Under fire for comments he has made about new Oscar-qualifying rules for documentaries that he helped initiate, Michael Moore says he's pursuing a number of endeavors to expand — not restrict — the number of documentaries that are acknowledged at the end of the year.
Firstly, he's chairing a subcommittee within the Academy to look at how documentaries can receive adequate distribution and exhibition in the 21st century. He also would like to expand the Academy's documentary branch, which ultimately could lead to a wider range of sensibilities and selection of films.
"Our branch has only 170 members, out of 6,000 Academy members," Moore says. "The balance seems off, and I hope next year that we're going to see an expanded documentary branch and bring more filmmakers into that organization."
Moore also would like to set up a guild-like group outside of the Academy, akin to the American Society of Cinematographers or the American Cinema Editors, that would create its own year-end awards system to honor documentaries across all media platforms. "There's no organization for and by documentary filmmakers to recognize all sorts of work, no matter their distribution," he says. "The recognition of documentary filmmakers should be expanded, not contracted."
But that wasn’t the kind of language Moore was using on Twitter a couple of weeks ago.
When the Academy’s documentary branch recently adapted its voting rules to encourage members to see all submitted films — upwards of 130 feature-length docs this year — Moore was one of the loudest critics, even though he was largely responsible for the change.
The Oscar-winning director of “Bowling for Columbine” and “Fahrenheit 9/11” criticized the large number of eligible films by putting the blame on documentaries that have qualified in ways other than through conventional theatrical distribution — such as by renting movie theaters directly (a.k.a. "four-walling") or by screening at the International Documentary Association’s DocuWeeks festival, whose mission is to get films short Oscar-qualifying theatrical runs.
"Over 130 'documentaries' have 'qualified' 4 this yr's Oscars. But as u all know, 130 docs were not released in theaters this yr. So now what?" Moore wrote on Twitter. "Once again, scores of 'documentaries' which didn't get a REAL theatrical run have 'bought' their eligibility to qualify for the Oscars."
(While Moore believes the Oscars should be reserved for documentaries that have received conventional theatrical distribution, he’s sympathetic to those worthy docs that don’t accomplish it. "It makes me sick that some of the best documentaries of the year don't get distributed," he says.)
Moore, a member of the IDA, says that in the past he has supported DocuWeeks, but he now criticizes the way it's become "an assembly-line" for Oscar eligibility that costs filmmakers as much as $20,000 to take part. "I'm trying to advocate for the person who was Michael Moore in 1989," he says. "After making 'Roger and Me.' I'm broke — how the hell would I have been able to pony up $20,000 to qualify my film?"
Rather than see DocuWeeks gouging filmmakers, Moore would like to see it or another organization function include films for a minimal fee, operating like a "safety net" for those filmmakers that don't have "Harvey Weinstein or a rich uncle," he says. "Everybody is on the ropes trying to get distribution and exhibition.”
The IDA did not respond to several emails asking for comment.
But Moore’s most recent proposal is his most radical yet. As governor of the Academy’s Documentary Branch, he says he’s contemplating pitching a new standard: no rules at all. "There's the consensus that the documentary branch should stop with all the rule fixing," says Moore. "We're going to join the rest of the Academy and do it the way everyone else does it."
Still, even with the gripes and complications provoked by this year’s system — and until something new is established — Moore is confident that it can work. "Just as it's impossible for an editor to watch all 280 fiction films, it's impossible for each individual in the documentary branch to watch all 130 films," he says. "You trust the members to do their job."