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Oscar Street Fight: Michael Moore's War on Indie Docs

ReelPolitik By Anthony Kaufman | ReelPolitik October 9, 2012 at 12:45PM

Last week, news came out that new rule changes in the Academy Awards' Documentary category had created some unintended consequences: a huge deluge of eligible films, far more than members of the documentary branch would be likely to see. Michael Moore, the acclaimed docu-director, who was instrumental in rewriting some of the rules for the category subsequetly took to Twitter on Wednesday, criticizing the over-abundance of docs. "Over 130 'documentaries' have 'qualified' 4 this yr's Oscars. But as u all know, 130 docs were not released in theaters this yr. So now what?" he wrote. "Once again, scores of 'documentaries' which didn't get a REAL theatrical run have 'bought' their eligibility to qualify for the Oscars."
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Last week, news came out that new rule changes in the Academy Awards' Documentary category had created some unintended consequences: a huge deluge of eligible films, far more than members of the documentary branch would be likely to see. Michael Moore, the acclaimed docu-director, who was instrumental in rewriting some of the rules for the category subsequetly took to Twitter on Wednesday, criticizing the over-abundance of docs. "Over 130 'documentaries' have 'qualified' 4 this yr's Oscars. But as u all know, 130 docs were not released in theaters this yr. So now what?" he wrote. "Once again, scores of 'documentaries' which didn't get a REAL theatrical run have 'bought' their eligibility to qualify for the Oscars."

On Twitter, I responded with the question: "Why is disparaging docs that are qualifying 4 Oscar outside of conventional theatrical releases--why privilege old distrib models?" I got some predictable responses, from Moore himself and other filmmakers, suggesting that the Academy Awards should be restricted to theatrically released films. I understand this, of course, but such an idea denies the realities of the business:

1) With distribution platforms ever in flux and thearical releases only one part of a film's release strategy, particularly an indie film's release strategy, the emphasis seems outdated,

2) With indie distributors dwindling in numbers and fewer companies focusing exclusively on old-fashioned platform releases of indie docs, restricting the category to major theatrically released docs -- instead of those that take part in D.I.Y. releases, service deals or other limited showings through festivals like DocuWeeks festivals -- seems unfair. Where do you draw the line?

Should PBS docs like "The Waiting Room" be disqualified from Oscar consideration?
Should PBS docs like "The Waiting Room" be disqualified from Oscar consideration?

3) Most importantly, as Michael Moore knows, America's documentary financing and production system is inextricably linked with cable and public TV funding. And for Moore to suggest that films such as Rory Kennedy’s “Ethel" or Peter Nicks' “The Waiting Room” (pictured) should be disqualified because they are destined for TV broadcasts (HBO and PBS, respectively) shortly after their theatrical engagements is ludicrous.

Moore's characterization in the L.A. Times that such films have an unfair advantage is also misleading. “It becomes a class issue,” he told The Times. “Ones that can game the system are the ones that have deep pockets: Either the filmmaker is wealthy, comes from a wealthy family or has wealthy backers so they can put up the money.”

I wonder what Peter Nicks, or other filmmakers who have scrounged every dollar to make their docs and put them into DocuWeeks would have to say in response to Moore's statement.

(UPDATE: Moore has since contacted me since this post went up, and has backtracked on some of his statements. In an email this afternoon, he writes, "I never said that or anything like that to the LA Times about those two films - or any film - that receives TV funding. That's how 95% of doc filmmakers fund their/our movies! I was deeply upset that the LA Times writer wrote it in a way to make it look like that's what I said. That's what SHE wanted to say; Ethel and The Waiting Room are not only eligible, they are ESSENTIAL viewing for anyone interested in docs this year.")

Still, Moore did tell the L.A. Times that he hopes to rejigger the rules once again in November:

"His proposal will very specifically outline which theaters in New York and L.A. are eligible for one-week screenings, with the hopes that films that are not traditionally booked by theater owners -- those that are paid for by the distributors -- are eliminated under stricter guidelines. Also, he wants to reinstate a rule that allowed films to qualify if they were selected by specific, high-profile film festivals, such as Toronto or Telluride -- showcases that don't require an entry fee."

Based on Moore's reported goals, I'd suggest he's embarking on a different kind of class war: one between the few well-funded high-profile documentaries that are picked up by U.S. distributors vs. lower budget docs that need all the help they can get.

It is a deep surprise to me that Moore, champion of the little guy, would take the side in this case of the privileged few instead of the 99%.