It's hard to believe that the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences and its Oscar documentary branch are instilling a new rule that docs would have to receive a review in the New York or Los Angeles Times to be eligible, thereby excluding plenty of worthy indie nonfiction work. Part of the proposed changes for next year also include a major shift on who votes for the final award — rather than the documentary branch, the entire Academy will now vote for the winner. Despite support from Michael Moore and Steve James, the revisions suggest a move further toward the middlebrow and mainstream.
As documentarian Robert Greene ("Fake It So Real") told Indiewire, "I see this as another case of the Academy moving farther away from what I personally value in documentary film. I mean, we're talking about a body that didn't even shortlist 'The Interrupters.' This just seems like another step away from acknowledging the best work in nonfiction by an Academy that doesn't seem to care."
Problems and controversies within the Oscar's documentary branch are legion — from the omission of "Hoop Dreams" to the many years it took Errol Morris to be considered a documentary filmmaker and be acknowledged by the Academy. But you're also talking about an awards body that has always championed the middlebrow ("Crash") over the artistic and cinematic across its categories–which is why I don't believe the shift to having the entire Academy pick the winner is a good idea. Do you really want actors–who make up the largest percentage of AMPAS members–picking the best nonfiction work?
While I'll be happy to see the indie film community balk at the rule changes and rally against them, I also feel like they're barking up the wrong tree, to an extent. Sure, there's a financial motivation for joining in with the Oscar circus, but this has never been a group that has honored the best work of the year — not in documentaries, or in any category.
But as with any time indie folks rail about the Oscars — see the great "Screener Ban" fight of 2003 — such changes should come as little surprise: The Oscars have a long history of shafting indies.