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Taking It to the Theaters: Academy Revises Rules for Docs

By Tom White

In an effort to encourage documentary makers to screen their works in theaters, the board of governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced in December a tougher policy on theatrical exhibition requirements for both documentary features and short subjects for the 76th awards, which will honor achievements for the year 2003.

In addition to the seven-day theatrical run in either Los Angeles County or Manhattan in New York City, a documentary must have a theatrical run of at least two days in each of at least four additional cities. And while the seven-day qualifying run in either Los Angeles County or Manhattan must take place in 2003, prior to the September 1 deadline for submission of the film to the academy, the four-city tour, as it were, must commence by the day nominations for the 2003 year are announced, in late January 2004. Entrants must submit to the academy letters of validation from the four exhibitors by no later than February 4, 2004. And the venues in each of these cities must be commercial venues.

If this new requirement cannot be met, then if the film is nominated, it must be withheld from television and Internet transmission for the nine months following the day nominations are announced in January 2004.

Arthur Dong, one of three governors on the academy's Documentary Branch, which was officially formed only two years ago, explains: "Now that we're an official presence there, we believed that we should try as much as possible to fulfill the mandate of the academy in the nominations, and that is to honor theatrical productions, as opposed non-theatrical. What we were hoping to do was to encourage and make sure that the nominations and the Oscar itself do indeed honor theatrical documentaries."

The context for these new rules goes back to the 1990s, when on two occasions, the board of governors voted twice to eliminate the Documentary Short Subject category altogether because of the perception that documentary shorts were television documentaries."This was to many documentary filmmakers in the community a wake-up call to examine what's going on the field," says Frieda Lee Mock, another governor on Documentary Branch. "We looked at our own work and went back to the board of governors with factual information that the area of documentary production in the theatrical realm is in fact very much alive, and that perhaps it wasn't on the radar. We were very aware that we were under scrutiny. People in the community thought that if the short subject category was gone, then we'd lose the Academy Award category for feature documentaries. It made us understand that there are two kinds of documentaries in terms of exhibition—theatrical documentaries and television documentaries."

"For the academy the idea behind a theatrical run was this it would be a step toward a theatrical roll-out," Mock continues. "What happened to documentaries is they would have the seven-day run and you'd never see them again. So we began to look at our rules and see how can we make them such that they would encourage and recognize those documentary films that do have a roll-out and reflect the mandate of the academy, so one way of qualifying was that there had to be a minimum roll-out besides the seven-day qualifying run."

The four additional cities are not restricted by geographical distribution or population or even country-foreign filmmakers can roll out their films in their respective countries, as long as they do the seven-day qualifying run in New York or Los Angeles. With respect to geographical distribution, the four cities can be San Jose, Sacramento, San Francisco and Oakland, for example. "One of the things we wanted to recognize was that some films will be regional-those films will only succeed in theaters of a regional setting, and we have to acknowledge that as well," Dong explains. "But we hope that filmmakers and distributors will come along with us in the spirit of what we're trying to do—get documentaries into theaters, with as wide a distribution as possible. If 50 submissions come in and they're just opening in a regional cluster because that's easier, then we might have to go another step. Hopefully not."

For many filmmakers not well-versed in the intricacies of theatrical distribution, the process of planning and executing a four-city tour, much less a seven-day qualifying run, is a daunting one. According to Mock, "We have created a database of theaters throughout the country that exhibit documentary films, and included in that database are references to the best resources and guides to distribution and self-distribution. We want to figure out the best place to make this resource available, and we're constantly going to update it " In addition, the three governors on the Documentary Branch—Dong, Mock and Michael Apted—hosted a discussion at the Sundance Film Festival last month about the new rules, theatrical distribution, the Documentary Branch, and other areas related to the academy and documentaries. This was the first time the academy had this kind of presence at Sundance. "Because everything's changed so much, we thought this is a great time to begin a baseline of public talk on the issue," Mock says.

What does this mean for DOCtober, IDA's festival that serves to qualify documentaries for Academy Award consideration? Under a new name, it will move to August, and the deadline for submission of films will be April 25. Stay tuned for further developments.

To view the Academy's riles for the documentary awards, go to


Thomas White is editor of International Documentary.