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Exclusive: 'The Interrupters' Director Steve James Weighs In on the New Doc Rules

By Steve James | Indiewire January 13, 2012 at 1:12PM

Exclusive: 'The Interrupters' Director Steve James Weighs In on the New Doc Rules
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"The Interrupters" director Steve James
Peter Knegt/Indiewire "The Interrupters" director Steve James

It's been a good week for Steve James. His documentary "The Interrupters" won best director and best film at the Cinema Eye Honors Wednesday night; on Thursday, he received a DGA nomination.

What "The Interrupters" didn't do this year, of course, was make the Oscar shortlist -- something that's viewed as an egregious oversight (much like his "Hoop Dreams" snub 17 years earlier) and as a case study for why the Oscar's documentary rules were in dire need of an overhaul. 

James is the first to agree that the rules need help. "It’s embarrassing, if not plain wrong, for our community to have films that qualified under the radar and which few people have seen or heard about push out those that played by the true spirit of the rules and were celebrated by audiences and critics."

However, as he writes, "I think it is highly doubtful most of us will watch more than a portion of those films. And I suspect that our choices will be guided by the films we’ve heard or read about, or who the director is."  

It's increasingly clear that while the rule change is a victory, it's a complicated one. But let James tell you himself. And tell us your thoughts in the comments.  -- Indiewire editors

First, I want to say that I really applaud the efforts of Michael Moore and others in the Academy for trying to improve what virtually everyone agrees is a flawed process.  Something needs to be done and it’s not an easy situation to fix.  

The personal irony in all this is that until this year, the shortlist has been pretty good to me. “Hoop Dreams” made it informally in the old selection process. And “Stevie,” “The War Tapes” (which I produced and edited) and “At the Death House Door” all made it in the years since they made sweeping changes. None, of course, received nominations.  

“At the Death House Door” (co-directed with Peter Gilbert) was qualified “HBO-style” with under-the-radar runs in NY and LA. And had not Peter spent money out of his own pocket toward the cost of qualifying the film, IFC-TV, which funded and broadcast the film, would not have done so by themselves. They, understandably, wanted the film to be identified first and foremost as a TV-made film, despite our extensive festival circuit run.  

Did “At The Death House Door” deserve to be on the shortlist? It won its share of festival prizes and Peter and I got DGA nominations. But it was clearly not a theatrical release, even though we feel it plays very much like one. And it’s the kind of film that would not have qualified under these new rules. So, despite wanting changes in the rules, it’s still complicated for me.

Perhaps it’s because the current debate over the selection and nominating process draws lines in the sand among documentary filmmakers and lovers in several ways. On one side are those that want the Academy to be as completely inclusive of the best in nonfiction filmmaking each year, whether it was mostly a festival film, TV film, or genuine theatrical release. Their conviction goes to the core of the doc community’s values and politics: it’s hard enough to get our films made and seen so any opportunity to get it before a wider audience should be preserved in as democratic a fashion as possible. And being nominated, let alone winning an Oscar can be an enormous plus. 

On the other side – which also includes diehard doc filmmakers and lovers – are those who feel that an Academy Award should be reserved for films that truly have a definable theatrical release. And it’s embarrassing, if not plain wrong, for our community to have films that qualified under the radar and which few people have seen or heard about push out those that played by the true spirit of the rules and were celebrated by audiences and critics.  

This is about the public image documentaries have in the larger world. When “Man on Wire” or “Bowling for Columbine” wins the Academy Award, people outside our community take more notice of our genre and may believe more in its vital place in our culture.

The requirement of a review from the New York Times and LA Times has rankled many; I understand why. As a friend who’s served on the doc committees told me, “What if “The Interrupters” had failed to land a legitimate venue in New York but had the great run it enjoyed in Chicago with the great reviews it got from Roger Ebert and the Chicago Tribune?  Is that not worthy enough?” 

Others have noted that with a sea change imminent in the way in which we consume media, with the viability of theatrical releases for all kinds of films on increasingly unsteady ground, why would the Academy insist on traditional reviews as a requirement? But some kind of bar has to be set if the goal is to substantially reduce the number of films to be considered (which I question whether the new rule will). 

This friend goes on to say, “Maybe the bar should be that if you qualify a film for an Oscar, you can not put it up for an Emmy. So filmmakers and broadcasters would be forced to choose.” HBO has always prized Emmys. I suspect they’d make different choices depending on the film and their perceived prospects for success. It’s a pretty interesting alternative to consider. 

The new rules, as Michael Moore has said, will bring the documentary branch much closer to the rest of the Academy in the selection process. But if the doc branch members receive anywhere from 60 to 100 or more qualifying films a year, I think it is highly doubtful most of us will watch more than a portion of those films. And I suspect that our choices will be guided by the films we’ve heard or read about, or who the director is.  

If I’m right, that will clearly benefit films and directors with higher profiles.  And American films. But that’s always been the case, hasn’t it? I was at IDFA when I got the news that “The Interrupters” didn’t make the shortlist. Though many generously shared words of support, a lot of non-American filmmakers shrugged too, saying in essence, “Welcome to the club.” These filmmakers feel the Academy has always slighted them, despite their increasingly higher profile here in festivals and even theatrically.  

In addition, the continuation of the shortlist in the new rules means that doc branch members would be voting twice instead of once like other branches. Will that mean a majority will bypass the first round and just wait to vote on the final five? And for the films that do make the shortlist, will the ones that are more obscure, or have less theatrical muscle, or are self-distributed, have much of a chance? The prevailing wisdom is that if you make the shortlist, you will need to put up $25,000-$30,000 to hire a publicist, plan special screenings in New York and LA and place a couple ads at least in Indiewire and Variety. Will everyone getting DVD screeners eliminate that need? I’m not so sure; even 15 films can be a lot for busy filmmakers to make time to see. And if you want to grab their attention, I think you may still need to play that game if you can afford it.

And even if you don’t spend that money and still get nominated, the cost of sending out screeners to the Academy as a whole is $60,000-$70,000 because there are approved houses that handle that for the Academy. (We were quoted a cost of $10-$12 per screener and mailing.) And that’s not counting money for a publicist and minimal ads. If you are that fledgling documentary that’s self-financed, self-distributed, or has a small distributor, where will that $100,000 come from?

You could say, well, you don’t have to spend that money, either. And that’s true.  You don’t have to win, either.  The bottom line is, the changes will indeed make the process much more like that of the Academy as a whole, and with that will come choices that I think tend to be more popular and entertaining, better funded, and higher profile.   

Will films about tougher subject matter without affirming endings and “triumphs of the human spirit” be further marginalized?  That may prove to be better for our collective good as an industry from a public relations standpoint, though it may not adhere as deeply to our values as documentary filmmakers.  I personally, am conflicted on this point. 

So should we just do away with the shortlist itself and go all the way towards being like the rest of the Academy? As John Pierson, the UT film professor and former indie film guru wrote me in an email, “Anyone with a fine film has to feel so much worse when he doesn't make a list of 15, right? Then anyone who makes the 15 but doesn't make the Final 5 doesn't exactly have any great bragging rights about that either. So the whole idea that there's something more transparent about the process or that the short list acts as a safety valve is delusional.”  

I’m not sure being on the shortlist has been of real value to me. There are so many other awards, at festivals, among critics groups, etc., that mean much more. But I’m also an established filmmaker and younger filmmakers may heartily disagree. I’d love to hear from them on this, as well as veteran filmmakers. I do know that a big part of me would just as soon have it be simply one round to a nomination. Not have the two months of waiting and wondering and playing and fretting over the PR game.  

I’d like to think these rules changes, though much needed, are a work in progress. But in the end, maybe winning an Academy Award shouldn’t matter so much anyway. Maybe we, as a community sometimes desperate for sustenance and attention, we place too much stock in this award, just like way too much attention is focused on fiction film and Academy Awards.  

I’m not sure we, in our own lower profile and less financed way, want to be too much like the rest of the Academy, which rarely awards the statues to the films I think should win anyway. I’d like to think that’s not sour grapes on my part.  Because the reality is, every year at the Academy Awards, only one documentary film truly wins.







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