obstacle Course: Running the Qualification Process

By Marina Zenovich

It's been over a year since the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced a new set of rules for qualifying documentary features and shorts for Oscar consideration, and everyone in the documentary world, from filmmakers to distributors to foreign buyers, has something to say about it.

"I think the intentions behind the new rules are good," says Jay Rosenblatt, who sits on the academy's documentary committee and whose short film I Used To Be a Filmmaker was short-listed for Academy Award nomination consideration. "I think it's still difficult for filmmakers to abide by them. But the academy wants to get documentaries out into the theatrical world. And they're just trying to think of ways to ensure that."

The new rules stipulate a four-city theatrical rollout, in addition to the one-week qualifying run in Los Angeles or New York. If a film is nominated, moreover, it must be held back from broadcast for at least nine months. The new rules have led to some confusion, and some strong opinions.

Mark Urman of THINKFilm, which distributed last year's Oscar-nominated Spellbound and is handling the short-listed films The Agronomist and Bus 174, is an old hand at this baffling game. "The nomination process," says Urman, "has always been a tricky and mysterious and iniquitous sort of situation, with peculiar rules and regulations that make it difficult for people to navigate coming and going. And that's for all people involved, from filmmakers to end-users.

"You have to start out knowing what it takes and what it's worth," Urman continues. "You have to hold on to all sorts of rights, keep track of all sorts of things and stay hands on. And that takes a well-informed and ambitious team of filmmakers."

Nick Fraser of the BBC has another concern. "I think the academy is reluctant to acknowledge that funding of documentaries does come from TV," he says. "And they have also probably drawn up these rules without considering the documentary market in Europe, which is much more dependent on TV and where holdbacks [from broadcasts] are in any case usually very short. No European prize operates in this way, and we would like the academy to waive its rules for European showings of films under consideration or nominated."

Filmmakers tend to agree. "Other than Errol Morris and Michael Moore, virtually everyone is funded in some way by television," points out Alex Gibney, producer/writer of The Trials of Henry Kissinger and producer of the PBS series The Blues. "If that's the case, then why punish the filmmakers ?" Gibney speaks from experience: Kissinger played in over 100 theaters in America but was ineligible for an Oscar nomination because it had aired once on the BBC prior to its theatrical release. "It's legitimate for the academy to say theatrical exhibition is a prerequisite" says Gibney. "But given how difficult it is to finance documentaries, it seems unfortunate that they weigh so heavily against television."

Jonathan Stack, producer/director of the Oscar-nominated The Farm, agrees. "The challenge for the documentary filmmaker is to get a broadcaster on board to support your run for an academy nomination. The problem is that the broadcaster has [its] own scheduling deadlines. The difficulty they face is waiting the year it takes to make the film, and then waiting another six to nine months to broadcast."

Some US broadcasters can be accommodating. "We try to work with filmmakers and be as flexible as we can," says Cara Mertes of PBS' P.O.V. "We try to give them a considered opinion about whether we think the film is really a serious contender. Most of the time we say, 'We have to go ahead with the broadcast.' It can't be driven by a nomination, unless we think the film is something we think would get a nomination."

Jan Rofekamp of Films Transit International agrees. "If you have to wait to market and sell a film for what is sometimes up to a year, depending on the timing of the whole thing, you get confronted with European buyers saying 'This is an old film.' This is something we never heard before. It's terminology straight out of the fiction business. No one ever used to say this about documentaries. But because there are so many films and so few buyers and so much competition, it's happening. It's sad but it's true."

As for the future, Mertes and Rofekamp agree that the holdback on international broadcast, which frustrates European producing partners and buyers, should be addressed. Rofenkamp even has a suggestion for the academy: "What we would like is to have them drop the foreign component completely. But if they say no, maybe we can do something else. If the film is eligible, the feature version can be held back, but the filmmakers can cut a one-hour version for television that can be sold freely."

Jennifer Chaiken produced Jonathan Karsh's My Flesh and Blood, which earned the Audience and Documentary Directing Awards at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival. "It opened the door for us to consider that this film could be eligible for consideration," she explains. "It seemed worthwhile to go through all the motions." HBO acquired the film for future broadcast, while Strand Releasing handled a limited theatrical release last fall—which is when Chaiken came up against the next obstacle. The Sundance version of her film was on HD-Cam. The academy has strict rules on the exact video format required for nomination; you can either blow up to film or show in a 24-frame progressive scan digital format.

"We debated for months" Chaiken recalls. "The specifics of the academy's restrictions ultimately pushed us to go to film, even though it cost quite a bit more money. Even so, it was still more worthwhile than going on to this very specific, not widely used video format. We also had much more long-term use by going to film."

"There's been great talk about the digital miracle, but it hasn't reached the commercial level of exhibition yet," says Frieda Lee Mock, one of the academy's governors from the documentary branch. "It's only in the last few years that the academy acknowledged that this is coming, so they've set this high [technological] standard.

"The academy is acknowledging a change for the immediate future," Mock continues. "It hasn't happened yet. At the same time we are saying we will look at qualifying films from the digital format. Films are meant to be exhibited in theaters."

One producer suggests that the academy could meet filmmakers halfway. "No one really uses the format they require," the producer notes. "And given that so many of the films submitted for academy qualification come from Sundance, [it would help] if the academy allowed formats that the filmmakers have already had to use."

"The academy is an organization that stands for the highest level of achievement in technical crafts and the arts," Mock maintains. "The technology committee determines and makes a recommendation to the board and rules committee; they are highly versed in the technology field."

"The doc exec committee officially meets twice a year," she adds. "We are open to responding to whatever issues come up. The committee is made up of filmmakers; we're all in the trenches together." She adds that the new rules can and will be tweaked if people feel they're not working.

Rofekamp admits that few filmmakers can resist the allure of an Oscar. "Every filmmaker in the US making a feature documentary wants to go for the Academy Award. It's the highest award a filmmaker could possibly get, and it almost secures a major broadcast deal."

Then again, there are others who applaud the academy's wish to keep its distance from TV, to try and maintain a distinct theatrical tradition. Rosenblatt notes, "It's really difficult for documentaries when you're depending on television income to help you survive. But you also want to qualify for this potential honor. What do you do? The two goals seem to be at odds. Yet at the same time I understand why the Academy has the rule—they see themselves as separate from television. Television has the Emmys."

For complete information on the rules for qualifying documentary features and shorts for Oscar consideration, please go to


Marina Zenovich's films include Who Is Bernard Tapie? (2001) and Independent's Day (1999), which will be out on DVD in April. She is currently making a documentary about the questions surrounding Roman Polanski's controversial  1977 court case.