Academy Award. The Oscar. A golden knight holding a broad sword, perched on a reel of film with five spokes that signify the original branches of the Academy: actors, writers, directors, producers and technicians; no wings to represent the soaring of art, or perhaps abstract sculpture to represent the possibility of the unformed. It is a stern representation of accomplishment, phallic and powerful, and to win this particular prize in filmmaking is the penultimate. And these days, Oscar is on the mind of more and more independent documentary filmmakers.
I've steered clear of much of the Oscar debates in my writing, as the qualification rules for documentary have been continually changing in the past few years to leave room for only theatrical docs, which may or may not include the best work in any given year. A look through the history of winners shows that neither box office bonanza nor true, unadulterated artistry will necessarily garner you the prize. Expensive campaigning doesn't always result in a statuette either; the odds of winning are remote. But perhaps it is the dream and its pursuit that is attractive? What are the benefits and pitfalls, real or imagined, in reaching for this dream for doc filmmakers?
AJ Schnack's blog, All These Wonderful Things, includes his excellent primer on the history and evolution of the award in the documentary category entitled "The Truth About the Academy's New Rules For Docs." If you are wondering more about past winners and why the qualification rules keep changing, this background information is essential. Schnack's own film "Kurt Cobain About a Son" will be distributed theatrically by Balcony Releasing, and it has been selected for International Documentary Association's DocuWeek, a program of docs that runs in Los Angeles from August 13 - 17 and satisfies the one-week run in Los Angeles requirement.
Schnack, who has followed the Oscars closely from both a journalistic perspective and as a hopeful, notes of his own aspirations, "It continues to be the one award for what we do that everyone knows about, like your mom and her friends know about it, and to the Academy's credit, it is one of the oldest awards that exist--they have been giving it away for over 50 years." Yet, arguments abound that the practicalities of qualifying this year will make it tough for independents.
The rules require playing 14 cities in addition to a week-long qualifying run in New York or Los Angeles and having two film prints if short-listed (the semi-final round from which the five nominees are chosen--an anomaly of the documentary category). Any broadcast or internet streaming disqualifies the project, which can be problematic for those produced using television money (or depending on broadcasters to hold back their window). For independents without a well-funded distributor behind them, the process is considered by some to be overly time-consuming, arduous and prohibitively expensive, as evidenced by "Iraq in Fragments" producer John Sinno's Open Letter to the Academy here at indieWIRE in March, 2007.
For filmmaker Frank Popper, director of last year's short-listed "Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore?" coming off of an audience award win at Silverdocs 2006, he and his producers Matt Coen and Michael Kime were energized by the good will and industry encouragement they received at the festival. They decided to go for it but note that, "Theatrical [release] is a money pit for the independent," said Popper. They found it much easier to get booked in theaters with a film print, but of course, making the print in advance of the short-list is an expensive gamble.
Another project selected for DocuWeek is "We Are Together (Thina Simunye)" by Paul Taylor. The film has picked up many audience awards at festivals, including this year's $50,000 Tribeca Film Festival prize. Producer Teddy Leifer says, "We know, from festival exposure, that audiences respond well to the film and we want as many people as possible to have the chance to spend an hour and a half with the kids in our movie." Exposure for a project rings true for many filmmakers seeking this award. Schnack says, "Look at the people who have been nominated, it has clearly been beneficial to the projects they have done later."
Some names that stand out from prior winners: Michael Moore ("Bowling for Columbine"), Kevin MacDonald ("One Day in September"), Freida Lee Mock (for "Maya Lin: A Clear Strong Vision" and now one of the current governors of the Documentary branch), Charles Guggenheim ("D-Day Remembered"). Prior nominees include names like Christine Choy and Renee Tajima Pena ("Who Killed Vincent Chin?"), Wim Wenders ("Buena Vista Social Club") and Brett Morgan ("On the Ropes") to name only a few.
About the odds, Schnack says, "I'm aware that traditionally, films about popular musicians haven't often been nominated, so I'm realistic about the possibilities for my film, but I want to be a part of this long tradition of documentary and have those [industry] people see my film." While "Mr. Smith" producer Matt Coen thought, "We're quick learners, and understand campaigns, so we were able to size up our odds and what we could do to make a difference in the process, but there is still a steep learning curve."
Coen suggests having a strong understanding of the overall marketing plan for the film, and having a vision for how the Oscar campaign fits into that. They have been selling the film from the film website, and have a Netflix release in August, but didn't take advantage of selling DVDs at screenings during the run of the film. He notes that the Oscar campaign has helped them build an audience, which will hopefully parlay into strong rentals and good turnout at screenings, such as an upcoming Academy screening in Los Angeles.
Leifer echoes a similar understanding for "We Are Together," "We'll try anything to reach audiences, and so qualifying the film for the Academy Awards is really just one of many tactics--just like trying to create an engaging website with ways to get involved, playing at lots of film festivals and forging important partnerships with relevant organizations."
Would you do it over again? Coen said of being on the short-list, "Being a part of something that was seriously considered was a thrill." From the hopeful Leifer, "We don't care how people hear about it or where they eventually see it--just as long as they do."
[IDA's full DocuWeek program is available on the organization's website.]