Changes to the Academy’s qualifying rules mean that films such as Tom Burstyn’s This Way of Life will face a less certain route to Academy consideration.
The changes, announced on 12 January, include a few minor housekeeping items and two htat will have a much more significant effect on filmmakers wishing to see their films up for consideration.
The first is a requirement on the Academy’s doco branch members that they watch all films submitted before voting. Yes, it might seem odd that previously members didn’t have to watch them all, but that’s the way the Academy rolls. The downside to this new requirement is that filmmakers now have to submit 200 DVDs – up from the current 30.
Ignoring the additional cost (and workload) for the Academy in distributing these, the Oscars are notorious for giving pirates a feast of freebies. Screener versions of most Academy submissions, bearing occasional “For Your Consideration Only” watermarks, become easily available around about now each year.
A more than sixfold increase in the number of doco screeners floating around LA doesn’t seem a particularly constructive approach to the problem of piracy.
The second requirement seems a strange one, as it is – essentially – the Academy ceding control of submissions to a pair of film critics, one on each coast of the US.
Films in most Oscar categories need to complete a “qualifying run” to be eligible for consideration. The requirement for most categories, including documentary, is a seven-day run in New York and Los Angeles, advertised in a recognised newspaper.
Docos generally have a much smaller US theatrical presence than fiction features – especially those which are a) made outside the US, b) don’t have a US theatrical distribution deal and c) are independently funded.
To make the qualifying run possible, the International Documentary Association (IDA) runs DocuWeeks, which does all the all the legwork and runs docos – as its name suggests – for seven days in each centre and provides the proof of run the Academy requires. It’s not a cheap option at US$15-20,000, but it’s cheaper than the DIY alternative for those not based in the US.
What DocuWeeks isn’t, is an open door. It selects films for screening, usually only screening around one in four of the titles submitted for DocuWeeks.
This Way of Life took that route to qualification in 2010. Last year, DocuWeeks screened 24 docos, 17 features and seven shorts. Most were US productions or co-productions.
DocuWeeks has run in August and September since 1997 and doesn’t have a bad record, having qualified close to 200 films over its 16 years. 17 of those films received Oscar nominations. Of those, seven were eventual winners, including a three year winning run (2006-08) with The Blood of Yingzhou District, Taxi To The Dark Side and Smile Pinki.
However, the Academy has now added to its qualifying run requirement a new criterion. According to its release, “For the 85th Academy Awards, however, a review by a movie critic in The New York Times and/or the Los Angeles Times will also be required.”
The new rule will trim the number of submissions the Academy has to process and consider. However, it takes the choice of whether a film is submitted to the Academy away from the filmmaker and puts it in the hands of two critics.
The Academy is not the biggest control-freak in Hollywood but, even so, it seems strange to cede control of an important part of the qualifying process to people over whom the Academy has no control. It will also put pressure on critics to review as many titles as possible and, no doubt, some titles ahead of others.
It seems a ridiculous amount of power to put in the hands of people who might, for whatever reason, not have a filmmaker’s best interests at heart. Critics are, by their nature, opinionated folk.
The IDA is caught between a rock and a hard place. Its DocuWeeks programme no longer guarantees Oscar qualification, unless it is able to do a deal with the requisite publications to guarantee reviews.
For filmmakers, the road to the Oscars just got a bit more difficult to navigate. But, like many other communities of interest in the industry, there are documentary-specific awards. The IDA runs its own awards, which turn 28 this year. As Executive Director Michael Lumpkin says, “It is our goal to find and recognize the very best in the documentary form worldwide, and we pride ourselves on the number of international films that are nominated and recognized by the IDA each year. Documentaries are not a branch of what we do, they are all that we do.”