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

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by Anthony Kaufman
October 9, 2012 12:45 PM
6 Comments
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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releases only one part of a film's release strategy, particularly an indie film's release strategy, the emphasis seems outdated,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%.

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6 Comments

  • M Shaffer | October 16, 2012 1:46 PMReply

    Michael Moore is the wealthiest documentary filmmaker in the world. Whatever you think of him as a man (and I feel much the same as the others here) it is to his credit that he came from nothing and managed to create hugely profitable social documentaries (3 of the top ten grossing documentaries of all time are his - and his financial success has pointed others toward documentary as a form of profit and social advocacy). But it is beyond ironic - it is offensive - that he should suggest that 'wealthy filmmakers' are dominating the world of documentary. There are certainly some with means who make documentaries, but I can't imagine any with more means than he himself. The man seems to relish every opportunity to exhibit hypocrisy.

  • bob hawk | October 15, 2012 4:27 AMReply

    "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%." But Anthony, to some of us it's not a surprise at all. Mr. Moore has been an elitist bully ever since he first appeared at Sundance with ROGER AND ME. (Just ask some of the volunteers that year.) And just ask some of the people who have worked under him (and I do mean UNDER) in various capacities on various projects how brutish this "champion of the little guy" can be. I'll never forget how, at some AMPAS/IDA-sponsored panel in the '90s at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in L.A., he sweepingly dismissed most documentaries as being dry and boring, and that documentarians should make "entertaining" documentaries like he does. And yes, I've enjoyed some of his films very much, but I consider him an arrogant boor as a person -- and he should not be calling the shots for the documentary branch at the Academy.

  • R REYES | October 10, 2012 2:32 PMReply

    Currently, indie documentaries are at the forefront of cinematic creativity in the US. As others have noted, it is a fallacy to believe that Oscar qualification efforts are driven by class, by those privileged enough to game the system. In truth, being open to new documentaries and new production and distribution strategies is not only honest to our reality, but also a unique opportunity to reform the Oscars and the rest of the industry to better reflect the best film-making happening today.

  • Pete Nicks | October 10, 2012 1:24 PMReply

    Just to clarify: The Waiting Room did not play DocuWeeks. I took a huge risk of time and resources to release the film theatrically in several markets around the country in an effort to get audiences exposed to the film in the theatrical environment. I am certainly not rich. We did this with the support of "the people" via the crowd-funding platform Kickstarter. The film opened in "real" theaters in NYC and LA and will be followed by openings in Houston, San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose and several other cities around the country. Call me crazy, but this seems like a real theatrical release to me. But as we debate this intriguing question about which films should qualify and which films should not, a larger truth remains. One of our Facebook fans summed it up best: "The patients in the waiting room will certainly never see the inside of the Oscars. Interestingly, without this film, most of the people inside the Oscars (and watching at home for that matter) would otherwise never know of the struggles of the people in the waiting room." - Pete Nicks, Producer/Director The Waiting Room

  • MWBlock | October 9, 2012 5:30 PMReply

    Moore seems to have a problem with trusting the Documentary Branch to use committees of its members to screen the films to make the short list. It's really that simple. Using festivals to qualify docs makes sense but this will not bring many new films to the Academy since the strong films are able to qualify in any event. This does not change the problem of going from taking 100 plus submissions and getting a short list and finally nominees.

    I served on the nomination committee for over 20 years pre Doc Branch. Yes some docs did get turned off, some good films were not nominated. But every film was screened (projected in a theater and NOT shown on a monitor) for at least 20 to 30 minutes. The Branch dropped this single committee and went to multiple committees screening on tapes and now DVDs. Moore pushed to eliminate these committees last year and succeeded. Having 180 plus doc filmmakers/branch members screen 100 plus features doesn't work. The Branch should go back to having four or five committees see 20 plus films each can work. At least every film will be screened. Restricting entries is really unfair to independent filmmakers. There is always time to give a film 20 minutes or more to see if it is a memorable work. There is just not enough time to screen ALL of the films being submitted.

  • Nina Seavey | October 9, 2012 3:22 PMReply

    Last year I debated MM on NPR on just this issue. His whole approach to what he thinks are "TV docs" versus "real theatrical docs" is based on an "N" of 1 - his own experience. That experience is not representative of trends the industry and it is certainly not in line with current distribution and production financing models. In our debate, I accused him of making the Academy rules more exclusive and arbitrary. He contended that they would be more democratic and made me out to be a shrew. Unfortunately, I was not wrong and now he finds himself in the position of having to somehow defend a system that will, indeed, favor the well-financed, especially if he does manage to rejigger the rules even more for next year in order to bring 130 films down his "more manageable" 60 or so. People can't believe that Michael can be so elitist but his actions speak far louder than his rhetoric.

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