The New York Times broke the story today that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is preparing to institute a new rule for documentary features: To qualify, a film must have a review from the New York Times or the Los Angeles Times.
A draft of the proposed rule did not specify whether the review had to be included in a print edition, or might run only online. It also did not specify length, or distinguish between the sort of capsule review, which sometimes introduces festival films, and a more elaborate piece of criticism. Reviews by television critics were specifically ruled out.
This requirement won't affect the vast majority of docs that get a theatrical release; the New York Times has a policy of reviewing all films that have at least a one-week commercial run in New York City or Los Angeles.
However, it's a game changer for those docs that gain Academy qualification via the International Documentary Association's DocuWeeks program. One of the 2011 DocuWeeks titles, "Semper Fi: Always Faithful," is on this year's list of 15 qualifying nominees. "Semper Fi" is currently slated for digital distribution through New Video.
The move is meant to reduce the number of docs submitted for Academy consideration. According to the New York Times, that number was 101 in 2010 and 124 in 2011. That might sound daunting to an average viewer, but Thom Powers, documentary programmer for the Toronto International Film Festival, was not impressed.
"As a festival programmer, it'd be a holiday to me to only watch 124 films," he said. "The Academy has a problem in how it makes these decisions. It has a body of documentary board members who aren't that excited to watch documentaries. Does that engineer a lot sympathy? No, it does not."
It's not the first time the film industry has looked to the media to create official guidelines in how to run their businesses. At one point, agency contracts incorporated language dictating that box office figures "as reported by Variety" be considered the last word.
However, in a week that saw J. Hoberman lose his job at the Village Voice, this is a strange time for the Academy to assign newspaper critics with the responsibility of deciding documentary qualifications.
"[The policy] counts on the New York Times and the LA Times and it puts a lot of pressure on the critics," says Powers. "We've seen a lot of cutbacks on critics. I don't have any faith that's not going to continue."
Documentarian Robert Greene, whose "Fake It So Real" opens Friday at the reRun Gastropub Theater in Dumbo, says he has mixed emotions about the Academy rule.
"While I personally very much value the theatrical release as a legitimizer, I see this as another case of the Academy moving farther away from what I personally value in documentary film," he says. "I mean, we're talking about a body that didn't even shortlist 'The Interrupters.' This just seems like another step away from acknowledging the best work in nonfiction by an Academy that doesn't seem to care. This is why something like the Cinema Eye Honors mean so much now."
The Cinema Eye Honors is an annual awards ceremony for the best annual achievements in documentary launched by prominent members of the American documentary community in 2008. The 2012 edition will be held at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens on Wednesday night.
Eric Kohn contributed to this article.