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Exclusive: ‘The Interrupters’ Director Steve James Weighs In on the New Doc Rules

Exclusive: 'The Interrupters' Director Steve James Weighs In on the New Doc Rules

It’s been a good week for Steve James. His documentary “The Interrupters” won best director and best film at the Cinema Eye Honors Wednesday night; on Thursday, he received a DGA nomination.

What “The Interrupters” didn’t do this year, of course, was make the Oscar shortlist — something that’s viewed as an egregious oversight (much like his “Hoop Dreams” snub 17 years earlier) and as a case study for why the Oscar’s documentary rules were in dire need of an overhaul. 

James is the first to agree that the rules need help. “It’s embarrassing, if not plain wrong, for our community to have films that qualified under the radar and which few people have seen or heard about push out those that played by the true spirit of the rules and were celebrated by audiences and critics.”

However, as he writes, “I think it is highly doubtful most of us will watch more than a portion of those films. And I suspect that our choices will be guided by the films we’ve heard or read about, or who the director is.”  

It’s increasingly clear that while the rule change is a victory, it’s a complicated one. But let James tell you himself. And tell us your thoughts in the comments.  — Indiewire editors

First, I want to say that I really applaud the efforts of Michael Moore and others in the Academy for trying to improve what virtually everyone agrees is a flawed process.  Something needs to be done and it’s not an easy situation to fix.  

The personal irony in all this is that until this year, the shortlist has been pretty good to me. “Hoop Dreams” made it informally in the old selection process. And “Stevie,” “The War Tapes” (which I produced and edited) and “At the Death House Door” all made it in the years since they made sweeping changes. None, of course, received nominations.  

“At the Death House Door” (co-directed with Peter Gilbert) was qualified “HBO-style” with under-the-radar runs in NY and LA. And had not Peter spent money out of his own pocket toward the cost of qualifying the film, IFC-TV, which funded and broadcast the film, would not have done so by themselves. They, understandably, wanted the film to be identified first and foremost as a TV-made film, despite our extensive festival circuit run.  

Did “At The Death House Door” deserve to be on the shortlist? It won its share of festival prizes and Peter and I got DGA nominations. But it was clearly not a theatrical release, even though we feel it plays very much like one. And it’s the kind of film that would not have qualified under these new rules. So, despite wanting changes in the rules, it’s still complicated for me.

Perhaps it’s because the current debate over the selection and nominating process draws lines in the sand among documentary filmmakers and lovers in several ways. On one side are those that want the Academy to be as completely inclusive of the best in nonfiction filmmaking each year, whether it was mostly a festival film, TV film, or genuine theatrical release. Their conviction goes to the core of the doc community’s values and politics: it’s hard enough to get our films made and seen so any opportunity to get it before a wider audience should be preserved in as democratic a fashion as possible. And being nominated, let alone winning an Oscar can be an enormous plus. 

On the other side – which also includes diehard doc filmmakers and lovers – are those who feel that an Academy Award should be reserved for films that truly have a definable theatrical release. And it’s embarrassing, if not plain wrong, for our community to have films that qualified under the radar and which few people have seen or heard about push out those that played by the true spirit of the rules and were celebrated by audiences and critics.  

This is about the public image documentaries have in the larger world. When “Man on Wire” or “Bowling for Columbine” wins the Academy Award, people outside our community take more notice of our genre and may believe more in its vital place in our culture.

The requirement of a review from the New York Times and LA Times has rankled many; I understand why. As a friend who’s served on the doc committees told me, “What if “The Interrupters” had failed to land a legitimate venue in New York but had the great run it enjoyed in Chicago with the great reviews it got from Roger Ebert and the Chicago Tribune?  Is that not worthy enough?” 

Others have noted that with a sea change imminent in the way in which we consume media, with the viability of theatrical releases for all kinds of films on increasingly unsteady ground, why would the Academy insist on traditional reviews as a requirement? But some kind of bar has to be set if the goal is to substantially reduce the number of films to be considered (which I question whether the new rule will). 

This friend goes on to say, “Maybe the bar should be that if you qualify a film for an Oscar, you can not put it up for an Emmy. So filmmakers and broadcasters would be forced to choose.” HBO has always prized Emmys. I suspect they’d make different choices depending on the film and their perceived prospects for success. It’s a pretty interesting alternative to consider. 

The new rules, as Michael Moore has said, will bring the documentary branch much closer to the rest of the Academy in the selection process. But if the doc branch members receive anywhere from 60 to 100 or more qualifying films a year, I think it is highly doubtful most of us will watch more than a portion of those films. And I suspect that our choices will be guided by the films we’ve heard or read about, or who the director is.  

If I’m right, that will clearly benefit films and directors with higher profiles.  And American films. But that’s always been the case, hasn’t it? I was at IDFA when I got the news that “The Interrupters” didn’t make the shortlist. Though many generously shared words of support, a lot of non-American filmmakers shrugged too, saying in essence, “Welcome to the club.” These filmmakers feel the Academy has always slighted them, despite their increasingly higher profile here in festivals and even theatrically.  

In addition, the continuation of the shortlist in the new rules means that doc branch members would be voting twice instead of once like other branches. Will that mean a majority will bypass the first round and just wait to vote on the final five? And for the films that do make the shortlist, will the ones that are more obscure, or have less theatrical muscle, or are self-distributed, have much of a chance? The prevailing wisdom is that if you make the shortlist, you will need to put up $25,000-$30,000 to hire a publicist, plan special screenings in New York and LA and place a couple ads at least in Indiewire and Variety. Will everyone getting DVD screeners eliminate that need? I’m not so sure; even 15 films can be a lot for busy filmmakers to make time to see. And if you want to grab their attention, I think you may still need to play that game if you can afford it.

And even if you don’t spend that money and still get nominated, the cost of sending out screeners to the Academy as a whole is $60,000-$70,000 because there are approved houses that handle that for the Academy. (We were quoted a cost of $10-$12 per screener and mailing.) And that’s not counting money for a publicist and minimal ads. If you are that fledgling documentary that’s self-financed, self-distributed, or has a small distributor, where will that $100,000 come from?

You could say, well, you don’t have to spend that money, either. And that’s true.  You don’t have to win, either.  The bottom line is, the changes will indeed make the process much more like that of the Academy as a whole, and with that will come choices that I think tend to be more popular and entertaining, better funded, and higher profile.   

Will films about tougher subject matter without affirming endings and “triumphs of the human spirit” be further marginalized?  That may prove to be better for our collective good as an industry from a public relations standpoint, though it may not adhere as deeply to our values as documentary filmmakers.  I personally, am conflicted on this point. 

So should we just do away with the shortlist itself and go all the way towards being like the rest of the Academy? As John Pierson, the UT film professor and former indie film guru wrote me in an email, “Anyone with a fine film has to feel so much worse when he doesn’t make a list of 15, right? Then anyone who makes the 15 but doesn’t make the Final 5 doesn’t exactly have any great bragging rights about that either. So the whole idea that there’s something more transparent about the process or that the short list acts as a safety valve is delusional.”  

I’m not sure being on the shortlist has been of real value to me. There are so many other awards, at festivals, among critics groups, etc., that mean much more. But I’m also an established filmmaker and younger filmmakers may heartily disagree. I’d love to hear from them on this, as well as veteran filmmakers. I do know that a big part of me would just as soon have it be simply one round to a nomination. Not have the two months of waiting and wondering and playing and fretting over the PR game.  

I’d like to think these rules changes, though much needed, are a work in progress. But in the end, maybe winning an Academy Award shouldn’t matter so much anyway. Maybe we, as a community sometimes desperate for sustenance and attention, we place too much stock in this award, just like way too much attention is focused on fiction film and Academy Awards.  

I’m not sure we, in our own lower profile and less financed way, want to be too much like the rest of the Academy, which rarely awards the statues to the films I think should win anyway. I’d like to think that’s not sour grapes on my part.  Because the reality is, every year at the Academy Awards, only one documentary film truly wins.

This Article is related to: Awards


Matt Mamula


As a young filmmaker (i.e. self financed/poor/don't tell my wife I spend that much), I had a few questions/comments:

I thought I read in another source that films can also be "streamed" instead of having DVD screeners sent out, I wonder what the cost difference would be for this option? Streaming is clearly the future and much easier to accommodate as we all bounce around on all of our "devices." With our next film I plan on just handing out business cards with screener links and passwords, it's just cheaper and easier that way (unless of course, someone requests an actual DVD).

Does the NY Times or LA Times reviews have to be in print or can they be online? I'm assuming print these days is pretty sacred space, but I would imagine (not even presuming to know) that online "space" would be more available for additional reviews (of course, that doesn't help out the reviewers per say)? I'm also assuming that these two sources for reviews are only because the films have to play in one of these two cities, correct?

In regards to promotion, is it naive to think that social medias can at least alleviate some of these prevailing wisdom costs? The world has gone mobile. I think facebook, twitter, demand it campaigns and other online tools are becoming more and more valuable to the indie and established filmmaker. Could these tools help sway a nomination in the same ways the prevailing wisdom would?

Lastly for you Steve, fortunately I think that you'll win in the end. I had always "heard" of Hoop Dreams years before I saw it, not because it won or didn't win an Academy Award, but because it was a great film. While not as glamourous or exciting, your films will stand the test of time and keep popping up on great documentary lists because of their merit. I look forward to your next work.

Mario Contreras

"There are so many other awards, at festivals, among critics groups, etc., that mean much more."

I'm a young documentary filmmaker and I agree wholeheartedly. It makes me feel naive at times, I would obviously love to win the award and recognition but I don't see that audience as my peers. The list of awards that The Interrupters has accumulated and, continues to accumulate, wouldn't be any more impressive to me with an Academy Award on it.

As a Chicago Doc Maker, Steve James and Kartemquin set my standard for greatness. It's a shame that the Academy doesn't make our list.

Peter Wintonick

Great points Steve. As someone who is somewhat an adhoc self-proclaimed documentary diplomat or an 'ambassador of documentary', traveling the world most of the year helping in my small way to nurture documentary culture at workshops and festivals and markets around the world, I do decry the fact that the American Academy of Motion Picuture Arts and Sciences, er… the Oscars (trademark) are just that, an American institution celebrating American cinema. … even in our beloved genre of documentary …. but by my estimation there's a total of perhaps 10,000 feature length feature documentaries made each year in more than 200 countries of the world. Some of them are hapless, some are unwatchable, some of them are great. Most don't cross the radar or the US border, and certainly there are only a few among the 100 or so that the Academy doc committee has to work so hard to consider. In my work at the mother of all doc fests – IDFA in Amsterdam we get to consider more than 3000 submissions each year. Sundance's world doc competition (where our eyesteelfilm CHINA HEAVYWEIGHT will have its world premier next week) considers, at last count around 800 or so for that section. As for the Academy short lists, or no lists, it's a petty crime against cinema that films like Leonard Retel Helmrich's IDFA winner Position Among the Stars wasnt even on the short list, despite success at Sundance and 100 other world festivals last year. It should be there along with Steve James great Interrupters. The list of rejettees or obliees (rejected or forgotten) is enormous. This is not sour grapes. In more than 80 years the Academy has nominated, by my count of its database 292 feature docs, with only 69 being 'foreign' made films… roughly 23 percent. Perhaps this is as it should be for an American institution, in a country with 4.5 percent of the world's population producing more than 25% of the world's gross domestic product, and consuming a lion's share of the world's resources. Perhaps there should ONLY be American films considered. Or perhaps we should all admit that the Oscars aren't important to our reality based world, and get on with making great films. In short, projecting soft power in the form of such things as Oscars and worldwide Hollywoodism, is perhaps all that's left to the image factory called America.

Steve James

I think Chico may be on to something here. Its a very intriguing idea. I do wonder how the Academy would view ceding some of their authority in the selection of films to festivals? I expect the top-tier festivals would love it though getting judges who aren't tainted by affiliation might prove tough on a yearly basis. And there might be grumbling among some festivals left out of this process. But still, Chico's idea addresses many of the issues and contradictions.

Also, if only Jack here had seen the 125 minute version that played later festivals, the entire theatrical run and before the doc committee. He might think THE INTERRUPTERS was only 20 minutes too long! Or he should check out the TV premiere on PBS Frontline on February 14th – 111 lean minutes. (Shameless plug.) But Jack, in my admittedly too long essay above, I wasn't complaining about being left off the shortlist. I've never complained about the Oscars. In fact, its the part of the rules changes that would presumably favor filmmakers like me that give me pause. I've had a fortunate career without winning or being nominated.

Chico Colvard

Steve… Thanks for this article about the new Oscar qualifying doc rules. I think all of the chatter around the new rules is healthy and reflective of a deeply engaged and committed doc community. Here's more food for thought….

Perhaps a better way to sweep-in Oscar worthy docs like THE INTERRUPTERS and others that have gone unrecognized by the Academy is to add yet "another" criteria to the decision making process; that is, I think docs should be on a Two Track Oscar Qualifying System: (Track #1) The Academy would automatically consider docs that have won Best Doc at top-tier film festivals – Sundance, Toronto, Silverdocs, Full Frame (a committee can determine the criteria for qualifying festivals), IDFA, Berlin, HotDocs, Cannes (this would help bring in more foreign films); and (Track #2) The current rules.

*Note: Doc Academy Members cannot be affiliated with nor jurors at Oscar Qualifying Festivals.

The Two Track Oscar Qualifying approach allows films that have demonstrated clear success among film festival programmers, jurors, audiences and critics to, at least, be considered for an Oscar by the Academy — "without" having to shell-out the hefty costs associated with Oscar qualifying and avoid the severe penalty should the LA Times and NYTimes not review the film.

The Two Track approach will likely strengthen the quality of docs and festivals we see each year. I think this system can incentivize the current premiere film festivals to never rest on their laurels (no pun intended and not that they do), while inspiring emerging festivals to continually improve (however that gets measured). For the filmmaker, they wouldn't necessarily need to be short-listed, nominated or even win an Oscar in order to boost sales or increase viewership of their film. A Best Doc award from one of the Oscar Qualifying Film Festivals would be enough of an honor to significantly increase the chances of that film receiving wider distribution and an acquisition deal, if one isn't already in place.

Your thoughts?


Think if Steve James wants to win an Oscar he should cut the running length of his films (144 mins – who else could get away with that). Given the subject matter "The Interrupters" could easily have lost 40 mins from it's running time and been a much stronger film. The new rule changes seem to very much favour the name directors (Moore, Herzog, James, Marsh, Spurlock…) so it's little wonder they are backing these rule changes as it further freezes out unknown directors even if that year they have made stronger films. Am surprised "The Interrupters" is up for a DGA nomination as if you break down the directing involved – it's a dv filmed observational doc on a New York Times piece. There were far stronger, stunning original films I saw at festivals this year yet we don't here their filmmakers complaining as did Steve when he was not Academy shortlisted.

john pierson

Last year's Oscar telecast was viewed by 37.6 million people in America. If this year holds and 99.9% have never heard of Bela Tarr, that means 37,600 (or 00.1%) know his work. Highly unlikely.

More math. For the 100 or so documentaries that were "released" theatrically in 2011, the mean average gross (minus Justin Bieber) was around $35,000. It seems silly to refer to the bulk of these films as having been released "commercially." Mostly they played in empty theaters. And come to think of it, maybe Bieber is mad about not being shortlisted.

Bob Hawk and Steve James are two of the finest gentlemen in the world. So any debate that brings the two of them together is a delight.

bob hawk

I've been associated with docs that have won and/or been nominated for an Oscar and it's a thrilling thing — the recognition, the extra attention. But to me the ultimate question is: How do you measure success? It's certainly not about money. (Anyone who makes a doc to make money is delusional; making money is very rare gravy indeed.) And it's not about awards, as fun as they can be (and I'm especially excited when a film wins an audience award at a festival). It IS about the audience, and how they've been affected, influenced or changed by the work in question. An example: a lot of people were surprised when BALLETS RUSSES (I'm one of the producers) wasn't short-listed in 2005 (neither was Werner Herzog's GRIZZLY MAN for that matter; but it was pretty well assumed that MARCH OF THE PENGUINS was going to win, no matter what). However: BALLETS RUSSES opened at the Film Forum in New York and ran for 10 weeks, then moved over to the IFC Cinema for 11 more weeks. A 21-week first run engagement. Wow! And our wonderful and vigilant distributor, Zeitgeist, eventually nurtured over 180 bookings in 42 states. More wow! But the ultimate wow — and why I do what I do and how I measure success — are the many hundreds of people who let us know, in one way or another, how much the film meant to them, how inspiring it was, how entertained they were. To be introduced to a perfect stranger as someone associated with a film like BR and have that person grasp your hand, and teary-eyed tell you how much that film meant to them is the ultimate fulfillment. And it's happened with an Oscar winner (THE TIMES OF HARVEY MILK), a nominee (MY ARCHITECT) and the beloved, non-shortlisted BALLETS RUSSES. As to greatness — and to get away from just docs and talk about the art of filmmaking — I suspect that 99.9 % of the viewers of this year's Academy Awards have never even heard of Bela Tarr. I also bet maybe 95% of the viewers have heard of Steven Spielberg. Bela Tarr is a great filmmaker, Spielberg is not. Tarkovsky is a great filmmaker, Scorsese is not. I've enjoyed and loved films by both Spielberg & Scorsese (hooray for HUGO!). But greatness is a rare and powerful thing — a word that has been misused to absurdly hyperbolic lengths. Greatness is earned over time — and yet "great" has been used for films that are less than a year old, which is as ridiculous as the term "instant classic." Anyway . . . on to the Globes, the Oscars and all the other fun and games to be enjoyed for their own sake.

Peter Stamelman

To quote the gifted (and unjustly unheralded) American author James Salter "Must fame be a part of greatness?" Are the Academy Awards, in any category, about "greatness" or "fame?" HOOP DREAMS, STEVIE, AT THE DEATH HOUSE DOOR and, now, THE INTERRUPTERS are all great films – the fact that they're not "famous" films doesn't enter into the assessment. Although Mr. James does make a valid point about the attention and acclaim an Academy Award can bring to the genre, more often than not, as with the Best Picture category itself, the Oscar merely validates the popularity, i.e. the fame, of the film selected. How else to explain MARCH OF THE PENGUINS' 2005 win?

betsy McLane

Steve's analysis is the best I have read. He is a fine filmmake, a great representative for our documentary community a truly wonderful guy.
What seems to forget is that AMPAS is a very private club, which can give membership and awards to whomever it pleases. Its internal rules are just that, for better or worse. And its ever-changing documentary rules over the years have been both better and worse, as the wheel turns. I do find it odd that Michael Moore, the documentary spokesperson for the 99%, wants to make the eligibility process more elitist and available to those who have money, rather than to all who have made good documentary films. As for "under the radar" qualifying screenings, I can say (as one of the original co-founders of what has now become the "DocuWeeks" theatrical screenings), that these were never meant to be under the radar. They have generally been monitored by AMPAS staff to ensure that rules were followed, and I believe that every filmmaker who ever participated wanted as much public attention, reviews, controversy, and paid public attendance as possible. The goal is to get the films on the radar.

Edward Copeland

Very well said. My biggest concern is that in trying to reform a flawed system, it will swing the bias from the obscure to the successful. They say the reviews are the criteria, but what's really going on is that they want to limit it to docs that have distributors and get into theaters while really good ones on subjects not deemed "good box office" will be left out.


This is so well stated and understandably a difficult issue for documentaries. To me the academy award while a prestigious honor in the world of cinema is mostly a great marketing tool for the future sales of the project. It is nice to be recognized by your peers for sure and at the end of the day what we all want as film makers is for as many people to see our films as possible. But awards seem to be great marketing tools, whether from the academy or from a film festival. There is this human need to win and be seen/recognized but the truth, especially for documentaries, is that the intention is not to get an award but to fulfill the mission of it's content. That is to say to educate and get the word out on a specific topic, or share an historical event or key into the incredible work or life of certain human being. There is no doubt that money and accolades help to promote product and many independent film makers are just left with creative devices to get their films out. It is the way of capitalist America to continue this need for elitist recognition and a nomination or win = box office. Perhaps . I think Steve James makes many good and important points to what is a very difficult procedure. While the choosing process is time consuming and at times frustrating for academy members who volunteer to be voters, I do think that a review and 2 private institutions should not have the fix on weather a documentary should or should not qualify. I saw the Interrupters and thought it was one of the most wonderful documentaries of 2011. And I have a doc that has been to festivals with it. But how do you choose really, Buck is also a wonderful doc, but choosing one over the other is so deeply personal to how you respond to the subject matter. Good luck to us all!!

Richard Chisolm

Many thanks to Indiewire and Steve James for the thoughtful and honest essay. Like all truly great essays (and documentaries), this one embraces and grapples with ambiguities in the roomy gray areas of a controversy.
As a documentary DP and very independent filmmaker, I was disappointed by the new rules of Oscar qualification. While they may have served to partially repair a highly dysfunctional and biased process, the rules make the attainment of elite recognition even costlier and more nepotistic. And with due respect to the New York and Los Angeles Times news organizations, I think it is appalling to use these private companies as the gatekeepers for an award system that is run by a professional trade organization-an ACADEMY.

Hopefully the years ahead will prove the current documentary protocols to be temporary and the process can evolve in a fairer and more meaningful direction.

Perhaps the two academies will eventually allow the documentary to deserve it's own combined Oscar/Emmy with it's own separate process and award ceremony that puts aside all the categorical nit-picking of TV vs. theatrical release. After all, the physical cinema and broadcast television medium (like newspapers) are in a state of metamorphosis that is hardly 'future safe.'
The future of the documentary, on the other hand, is solid.

Jane Minton

Steve, I appreciate your comment about qualifying reviews being limited to LA and NY. Certainly a Roger Ebert review should have weight, as should critics in other cities–Austin, Minneapolis, Miami, Seattle, etc. And what about the decline of print film criticism? Perhaps the Academy should fund a program to award fellowships to film critics.

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