Oscar is doing a doc block.
The organization that puts on the Academy Awards has created a new rule aimed at narrowing awards eligibility next year to documentary films that are reviewed in The New York Times or the Los Angeles Times.
Why deputize newspaper film critics as arbiters of whether a movie qualifies for an Oscar?
It’s part of an effort to shrink the number of qualifying films and weed out movies designed primarily for TV. “The more the merrier” is not the attitude at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, where members of the documentary branch have become overrun by scores of documentaries that are truly destined only for TV.
“If a documentary film is aiming for a real theatrical release, a New York Times or an L.A. Times review is the ultimate goal,” says Rob Epstein (pictured above), head of the AMPAS documentary branch and a two-time Oscar winner for The Times of Harvey Milk (1984) and Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt (1989). “If the principle outlet for a film is television and it’s only [renting] a theater for Academy consideration, most likely this film is seeking to avoid a New York Times or L.A. Times theatrical review.”
Part of the problem was a spike in the number of movies trying to qualify. “There were over 100 entries in the category this year and it is just too much, it’s getting out of hand,” Academy COO Ric Robertson told Deadline’s Pete Hammond, who broke the story.
The documentary branch goes through all the films to select a shortlist of eligible contenders as well as the eventual nominees, and voters from the larger membership can only cast a ballot for the winner if they’ve seen all the contenders in a theater.
For a few movies in the current shortlist of eligible movies, reviews that would be required in the future could not be found: The Loving Story, Semper Fi: Always Faithful, and the Harry Belafonte biography Sing Your Song, which had a news feature written about it in the Los Angeles Times when it aired on HBO in October, but was not reviewed as a theatrical film.
It’s unclear yet what tangible change will mean for future awards, which have been criticized for years for excluding high-profile documentaries such as Hoop Dreams, Crumb, and more recently Waiting For Superman. Though there have been changes to the voting system over the years, the complaints persist.
This year, documentaries such as the death row film Into the Abyss, the journalism study Page One: Inside The New York Times, the Sesame Street puppeteer’s origin story Being Elmo, and the Chicago street-crime film The Interrupters did not make the shortlist.
The most likely change seems to be that films that previously rented theaters in New York and Los Angeles for the required one-week theatrical run will now have the added step of lobbying the local major dailies for some critical attention.
While the Academy’s documentary branch may have pared down the number of movies they must consider, they’ve increased the burden on those critics, who now will be seen as the first filter in the selection process.
On Twitter: @Breznican