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Stringent New Rules to Push Smaller Documentaries Out of Oscar Race

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by Inkoo Kang
July 8, 2014 3:18 PM
3 Comments
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Sarah Polley on the set of "Stories We Tell"

Several documentarians are crying foul that the Academy has effectively shut out smaller nonfiction movies from the Oscar race. 

A report from Deadline notes that new requirements to qualify for Oscar consideration have practically ensured that only the best funded and widely marketed docs will be eligible contenders. Allegedly born of the (well-intentioned) desire to encourage audiences to see documentaries in movie theaters instead of on their laptops, those strict requirements might well prove financially unfeasible for most nonfiction projects aiming for the film industry's top trophy: 

"Instead of the previous requirement of two shows a day without specifying times, the new rule calls for a minimum of four shows per day at theatres in LA and NY [during its seven-day run] with screenings beginning between noon-10 PM including at least one 'prime' show beginning between 6-10 PM."

This means that films contending for Best Documentary now have far larger hurdles to jump than films contending for Best Picture, which need play just once a day in the greater LA area during a seven-day run. 

Deadline also mentions that a glut of documentaries meant that 150 documentaries qualified last year to be shortlisted for the Oscar -- too many for director Joe Berlinger, who frankly admits that "doc branch members flip through their box looking for the titles or filmmakers that they have heard of [instead of watching all 150 films like they are supposed to.] I know this to be true because I do it myself when I get my box and many of my peers on the doc branch have said the same thing to me."

Landmark Theatres President and CEO Ted Mundorff chimed in to call this change in the rules concerning documentaries "egregious," observing, “It effectively will eliminate the ability of many of the filmmakers, especially the diverse filmmakers, to get their movie played."

Indeed, since women directors are more represented in nonfiction filmmaking and tend to work with smaller budgets than their male documentarian peers, the Academy's new rules will most likely disproportionately affect female filmmakers. 

And women are already scarce within the Oscar ranks. The last Best Documentary winner with a female helmer was  decade ago when 2004's Born Into Brothels co-director Zana Briski took home the prize. It's necessary to go back another ten years to find the last sole female winner of the Best Doc prize, Freida Lee Mock for 1994's Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision.

[via Deadline]

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3 Comments

  • Jeffery Haas | July 9, 2014 5:27 PMReply

    If the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is no longer serving the needs of its members then it's time for the members to question its legitimacy.
    Of course AMPAS is still serving the needs of SOME of its members, the ones with more money and power.
    Is that the direction the industry needs to take right now, in an age where pay and working conditions in skilled crafts in several countries are under attack?
    And are we experiencing a glut of independently made documentaries right now?
    I'm thinking not,

  • JR | July 9, 2014 10:09 AMReply

    Jesus, I guess IndieWire's modus operandi now is to turn EVERY story into a "wah-wah-unfair-to-women" screed. I get it, I sympathize, but give it a rest.

  • Adam Benzine | July 8, 2014 4:35 PMReply

    I think it's a bit of a stretch to say women are underrepresented at the Oscars in the docs categories. In 2014, Jehane Noujaim, Lydia Dean Pilcher, Signe Byrge Sørensen, Sara Ishaq and Caitrin Rogers all earned nominations, with the latter winning an Oscar.

    In 2013, Andrea Nix Fine won the short category, against Cynthia Wade, Cori Shepherd Stern, Robin Honan and Sari Gilman (that's five female filmmakers in a field of five docs), and in the feature category, Amy Ziering, Philippa Kowarsky and Estelle Fialon all earned nominations.

    In 2012, the seven of the nine Best Doc Short nominees were women, with Daniel Junge and James Spione the only male nominees.

    And in 2011, Audrey Marrs won an Best Doc Feature Oscar for Inside Job, and Lucy Walker and Trish Adlesic both earned noms. The same year, Karen Goodman won an Oscar in the short category.

    It's not quite gender parity yet, but it's clear to see that Oscar voters care more about the story, or the issue that the doc represents, than about the gender of the filmmaker that made the documentary.

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