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polanski doc: catch it (if you can)

polanski doc: catch it (if you can)

These days, most buyers take new docs on the festival circuit and into limited theatrical release to pave the way for ancillary outlets like TV and DVD. Not so for HBO. The company’s strategy for Marina Zenovich’s Sundance ’08 hit “Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired” became apparent over the weekend. As reported, the film is being quietly released in theaters right now to qualify the doc for Oscar consideration. But the release is not being hyped in anyway, apparently to preserve its PR potential for a cable TV premiere in June.

AMPAS recently changed its doc-qualifying rules, abandoning the need for a fourteen screen theatrical release to make a film Oscar eligible. I am guessing that doc filmmakers are generally happy with the new rules, but, something sure feels really empty when an acclaimed doc is silently screened in theaters. Why bother wasting the money? The Academy has tried to set a standard of honoring only theatrical docs, but many non-fiction films face a tough time getting a decent theatrical release, while those few that get an HBO deal reach a much wider audience via cable television.

Should AMPAS just lose the theatrical requirement altogether? Or maybe institute a festival screening policy, qualifying a film that is seen at a minimum of number of fest screenings by paying audiences? It just seems like the Academy’s doc committee still hasn’t gotten it right…


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HBO is a brand that cares about its legacy – that’s why they spend a little bit of money to qualify (most of) their films. They want to win the Oscar every year. To them it’s not a waste of money to qualify the film(s).

The nominating process is at least inefficient, and at most fundamentally fucked up. There are other motives at play inside the branch than simply ensuring nominations for the best films. Obviously, the Academy’s rule of last year yielded one of the most polarizing shortlists in recent memory, not to mention a seemingly hypocritical list of films that qualified only by the minimum standards. Rather than honor the films that actually had marketing dollars and higher profile releases (most of which were more “cinematic or “theatrical” and in my opinion “better” than the actual shortlist) the shortlist was contrary to the very purpose of the rule (to guarantee that the eligible films were legit theatrical films). So instead of honoring widely liked films released by mini-majors (which helps raise the profile of the entire pool of films, and the genre itself), the rule and the committee failed to achieve that. From the shortlist, the eventual nominees were mostly deserving; it’s just a shame that some of the best theatrical/cinematic documentaries of the year were ignored (by the Academy, anyway, and a large percentage of the population).


The solution for both the Oscar doc and foreign film clusterfuck is to make the qualification process the same as for any other normal, narrative film: You have to open theatrically in Los Angeles county for at least a week between January 1 and December 31. Period. End of story.

The Oscars aren’t the Emmys or the Goyas or Cesars or the Genies. They’re not for TV specials or films that have only opened in other countries. They’re film awards for films released in American theaters. I’m starting to sound like Toby Keith, so I will stop now. But really, why make the process so complicated and unwieldy that you end up nominating movies that have never even opened in America (Katyn, 12, etcetera) and the voting process so unrealistic (you have to see all the foreign films and docs at an Academy-sanctioned screening before you can vote) that fewer than 200 people actually end up voting for the Best Documentary Oscar? You can vote for Best Picture (the award that actually brings millions of dollars to the studios) without having seen any of the nominees!

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