April 24, 2003

Oscar's Touch: Has It Made a Difference for Filmmakers?

Director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade (left) and producer Denis Poncet of the Academy Award-winning 'Murder on a Sunday Morning.' Photo: CCS.

The Academy Award is widely regarded as the ultimate achievement in filmmaking. In the case of the documentary categories, winning can catapult a film and filmmaker from relative obscurity to worldwide renown literally overnight. Yet, for all the hoopla surrounding the Academy Awards, is a filmmaker's career really altered by joining the ranks of the chosen few to receive an Oscar?  We checked in with last year's winners to see how their lives had changed one year later. 

Director Jean Xavier de Lestrade and producer Denis Poncet, whose Murder on a Sunday Morning won the award for Best Documentary Feature, got the news of their nomination from a friend attending the announcement ceremony in Los Angeles. "A few seconds later, I was on the phone with Sheila Nevins of HBO, and talked about logistics," Poncet recalls. The two French filmmakers flew to the US shortly thereafter and spent the bulk of their time before the awards screening the film and giving interviews.  They have scarcely slowed since.

Director Sarah Kernochan had to check the Academy website to find out that her short, Thoth, had been nominated. She recalls that it was a frenetic time. "There was a lot of elation followed by practical matters—what am I going to wear?"  Kernochan mentions almost as an aside that it was only after the nomination that HBO bought the film, having passed on it three times before. When pressed, she notes modestly that the nomination increased her bargaining power  "quite a lot. HBO paid me quite handsomely."

Thoth continues to do well. Producer Lynn Appelle notes, "It's airing on Cinemax for the next year, and we have a domestic non-broadcast distributor and a foreign broadcast distributor. So, in terms of shorts, it has exceeded our expectations. It reached a much broader audience."

Murder on a Sunday Morning experienced a similar spike after the Oscar win. To date, it has sold in 46 countries. "The film would not have had the same impact, if it had not won," claims de Lestrade. "It is always very difficult to sell a documentary film which is nearly two hours long. So the ‘Academy Award Winner' label was very effective and helpful. But even with an Oscar, it is difficult to sell that kind of documentary."

For the subjects of a film like Murder on a Sunday Morning, which chronicled the trial of a 15-year-old Florida boy wrongfully accused of murder, the attention generated by the Academy Awards can magnify the power of the documentary form. The day after the film premiered on HBO, the city of Jacksonville changed its policy on the interrogation of minors and, shortly thereafter, offered a purported $800,000 settlement to the family of the young man accused. "That was a direct impact of the film and the Academy Award," de Lestrade notes proudly.

S.K. Thoth, the Manhattan performance artist profiled in Thoth, has a different perspective. "The Academy Awards ceremony was a fun experience, but the film winning the Academy Award has not changed my life at all." However, Kernochan points out that, "Some people actually come to New York specifically to see him. And some angels have appeared to help him financially a little bit. So that's different."

De Lestrade and Poncet are now busy with a number of other projects. "After the Oscar," says de Lestrade, "HBO asked me to work on a similar project to Murder on a Sunday Morning. At the same time, two networks contacted us, asking us to make films for them. I'm also about to make a film in France. The budget I received for this film would have been unthinkable without our success at the Oscars. It is a certainty that the statuette makes a filmmaker's life much easier."

Two-time Oscar winner Barbara Kopple, who took home the statuette for Best Documentary Feature in 1976 (Harlan County, USA) and 1990 (American Dream), agrees that a filmmaker's prospects expand as the result of a win. However, she cautions that the award is not a panacea for the ailment that plagues most documentarians. "Funding is always difficult. People are never waiting to sign a check. But at least they will consider signing a check." Interestingly, she noted more impact after her second win. "I think that if you have two Academy Awards, then maybe people feel like it's less of a fluke." 

Kernochan, who won her first Oscar for the documentary feature Marjoe in 1972, agrees.  "I think having two of them, people are much more curious about me."

In the end, the consensus among the filmmakers is that the real value of the Academy Award is the respect it represents. Kopple explains, "Particularly for a documentary filmmaker, it's incredible. You know, you're always struggling to be able to do the work that you love, and suddenly your work is appreciated for a moment in time. It's really uplifting."

A year after the win, Poncet muses, "Life has changed, but my head is still the same size. I still doubt...but I doubt with an Oscar in my hand. What else could I ask for?"

 

Jason Lyon is a treatment writer and producer with @radical.media by day and a documentary producer by night. 

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