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by Dana Harris
January 8, 2012 8:13 PM
29 Comments
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Michael Moore: Best Documentary Oscar Will Be Chosen By the Full Academy

Michael Moore speaking at the Commonwealth Club, 2009 Steve Moore, via Flickr/Creative Commons

Michael Moore told Indiewire that the new Academy rule requiring a Los Angeles Times or New York Times review to qualify documentaries for Oscar consideration is only one of many "great new changes" that will "prevent the concerns that have existed since 'Roger & Me.'"

"The concerns," of course, refer to the now-perennial story of the popular and well-regarded documentaries that are overlooked by the Academy every year. This year, it's "Senna" and "The Interrupters;" last year it was "Waiting for Superman" and "The Oath." However, Moore says he believes a new set of rules for best documentary candidates, which the Academy will announce later this week and will take effect for the 2013 ceremony, greatly increase the odds that all theatrically released documentaries will have a fair shot.

Here's the highlights of the new Academy rules:

  • Only those documentaries that receive a commercial, one-week release in New York and Los Angeles, and were reviewed by the New York Times and/or the Los Angeles Times, qualify for Oscar consideration.
  • If the New York Times changes its policy, which now requires reviewing all films that receive a one-week theatrical release in New York, the Academy will change its policy.
  • Films that received a one-week commercial release, but were somehow not reviewed, may appeal to the Academy for consideration.
  • The Academy will send screeners, or make films available online, to documentary branch members on a quarterly basis. (Theatrically released docs will be encouraged to apply for Academy consideration throughout the year.)
  • The Academy documentary shortlist, and later the five nominees, will be determined by a vote of the full documentary branch.
  • The full Academy will vote for best documentary.

Moore, who is on the 43-member Board of Governors as one of three people who represent the documentary branch, says he proposed the rule changes and saw them passed unanimously by the documentary branch's executive committee. He said he expects the new rules to cut the documentary contenders to about 60 -- a reduction of about 50% from 2011 levels, which saw 124 qualifying titles.  

The current documentary voting system works something like this:

  • Any documentary that has a one-week theatrical run may qualify for Oscar consideration.
  • The documentary branch, which numbers about 160, asks for committee volunteers.
  • Ideally, a committee doesn't have to review more than 10 films; therefore the number of committees, and volunteers on each committee, depends on the number of film submitted. (And the films can number more than 10.)
  • The qualifying films are evenly divided between committees.
  • Each committee votes only on those submitted films, assigning them a score of 6.0-10. (.5 scores are permitted).
  • The films with the highest scores make the shortlist.
  • More documentary branch committees cull the five nominees from the shortlist.
  • Only the documentary branch votes for best documentary.
  • Documentary branch members may only vote if they see all films in a theater.

Although it's a system that saw Moore win an Oscar in 2003 for "Bowling for Columbine," it's one he called "byzantine" and in dire need of an overhaul. "Two people can't torpedo your opportunity to get an Oscar," he said. "That's over."

In an email to Indiewire, "The Interrupters" director Steve James said in a branch of 160 documentary filmmakers, it's almost impossible to get enough qualified volunteers to make the system work.

"I certainly understand the impulse behind the change because having to have a committee of volunteers within the Doc Branch consider 124 films in a given year when they can’t participate if they have any formal connection to any of those films... That has got to make it hard to even have a substantial number of active documentary filmmakers even participate in the judging. With so few people looking at any given film, it only takes one to dislike a film and its chances for making the short list are diminished greatly. So they’ve got to do something, I think, to make the process more sane for deciding the shortlist."

Added Moore, "In my little speech to [the Academy Board of Governors], I said, 'When people get the award for best documentary and they go on stage and thank the Academy, it's not really the Academy, is it? It's 5% of the Academy.'"

Andrew Rossi, director of "Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times," said the new system sounds more fair than the Academy's traditional method.

"Most people seem to think that the reason why certain frontrunners end up getting excluded is because of arbitrary results produced by the previous method of having multiple screening committees view a small selection of the eligible films, each of which determine their own top choices for the shortlist," Rossi wrote in an email to Indiewire. "So in the lesser of two evils category, having two newspapers contribute to the vetting process seems a small price to pay for improving the shortlist phase."

Moore says the reviews mechanism is in place as only one of "three or four benchmarks" to ensure that the documentary is "truly a theatrical motion picture, because that's what these awards are for."

Of course, just as film journalism has seen its critics fall in the face of economic pressures, so has theatrical film distribution felt the squeeze.

Under this new system, a shortlisted documentary like "Semper Fi" doesn't qualify for an Oscar; it screened through the International Documentary Association's DocuWeeks program. "Semper Fi" has not found a theatrical distributor and is slated for a digital debut through New Video.

"I played ["Semper Fi"] at my film festival," says Moore, who hosts the Traverse City Film Festival in Michigan. "It won one of the jury awards."

Moore said he plans to form a group to help determine "how does a film like that get distributed in movie theaters? They didn't make it as a TV movie. That's a different issue. We have to deal with it. We need to deal with it. The Oscars exist only for those films that get distributed [theatrically]."

Moore is a passionate believer that Oscars are only for those films that screen inside theaters. "TV movies have an awards system. It's called the Emmys," he said. "I have one. I'm proud of it."

James said he agreed with Moore's theatrical thinking. "Should reviews in NYT and LA Times be the bar? Maybe, maybe not... But they need some kind of bar and it strikes me that this is reasonable. The Academy is supposed to award theatrical films. And it's not like suddenly there will only be 30-40 films that qualify like it was back when 'Hoop Dreams' came out. If you’re required to play theatrically in NY and LA as currently is the case, it doesn’t seem farfetched to add this requirement to me. I can’t speak for the LA Times, but certainly the NYT is pretty comprehensive in their coverage as the article makes clear. They probably review at least 100 docs a year between capsule reviews and full reviews. In fact, they may find that these changes don’t significantly diminish the number of qualifying films, but I’m not the one to judge that."

However, with theatrical audiences shrinking and digital audiences growing, it remains to be seen whether that line of demarcation will remain.

"What if these newspapers began reviewing films released on the web or on demand first? There are definitely some docs which the Times reviews both after an initial television broadcast and then again during a later theatrical run," says Rossi. "Would the papers' critical recognition of those movies bolster other arguments to loosen the Academy's theatrical requirements? That would be ironic, indeed."

Eric Kohn contributed to this report.

29 Comments

  • Gary | July 4, 2012 8:55 AMReply

    Currently I am creating a website where I review 100 Docs in 100 days and I can honestly say that there can not be more than a small number of people that have the ability to watch that many films in a short period of time. I had no idea how much time I would really have to commit to this project. How will a filmmaker be able to honestly dedicate the time needed to watch 140 titles in even a years time ?

  • SashaFantasy | July 4, 2012 8:31 AMReply

    How in the world does Michael Moore have that much input about this process? Of course Michael Moore will always have his best interest in mind which is ultimately to put money in the pocket of Michael Moore. Did you read the interview - "I have an Emmy, I'm proud of it". What self serving garbage. There has got to be a better way. I'm shocked Michael Moore did not demand Flint, Michigan had to preview any film before it could be nominated.

  • Maria | April 20, 2012 3:05 AMReply

    I found this article a bit foggy, so I'm curious to hear from others an analysis of how the old system enabled Weinstein to buy the documentary vote this year under the current rules. Seems to be the common assumption, but I'm not clear how that works, and if that kind of thing will be more likely to happen under 2013 rules or less.

  • Jessica | April 18, 2012 2:53 PMReply

    Wow opening up the voting to all Academy members pretty much hands the Oscar to Weinstein/Sony. It is nut to allow people who have NOT seen the film to vote on it ( which is how I am reading this) I am working on THIS IS NOT A FILM by Jafar Panahi &, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb which is an extraordinary documentary, but there is no budget for the type of Academy "campaign" major distributors can buy. I hoped the fact it is great film would be enough to give it a fighting chance, but if the Academy allows all members to vote regardless of whether they have seen the film, it won't have a chance.

  • Jordan Depratto | February 21, 2012 1:06 AMReply

    The only reason Michael Moore likes this is because his name will be on that short list because.. Well he's Michael Moore. No matter what he does it will receive attention. Even though what he makes is bullocks.

  • Alison MacLean | January 11, 2012 1:55 PMReply

    As a Indie Film Maker who has had a Broadcast Releases in Canada, and is now preparing for an International Release of my Project Outside the Wire, it is very frustrating to try to compete with the Documentaries that will be short listed by the New York Times and the LA Times. I beleive that they will shortlist American Projects only, and make it even more difficult for the true Indie who works with Budgets of $100,000 plus. The good stories are not mainstream or "packaged". I have made my money by doing a Sponsored Speaking/Screening Tour and that has eneabled me to break even in the first year and now to make a profit on this Project, as well as provide seed Capital for the next one, that I am shooting in May 2012 called Burka's to Bullets: Afghan Police Women. I shot in Afghanistan in full combat and released less than 6 months later, with a gritty version that is now being updated for the International Audience. Direct DVD Sales and Sponsorship, has enabled this as well as my retaining all rights. The Broadcaster had the rights for one year only.
    The Academy should have a separate division geared to Documentaries of $100,000 dollars or less.
    Best wishes,
    Alison MacLean
    Tomboy Digital Productions
    www.tomboyproductions.tv
    604-538-4000

  • Steven J | January 10, 2012 6:01 AMReply

    The worst was when Steve James' "Hoop Dreams" didn't get nominated in 1994. I remember how OUTRAGED Siskel and Ebert were. Hopefully, great documentaries like that will not be overlooked again.

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  • bsmith | January 9, 2012 5:59 PMReply

    You want an award from the clowns who give us those cartoons and comic books in the multi-plexes? Why?

  • sandylieberson | January 9, 2012 2:54 PMReply

    i have to agree with moore! this is a negative approach to intelligent selection and if the men and women who are on the selection panels think it too hard then find some replacements who have the passion and stamina to watch the docs.
    AMPAS member

  • jake | January 9, 2012 2:34 PMReply

    Michael Moore does and says what's good for Michael Moore! He's full of it.

  • Chuck Braverman | January 9, 2012 12:11 PMReply

    A couple of years ago at a public Academy meeting discussing how to qualify a film, I got up and said that the Academy should make every effort to have the best films each year. Then Acad president Bruce Davis said that the Academy did not want the best films and that they had too many to screen. As a long time member of the Academy and an active documentary producer, I have watched over the years as the Oscar organization has tried different ways to get rid of those darn docs. Now we have one of our own, Michael Moore, coming up with very self serving rules that will only promote more studio films and make it harder for the indie. The IDA has served the doc community for years with a great Docu Week event. I hope this does not scuttle that event continue to discourage the independent documentary filmmaker.

  • MWBLOCK | January 9, 2012 12:06 PMReply

    The NEW DOC RULES are really terrible for independent filmmakers:

    1. Under current rules small committees actually screen films for short list.
    Under new rules the entire documentary branch of 140 plus members will "screen" 100 plus films.
    --Moore says this will allow more people to participate. But how will busy filmmakers find time to screen 100 plus films even over the course of a year?

    2. Under current rules over 60 people participate in screening the films for nomination. That means the films are really seen. How will this happen under "1" above?

    3. Under the proposed rules ALL Academy members will get to vote for the films once they are nominated. There is no requirement to SEE the films.

    Under the current rules Academy members can't vote unless they see ALL five of the nominees projected in a theater.

    This system will make it possible for big budget films to be nominated and win since the little independent films won't have the press, ads, screeners to compete with the studio films. Think Bob and Harvey and the campaign this year for THE ARTIST.

    Write the Documentary Branch Executive Committee in care of the Academy and tell them what you think of these new rules...Ask Michael Moore who is a Governor to support independent documentaries and not just studio docs.

    Let's have a level playing field.

  • mwblock | January 9, 2012 11:13 AMReply

    This statement is not correct:
    "Only the documentary branch votes for best documentary."
    The Documentary Award (once the nominees are selected) by the ENTIRE Academy once they have seen the five nominees in a theater--not using screeners.
    The requirement to vote that requires screening ALL of the nominees projected makes it impossible for the award to be purchased by spending the most on advertising.
    Moore will benefit from this rule--if voting can be done by AMPAS members without seeing the films by his making such high-profile works.
    The small independent documentary filmmaker will be at a disadvantage under this system since they won't have the marketing dollars to support a campaign where members can vote without being required to screen the films..

  • Melanie Whiting | January 9, 2012 9:22 AMReply

    Senna is also my inspiration & I'd like to thank Asif Kapadia for the movie.
    Sennasational & simply the best!

  • Jackie | January 9, 2012 3:09 PM

    I love Senna too. Was the best Senna doc made but outside of that would be hard to say deserved to be in the top 5 documentaries of the year.

  • Senna: My inspiration | January 9, 2012 5:07 AMReply

    Senna's success in the U.S. surpassed my expectations, and that's wonderful. But I think it deserves more and should be put farther out there. Seeing it in theaters was the greatest theater experience I ever had. I have never seen a group of people enjoy a movie like that.

  • Rita Lima | January 9, 2012 3:24 PM

    Senna deserves a chance!

  • Jim_Leg_End | January 9, 2012 3:07 AMReply

    Senna - That is all!!!!!

  • UltraSennaFan | January 9, 2012 12:20 AMReply

    ...AND THE WINNER OF PEOPLE'S HEARTS AND MINDS IS....SENNA!

  • Someone with eye and ears | January 8, 2012 11:53 PMReply

    SENNA was incredible. I would have been upset if it didn't win. I was beside myself that it wasn't even nominated. But it's not really a surprise in retrospect. It wasn't about "Global Warm- er, "Climate Change," racial or social inequalities, or politically charged, so naturally, something like SENNA gets overlooked.

  • Mike H. | January 8, 2012 11:40 PMReply

    "Senna" is the one of the great sports documentaries, perhaps THE greatest. Overlooking this marvelous, engrossing film would be a travesty.

  • Dave | January 8, 2012 11:33 PMReply

    Senna...Nuff said...

  • James | January 8, 2012 11:32 PMReply

    SENNA

    Winner.



    End of Story.

  • jo | January 9, 2012 3:06 PM

    Senna was not in my top 10 docs of the year and certainly isn't the greatest sporting doc. What film were they watching. It sets Prost out like a pantomime caricature villain. I know F1 well and this felt like a vanity film for the Senna family.

  • Michael Tucker | January 8, 2012 9:17 PMReply

    David

    What is the difference between Docuweeks and four-walling? That it's sanctioned by IDA? It's access that is bought--if you can afford it, you get a chance at the shortlist. It's not the same as the competitive world of distribution. "Best Picture" represents usually the most popular/commercial films. Why should Best Doc be different?

    I'd rather have a ruthless rules system than one that can easily be bought into.

  • Michael Lumpkin | January 8, 2012 11:10 PM

    The difference between IDA's DocuWeeks and four-walling is that our program is curated. In 2011 89 feature documentaries were submitted to DocuWeeks. Over two months a 12-member screening committee screened the submissions, and from the submitted films 17 were selected for the program. Filmmakers pay fees to participate that are consistent with, and often lower, than independent four-wall deals.
    Michael Lumpkin, Executive Director, IDA

  • Removed | January 8, 2012 8:50 PMReply

    This comment was removed at the user's request.

  • Michael Tucker | January 10, 2012 1:47 PM

    Michael Lumpkin--

    Curated or not, I don't think Docuweeks is the same as a commercial release. With these new rules--like or it or not--the Branch and the IDA must be consistent.

    The fundamental argument is if documentary is art, commerce or advocacy.

    MT