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such a nasty woman | by maryann johanson

question of the day: Has the Academy just made it too difficult for documentaries to qualify for the Oscars?

Academy Award Oscar

The news broke over the weekend. From, ahem, The New York Times:

LOS ANGELES — In a move to trim the number of documentaries submitted annually for Oscar consideration, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is poised to require a movie review from The New York Times or The Los Angeles Times to qualify a documentary feature for the Academy Awards.

It will trim the number of films that must be viewed annually by the Academy’s small documentaries branch, which narrows the field to 15 qualifying movies, and then 5 nominees. In 2011 the branch considered 124 movies, up 23 percent from 101 films from a year earlier.

But the rule might diminish the prospects of those who make smaller and less prominent movies; these filmmakers have often qualified their documentaries without the kind of commercial release that typically leads to reviews by the two news organizations.

Mr. Roberts [Ric Robertson, the Academy’s chief operating officer, mentioned earlier in the article?] said the rule was part of an effort by the Academy to ensure that Oscars go to what he called “genuine theatrical” movies, rather than to films that might be made primarily for television but given brief theatrical exposure, or played for a tiny number of viewers simply to qualify.

But the same thing applies to narrative films, too: they are given brief theatrical exposure and play for a tiny number of viewers in order to qualify. Some of those films will then go on to a larger, general theatrical release — you see this a lot in January release schedules, awards-bait finally getting a more “normal” release after having played on one screen for one week in December in New York or Los Angeles, only so that it may qualify for the Oscars. Why is this okay?

And why oh why would AMPAS be giving so much power to just a very few critics? Andrew Pulver at the Guardian blog Shortcuts (which is a news-commentary blog, not an entertainment one):

The new rule that, from next year, a review in the New York Times or LA Times will be necessary to qualify for the best documentary Oscar has put unprecedented power in the hands of two heavyweight US media organs and their chief critics: AO Scott and Manohla Dargis in New York, and Kenneth Turan in LA.

“What a cop-out!” the veteran US critic Roger Ebert tells us. “The documentary branch has essentially turned its power and freedom to choose over to the critics of two newspapers. It’s pure laziness.” Worse, these are papers that, although highly respectable, are not exactly renowned for being on the cutting edge. And confining the endorsement to US papers won’t increase the Oscars’ global reach: why not the South China Morning Post or the Times of India? To say nothing of the Guardian.

Documentary filmmaker Michael Moore, a member of the Academy’s governing board, said (also at the Times):

“The process will be more transparent and more democratic than it’s been in two decades,” said Mr. Moore, who was a driving force behind the changes.

But this is neither transparent nor democratic! Will AMPAS members be able to sit in on Times editorial meetings? Will AMPAS members have a vote in what films the Times reviews? Unlikely.

bronxbee, who sent in a link, wrote:

the Academy still not getting the whole world wide web thing… online critics don’t count, unless you’re only online because your newspaper is online.

There’s that, too.

What do you think? Has the Academy just made it too difficult for documentaries to qualify for the Oscars? Should a few critics be the gatekeepers for an awards organization they aren’t members of?

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTD sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)

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