Academy: Only docs w/ NYT or LAT reviews are Oscar-worthy


The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will now require documentary films to be reviewed by either The New York Times or Los Angeles Times in order to qualify for Oscar consideration. This means that documentary films must be released theatrically in New York or Los Angeles for at least a one-week run. No word yet if online reviews or capsule reviews at the NYT or the LAT will count for consideration.

If not reviewed by either newspaper, the filmmakers can appeal to the Academy for consieration. In addition, the full Academy will now vote for the Best Documentary Feature rather than just the documentary branch of the Academy. Full details will be made public later in the week.

I’m of two minds on the issue; I think some kind of rule/process revision is a good idea to prevent snubs, but I’m skeptical that this gives all films and filmmakers a fair shake. More about that after the cut.

[Via The New York Times, Indie Wire]

Every year it’s the same story when it comes to the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature: there are acclaimed documentaries that are snubbed. Though the official nominations will be announced later in the month, films like Senna, Into the Abyss, Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey, and The Interrupters weren’t even shortlisted. Other high-profile snubs in the past include Hoop Dreams (by Interrupters director Steve James), Waiting for Superman, Grizzly Man (by Into the Abyss director Werner Herzog), Roger & Me, Grey Gardens, Crumb, and The Thin Blue Line.

On the one hand, Michael Moore (who helped propose these changes and is a member of the Academy’s board of governors) says that this new system will give theatrically released documentaries a fairer shot at being nominated. That’s well and good, but I don’t see how that makes an Interrupters/Hoop Dreams-style nomination snub less likely.

In addition to the above, this New York/Los Angeles theatrical release stipulation seems so limiting. What about the documentaries on the film festival circuit, or documentaries that can’t get commercial/theatrical distribution? Is a one-week engagement in NYC or LA an actual measure of quality, or is it simply a sign of commercial viability? (Which isn’t to say commercial films are devoid of merit, but that commerce and merit are two separate things. Then again, it’s documentaries we’re talking about here, so commercial viability is quite small compared to the commercial viability of most narrative features.)

And I also wonder why just The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times? Yeah, New York and Los Angeles are the big film markets with venerable papers that have fine head film critics (A.O. Scott and Kenneth Turan, respectively), but making just two newspapers the gatekeepers for the nominating process seems bonkers. Would a review from festival coverage from either paper allow a documentary to get around the theatrical distribution stipulation, or do both conditions need to be met? It also makes me wonder about the appeal process in the case of movies that go unreviewed.

The Oscars have a history of successes to go along with their botches in their documentary feature category, so documentary filmmakers should really just disregard the new rules and the newly appointed gatekeepers and simply make movies that matter. That’s the reason people get into documentary filmmaking.

And yet I can’t help but feel that in trying to help address a legitimate problem of recognition, the Academy may have done little to correct it; they may have even done an unwitting disservice to these filmmakers who care more about truth than they do about statues. It’s the depth of a good documentary and the dedication of a good documentarian that deserves recognition, but these are intangibles that often go unrecognized. New rules, but the song will remain the same.

Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.