Never have so many worthy docs been produced and released into the indie marketplace. There’s a complex set of filtering systems that throw the docs at the Academy branch. Film festivals are one sort of gatekeeper for the plethora of terrific low-budget docs made these days, while awards groups are another, from the upcoming critics groups to DOC NYC, the International Documentary Association and the Cinema Eye Honors.
A movie like Eugene Jarecki’s “The House I Live In” won the grand jury doc prize at Sundance, which also boosted the profiles of Malik Bendjelloul’s moving music doc “Searching for Sugar Man” and Lauren Greenfield’s profile of the super-rich “The Queen of Versailles,” both acquired on opening night and both indie hits theatrically. Sundance also launched Kirby Dick’s damning military-rape documentary “The Invisible War,” which helped to change Department of Defense policy, Amy Berg’s murder mystery “West of Memphis,” and Bart Layton’s con-man expose “The Imposter,” which continued to raise its profile at SXSW.
That’s where “Paul Williams Still Alive” made its debut, and it doesn’t hurt to have a well-known pop star to work the fest and press circuit–along with a catchy Oscar-nominatable original song. How odd that two docs this year were about musicians who were thought to have disappeared. But Rodriguez ended up on “60 Minutes.” That doesn’t happen every day.
This year, for the first time getting attention for a doc is front and center in gaining a foothold in the Oscar shortlist of 15 films. While “House I Live In” is a challenging piece of agitprop which seeks to do nothing less than change the structure of our country’s approach to drugs and prison, it hasn’t connected easily with audiences, which is one reason why Brad Pitt lend his name as executive producer, to push it harder.
Someone high-profile like Ken Burns is never left out of the doc conversation, and Cannes debut “The Central Park Five,” which examines the 1989 miscarriage of justice in New York City, is no exception. Neither is Alex Gibney, who premiered his incendiary anti-Catholic diatribe “Mea Maxima Culpa” at Toronto.
But what about less well-known players like rookie feature filmmaker Peter Nicks, whose “The Waiting Room” wasn’t accepted by the major festivals, but was recognized by doc fests like Full Frame? That film is going to have a tougher time getting seen by the Doc branch. Truth is, Nicks had a better shot of getting noticed via the old Academy doc branch voting system, which divvied up all the films to small groups of branch members who voted on a small slice of what they saw for the final nominations. The problem was that one idiosyncratic opinion could divebomb something worthy from the likes of Werner Herzog or Errol Morris. It was a crapshoot.
Now new doc rules pushed through by Michael Moore have opened up the list of eligible submissions to the entire branch–who have to see as many as they can before ranking 15 for the shortlist. Moore says that he didn’t expect such high numbers–mandated reviews for theatrically booked films in the NY or LA Times were supposed to winnow the ranks–he had no idea as many as 132 would gain theatrical release. That’s because more films like Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing’s Sundance entry “Detropia” are self-released now; they no longer have to depend on the likes of HBO or Sony Pictures Classics to get their films out. They can raise their own P & A funds on Kickstarter.
So the branch voters have been given an extension until November 26 to sample the 132 films. Now they have a pile like everyone else. The stack started growing earlier in the year, but of course they were hit with an overwhelming number of 80 screeners in the fall. Now the doc rules are up for grabs again.