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For Your Consideration: Could a Documentary Be Nominated For Best Picture?

Photo of Peter Knegt By Peter Knegt | Indiewire October 27, 2010 at 1:44AM

When the Academy's best picture list was extended to ten nominees last year, one of the potential bright sides many folks noted was the new opportunity the Oscars had to include types of films that rarely - if ever - made the big lineup. Namely, the big three of Oscar under-representation: Foreign language films, animated films and documentaries.
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When the Academy's best picture list was extended to ten nominees last year, one of the potential bright sides many folks noted was the new opportunity the Oscars had to include types of films that rarely - if ever - made the big lineup. Namely, the big three of Oscar under-representation: Foreign language films, animated films and documentaries.

In its first year out, the big ten did indeed see one of those make the cut in Pixar's "Up," the second animated film to ever be nominated for best picture. "Toy Story 3" will likely become the third this year, supplanting the idea that animated films - particularly those made by Pixar - should have no problem being a regular fixture in the best picture race as long as there are ten nominees. But, what about foreign language films and documentaries? Last year, neither seemed to even find a dark horse contender. With foreign films that's unlikely to continue be the case. On eight occasions in the past, from 1938's "La Grande Illusion" to 2000's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," foreign language films made the best picture lineup when there were only five slots. It's only a matter of time before one does so again now that there's ten. But as for documentaries, it's a bit hard to say.

No documentary has ever been nominated for best picture. Though one could only suspect it might have happened if the Academy had a ten-film best picture list in their respective years, 1994's "Hoop Dreams," 2002's "Bowling For Columbine," 2004's "Fahrenheit 9/11," 2005's "March of the Penguins," and 2006's "An Inconvenient Truth." But, the key with a lot of those films - particularly the Michael Moore films, "Penguins" and "Truth" - is that they were essentially cultural phenomenons (at one point they were the four highest grossing docs of all time, though since "Sicko" and "Earth" have joined them). That's probably what it's going to take. Overwhelming critical support alone didn't bring last year's "The Cove" anywhere near a best picture nomination. Had it grossed $20 million maybe it could have made the list.

One can only suspect, though, that there are going to be many stories acknowledging that this year has been a remarkable one for documentary filmmaking. Artistically, all one has to do is look at this list of eligible films for this year's Cinema Eye Honors, which reflects the scope of documentary 2011 has seen. From examinations of artistic and popular culture ("Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work," "Exit Through The Gift Shop"), to unique explorations of challenged nations and communities ("The Red Chapel," "Last Train Home"), to thorough discussions of the economic crisis ("Inside Job," "Collapse," "Casino Jack"), to worthy additions to the canon of docs themed around war ("Restrepo," "The Tillman Story"), 2010's docs have offered seemingly endless examples of the medium's possibilities.

They also haven't done too shabby financially. While there haven't been $20 million+ grossing breakouts, six of the top 50 grossing documentaries of all time - "Oceans," "Babies," "Waiting For 'Superman," "Exit Through The Gift Shop," "Catfish" and "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work" - were released in 2010 (seven if you included "Jackass 3-D," which should technically end up surpassing "Fahrenheit 9/11" as the highest grossing non-fiction film of all time). And the recently released "Inside Job" could potentially join them when all is said and done. They all stand decent chances at making the Academy's best documentary feature shortlist, but best picture? There is an argument to made for one film, and if any film could make the cut its this one.

Currently in 290 theaters across the country and a regular fixture on the overall box office top 20 for the past few weeks, Davis Guggenheim's "Waiting For 'Superman'" is the closest thing 2010 has seen to Michael Moore-sized publicity surrounding a documentary. Analyzing the failures of American public education by following several students through the educational system, the doc has the rare backing of a studio (it's released by Paramount Vantage), giving it potential awards campaign dollars that its competitors simply wouldn't have. The marketing for the film's release alone has been extensive, perhaps most notably with two episodes "The Oprah Winfrey Show" revolving around the issue, which included appearances by Bill Gates, Geoffrey Canada, and most infamously, Mark Zuckerberg, who used the opportunity to give away $100 million to a Newark school board (allegedly to deflect attention from his role in "The Social Network," one of the year's surefire awards contenders).

While the film is not without its detractors (author and professor Rick Ayers lambasted the accuracy of the film, describing it as "a slick marketing piece full of half-truths and distortions"), critics have generally been enthusiastically on the film's side, as have audiences. The film won Sundance's Audience Award for a U.S. doc back in January, and $3,704,280 worth of receipts have been counted in North America since the film opened five weeks ago. That gross will not not stretch as far as say, Guggenheim's aforementioned "An Inconvenient Truth," which took in over $20 million, but it could definitely hit $6 million, making it one of the 20 highest grossing documentaries of all-time. A cultural phenomenon? No. But a definite success story.

It's highly unlikely that all this argument is enough to truly land "Waiting For 'Superman'" a best picture nomination. But, it's enough to suggest that it's not entirely reasonable to completely rule it out either. It is only October and Paramount does have some extra cash in its pocket after the back-to-back successes of "Paranormal Activity 2" and what's technically another documentary, "Jackass 3-D." But if not this year, a doc being nominated for best picture is bound to happen sooner or later. It just would be a shame if a such a watershed year for non-fiction didn't find representation on Oscar's big ten for 2010.

For Your Consideration is a weekly column by indieWIRE's Associate Editor and awards guru, Peter Knegt. Follow him on Twitter and check out his weekly Oscar prediction chart

Previous editions of this column:
For Your Consideration: Assessing Those Gotham Award Nominations
For Your Consideration: 10 Underdog Actors
For Your Consideration: 10 Underdog Actresses
For Your Consideration: Save For "Love" Snub, Foreign Language Submissions Uncontroversial
For Your Consideration: Post-Toronto Oscar Predictions
For Your Consideration: Updating Oscar Contenders In The Eye of The Storm
For Your Consideration: 10 Things The Fall Fests Should Say About Awards Season
For Your Consideration: Assessing Oscar In The Calm Before The Storm

This article is related to: Documentary, Features, Academy Awards