This year, Michael Moore helped rewrite the rules on which documentaries are eligible for the Academy Awards, and who votes for them. This has resulted in some heated exchanges with other filmmakers, largely because the new rules require a nominated film to have a review in either the New York Times or the L.A. Times.
At the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival on April 12, Moore set the record straight about criticisms regarding the new rules. He appeared via Skype in a brown hoodie — degrading into a pixelated Yoda when the Internet stream slowed — and explained why he believes the rule changes are (mostly) for the good.
#1. Change Is Obviously Needed
“If I said to you that Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and Woody Allen, none of them have never ever won an Oscar — that would seem really bizarre wouldn’t it?” Moore said.
“Now, let me say this: Frederick Wiseman, the Maysles Brothers, D.A. Pennebaker, Chris Hegedus, Steve James. I could go down a very long list of people who never won an Oscar, and many, like Fred Wiseman, who’ve never been nominated. How can that happen? How could these godfathers of our genre — modern documentary — never have even been nominated or won?”
#2 The Old System Was Weird, Insular, and Corrupt
“For many years a small committee watched the documentary films. The committee was made up of volunteers from the Academy. They were not documentary filmmakers, and they were not from the documentary branch. And so they would sit there with the 16mm projector running and — after 10 minutes, 20 minutes, everybody had a little flashlight and they hit the flashlight, and they would stop the projector and they wouldn’t watch the rest of the film,” Moore said.
“And Roger Ebert about 20 years ago did a story about one of the reasons why this was. . . There was a documentary distributor on the committee. And according to Ebert, a third and half of all nominated films were distributed by this documentary distributor who sat on the selection committee. In fact, in the year of ‘Roger & Me,’ 1989, three of the five nominees were distributed by this man’s company.”
#3 The New Process Will Be More Democratic
“When I was elected to the Board of Governor for my branch, this was one of the things I really wanted to fix. I said, ‘We should create a democracy movement within the documentary branch of the Oscar. We should bring democracy to our branch, meaning the entire branch should vote on who the five nominees are going to be, and then the entire Academy — all 6,000 members — should pick the winner from those five nominees,'” Moore said. “It was decided it was time to let everyone vote.”
#4 More Documentaries Will Get Seen
“We’re setting up procedures to guarantee that every [submitted] film does get seen by someone,” Moore said. “And I asked the Academy if they would shoulder the expense of sending every qualified movie to every member of the documentary branch and they’ve agreed to do it. So, in other words, if you’ve made a documentary, you want to submit it this year and your film will be sent to all 160 members of the documentary branch,” Moore said.
“You can submit and will submit your documentary films when they are released throughout the year. So, your film comes out in June, we will get your movie in July. This way, no one’s going to have to watch 100 movies in December, like the Oscars work now. We’re going to watch them throughout the year.”
#5 Bigger Movies Will Benefit (and They Should)
“I know that people have said, ‘The little films will be overlooked.’ But actually the history of the Oscar for documentaries is that the little film has not been overlooked; it’s the larger film that has been overlooked.
“And the joke 15, 20 years ago was that if you were critically acclaimed, if you got good notices, if you were thought well of by the audience as one of the best documentaries of the year, that would be the kiss of death. You were guaranteed of not even being nominated. It was a weird feeling like, ‘Oh my god, I’ve got all they great reviews — oh, we’re screwed!'”
#6 Glorified TV Movies, So Long!
“Too many of our nominated movies seemed to be made for television and the network and were qualified by sneaking a quiet run in New York and L.A. that wouldn’t be announced publicly and wouldn’t get a review in the New York Times and L.A. Times because they wanted to get that review when the film showed on the network in a few months. They kept to the letter of the law, but not the spirit. They were really TV movies that weren’t satisfied with just winning an Emmy; they wanted to win an Oscar, too.”
#7 Why the New York Times Matters, But Not as Much as It Thinks It Does
“We were told by the New York Times that it is their policy to review every movie that gets a true theatrical release that opens in Manhattan, regardless of how big or small the film is. We thought, ‘Wow, that’s the way to guarantee this was really and truly in theaters,'” Moore said.
“This got reported initially by the New York Times that somehow we were ceding control of who can get nominated over to the New York Times. That is absolutely not true. We’re only using them because of their rule. If they change that policy, we’ll change.”
#8 “If A.O Scott Has a Cold,” Filmmakers Can Appeal
“We’ve instituted a very liberal appeal process where essentially all the documentary filmmaker has to do is say, ‘Hey, here is the day my film opened in Manhattan, there’s no review in the New York Times, but the film was there. Well, our attitude is: you’re in, you’re qualified, you are eligible. We’re not going to be sticklers about this. We’re using it pretty much as a guidepost to guarantee that the film was at the theaters.”
#9 The New Rules Favor the Coasts, and It Sucks
“It is [cultural imperialism]. It’s not right,” Moore said. “I say that as someone from Michigan. But the larger Academy, though, for all the other fiction movies, they have to play that week in New York and L.A. So we’re just lining up our rules to be totally in sync with the rest of the Academy to be totally the same, so documentaries are not looked at as the bastard stepcousins of cinema. The L.A. – New York thing, I’m not the biggest proponent of that. It’s there simply because that’s the general rule of the Academy for all movies.”
#10 The New Rules Will Ensure the Survival of the Documentary Category
“Those who want to remove documentaries from the Oscar show, they still exist in large numbers. They’re not the majority right now, and one thing I’m hoping to do with these new rules is take away any of their ammunition. And one of the biggest things is that they don’t get to vote for documentaries unless they happen to be in New York or L.A. during one of those three nights [where all five nominees are shown in theaters] in January or February,” Moore said.
“Starting this year, there’s none of that. We’ll have screeners, you can watch them at home, we’re going to start streaming them next year,” he said. “Once we get more these 6,000 Academy members engaged, I think the talk of removing the documentaries from the Oscars will never come again.”