Documentaries. They are underdogs of the film industry. They are often considered even less intriguing than the shorts (even less than the un-animated kind – yikes) and yet despite limited-release roadblocks, every once in a while we find one that blows our socks off. One that you saw on Netflix and never knew it came out in theatres because it probably didn’t.
And now, Oscar rules are changing the game and could leave out the-little-docs-that-could from the running.
According to new rules set to roll out, for a documentary to be considered for an Oscar nomination the film will have to be reviewed by either The New York Times or The Los Angeles Times. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences hopes that this move will cut down on the number of documentary submissions to the Academy; last year the Academy considered 124 films and the number would drop to about 15 with the new rules in play.
Which seems great for the 157 Academy voters, I guess. Because watching films and formulating opinions of them is so…tasking.
Perhaps that’s unfair considering many of these voters have other jobs in addition to judging, but c’mon now. Doesn’t it seem prohibitive to put such a dramatic limit on submissions? While both Times papers review hundreds of films a year, documentaries aren’t generally released widely let alone in a limited capacity, and may never make it into the list of things these reviewers are required to watch. Which means dozens of films, the life’s work of many filmmakers, will never even be considered for the highest honor in the industry despite the films quality.
“Particularly hard hit would be DocuWeeks, a program sponsored by the International Documentary Association, which for more than a decade has let filmmakers pay a fee to have their pictures shown briefly in New York and Los Angeles, thus qualifying for awards. Under the new rule those films would be considered only if a movie critic for one of the two newspapers chose to review it, something that typically does not happen.”
If I may: what the hell makes the Times papers so goddamn special that they are the arbiters of Oscar noms? I mean, I get that they have a great deal of writers who can cover the films, I get that they have nice reputations, but isn’t the Academy the only group who should be concerning themselves with what movies make the cut and not a third party? Aren’t they, by virtue of being made up of people who work throughout the industry exclusively, the most qualified to view and judge films made by their peers?
And what if out of the 15 documentaries that make it to theatres, 14 of them are fucking terrible? Think of the odds of that happening with normal films – I’d say the average is about 5% of all movies that make it to the big screen are great. Some are decent. A majority are awful. And even some of the great ones never get a real chance to win an Oscar.
So what if the documentaries that have the smaller budgets, a no-name narrator, and no big, famous backing never get a chance to show how great they are to a wide audience? Living in Boston allows me the great gift of having film festivals, independent screenings and limited-release films basically at my doorstep – but most people don’t have that option. Frankly, I imagine most people don’t even know about half the decent movies that came out in a year until the award season anyway.
While the New York Times might be “flattered” by the idea that their reviewers, being in the right theatre during documentary hour means that the ‘yay’ or ‘ney’ to what is undoubtedly a riveted reader base just waiting to hear the latest on the Documentary circuit, means a ‘yay’ or ‘ney’ that a documentarians life’s work gets even considered for an award…I find it obnoxious. And chilling to documentarians freedom to explore topics that might not be sexy enough to warrant a Times review.
To cleanse my palate, here is one of my favorite docs from 2011: I bet this didn’t make it to your multiplex, but thank the gods for Netflix & word of mouth.