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January 1, 2005

Documentary Films and the Oscars

I'm about to leave for a party, but I just wanted to point to an LA Weekly article I found on Green Cine Daily. The article, by Scott Foundas, criticizes the process by which the Academy nominates films for best documentary, explaining that Control Room and The Corporation will not receive well-deserved Oscar nominations for best documentary because they aired on TV within nine months of their initial release. This rule, designed to protect filmmakers, often prevents filmmakers from giving their films the widest possible audience (or from collecting the golden statue). I'm hoping to have more to say about this issue later, but it's clear that the Academy needs to reconsider its rules for choosing nominees in this category. Scroll down to the end of the article for the short list of potential nominees.

Posted by chuck at January 1, 2005 4:27 PM

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I remember first hearing about this when Michael Moore said he was withdrawing from the Best Doc. category so he could air F9/11 before the election, and wondering why such a rule would be in place. The only thing I can think of is so that PBS made for tv docs can't be nominated by simply playing on one screen somewhere. If you have any insight as to why that rule is there, I'd be interested.

Posted by: Dylan at January 1, 2005 10:00 PM

Dylan, the main reason for the rule is that it ostensibly protects documentary people who are producing films for theaters. Of course, right now, much of the important political work is being released quickly to DVD or online, so I imagine those rules will change.

I remember Moore consciously deciding to pull his documentary from consideration, but it seems a shame to punish Jehane Noujaim (Control Room) and the makers of The Corporation for seeking out a larger audience for their work.

Posted by: chuck at January 1, 2005 10:10 PM

I think Dylan has it half right; Moore pulled F911 from Best Documentary Feature consideration, but not for a TV airing. Instead, he wants it to be considered for the Best Picture award.

I'm not sure how this no-TV rule protects filmmakers so much as it protects an invidious distinction between the "high art" of the cinema and the "low art" of TV. It strikes me a little like the old amateur-only rule of the Olympics which attempted to allow only the leisure classes to participate in the games.

Posted by: McChris at January 1, 2005 10:27 PM

I suppose the issue as to if Moore pulled the film for Best Picture nods or for political purposes (getting the film out to the masses on video and tv before the election) depends on one's take of Michael Moore.

I just don't understand under what circumstances a rule like this would "protect" any filmmaker. Why is it that Best Picture nominees don't require the same protection? And, Chuck, you are right: Control Room is certainly a film worthy of Oscar status.

Posted by: Dylan at January 2, 2005 12:45 AM

McChris, I don't see the nomination for best picture as Moore's primary motivation, if only because best documentary and best picture are not mutually exclusive categories (getting a best pic nomination shouldn't prevent a film from getting one for best doc, right?).

I'll certainly agree with McChris that the rule seems to protect that high-low art distinction more than anything else (nice metaphor with Olympic athletes, BTW). The rule, ideally, would encourage more theatrical screenings of documentaries, but with the emergence of video and DVD formats, it only serves to decrease audience.

There is a similar rule for feature films, but I *think* that rule only requires that the film "debut" in theaters rather than on TV. There was a lot of debate about this issue about ten years ago when people (led by Roger Ebert, if I remember correctly) believed that HBO's film, The Last Seduction, should have been nominated for best picture, but because it premiered on HBO, it didn't qualify.

Posted by: Chuck [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 2, 2005 3:18 PM

I was going to point to this AP story, "Michael Moore wants best picture Oscar," when I first commented, but I was too lazy, so here it is now:
There's no rule that says a picture can win in both categories, but the article points out, "Documentaries and animated films have their own categories, but the conventional wisdom in Hollywood is that those niche awards can limit a film’s appeal in the overall best picture class."

Posted by: McChris at January 2, 2005 6:24 PM

It is a slim chance of it happening anyway... I doubt he'll even get nominated... I love the film, but it's meteoric rise was sensationalistic, and I'm not sure the film will stand up through time. The academy, made up of the Hollywood establishment, doesn't have the balls to try to "stick it" to red america. They will try to distance themselves from the extremist label that has been slapped on them.

Posted by: Dylan at January 2, 2005 6:31 PM

Dylan, I think you're right that Moore is unlikely to get a nomination, whether out of anti-documentary bias or out of backlash against Moore. McChris, you're right to note that documentary and animated films face difficult odds in major categories. Hoop Dreams faced a similar bias a few years ago.

Posted by: Chuck [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 2, 2005 8:06 PM

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