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10 Things Michael Moore Wants You to Know About the Academy’s New Documentary Rules

10 Things Michael Moore Wants You to Know About the Academy's New Documentary Rules

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.”

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I wonder if theatrical distribution is really such an important requirement for the doc category. Short films become eligible by winning the "best of" prize at one of the Academy-qualifying film festivals. Since festivals provide the natural audience for serious documentaries (in a way that a profit theater in midtown just doesn't) maybe docs should be treated in a similar way?


As an independent documentary filmmaker, I understand that compromises had to be made, I'm grateful that the rules are changing to loosen the grip of certain pay-TV network executives on the process, and I hope they will continue to change to help legitimize the genre not only as an important part of intelligent public discourse (of which we are in dire need), but also as a viable, profitable form of theatrical entertainment…before both theatrical entertainment and the newspapers themselves tied to Moore's plan go belly-up.

I just wish it didn't have to come to somebody like Moore getting our backs. Excuse me, "the godfathers of OUR genre" [emphasis mine]? Last time I checked, "polemic" was not on the Academy category list. But when it comes to Hollywood, cash talks louder than anything else, and one can't deny that his films have met with enough commercial success in relatively widespread theatrical release. If the Academy won't listen to his loud mouth, at least they'll listen to the money. It's just depressing that our Obi-Wan has to be an polemicist (polemitarian?), albeit an Oscar-winning one, spinning the facts in our favor. Unfortunately Moore appears to be playing true to form – instead of staying behind the scenes, he's thrusting his ample personality into the spotlight, as if it matters.

The saddest part is that documentary could help save the industry. If Hollywood is looking to get people back into those theatre seats, it needs to quit investing in re-marketing failed technologies to dress up the same tired old fictions under the auspices of making the experience more "real" and instead invest in new, better, original stories that actually ARE real. Compared to the latest $250 mil Chris Nolan flick, documentaries are every bit as compelling, don't require suspension of disbelief, and, wait for it…they're CHEAP to make, even the ones that have extremely high production value.

How's that for an argument to keep the category in the Oscars?

Hate the game, not the player.


Some of these comments just seem mean-spirited, but Seavey's comments are interesting. It's a long response, but it's got some good points in it that Moore needs to respond to.

Mary Lahnala

Ya know what, frankly I don't give a DAMM…………

Kevin Klawitter

Ah yes, let's forget the meat of the article and focus on ad hominem attacks on the man who is talking about them. Let's forget how important an overhaul of the Docu branch is and how people have been calling for it for years. Let's forget how much more fair this is. Michael Moore is the one who helped design them, therefore it is WRONG!!!

Seriously, guys. It's like you see the name, write the comment, and never even BOTHER to actually read the article.

George Monteiro

Gee wouldn't it be nice if they had a rule that "Documentaries" had to actually be based on facts. Of course that would eliminate everything that Michael Moore has ever produced so we can't have that.

Nina Gilden Seavey

I was one of those filmmakers that Michael Moore riled and my ire has not subsided, op cit our tussle on NPR's "Talk of the Nation."

The issue at hand is not why Wiseman or Pennebaker has not won an Oscar it's why TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE should! Scorsese waited a very long time to win his statue and the regard with which any filmmaker is held does not speak to whether any particular film from that director should be awarded or not. Esteem for filmmakers is what lifetime achievement awards are about.

But more to the point – For example, TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE was qualified through DocuWeeks, which The New York Times still stands by its decision that the films that participate in the IDA showcase will not be covered as theatrical releases. TAXI only made $274,000 after 20 weeks of being in theaters. Not a big money draw. But it won the Oscar and many would argue, including me, that this was a legitimate and deserved honor.

Sometimes documentaries are tough to watch and hard to get into distribution because they are not "light and entertaining." That doesn't make them "unworthy" because a distributor won't go into bankruptcy trying to engage a tough documentary film in a theatrical distribution. So under these new rules, a film as difficult as TAXI might never be considered. In a more recent example, if Harvey Weinstein had known last December about how UNDEFEATED would now be doing at the box office he might not have put so much money behind its acquisition and subsequent Oscar campaign that won that film the gold this year. It will probably temper Harvey's lust for documentary in the future. Given both of these films' method of qualification for the Oscar and their subsequent poor performance at the box office, Michael probably considers these two Oscar winners really "television docs" I suppose.

Using the ability to achieve a broader release of a theatrical documentary, given normal box office grosses as the barometer and with therefore their incumbent problem for distributors, is pretty much an automatic "no win" for most nonfiction filmmakers.

Michael can be a bully. That's what makes him such an entertaining filmmaker. But he is using that same impulse to depart from his normal proclivity of standing up for the little guy to now do the exact opposite: excluding legitimate and worthy films from the Oscar race because somehow he deems them "made for television." I still don't understand who put him in charge of this designation and how he's managed to make the distinction between what is Academy Awards worthy and what is not, except he's a big guy with a loud voice.

But Michael is right in one sense – something had to change. The rules were byzantine and the committee was insular. And the Academy has been trying to get rid of the Documentary Branch for years. But tossing a boatload of documentary filmmakers down the river wasn't what I know I had in mind to set things right.

This coming year and the next will be the test of whether Michael has poisoned the well for many filmmakers in front of the Academy or perhaps he has a vision that I simply don't. Honestly, I hope it's the latter, but I fear it is the former. No matter, I still don't think that these rule changes will alter his basic concern that venerable filmmakers haven't won the coveted gold statue.

So, it's not that Michael has "set the record straight" on the new Academy rules, it's that he's justifying the world according to Michael.


Will there be a rule that disqualifies "Michael Moore-ing" subjects (ie – asking one question, but cutting the answer as if they were answering a more inflammatory question) or not labeling fictional parts of your documentary that you put forth as fact (like the fake protestors that Moore has trotted out in 3 films or the fake Newspaper headlines Michael Moore creates and then presents as fact in his docs)? Because NONE of Michale Moore's films are even close to being 100% fact based documentaries- he manipulates his interviewees and the audience by creating drama through Franken-cutting and writing fictional events that he presents as facts using VO and snazzy Photoshop.

Perhaps Michael Moore is the LAST person to be dictating new "Documentary" rules.

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