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by Dana Harris
January 8, 2012 4:16 PM
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New Academy Rule: Only Docs With LAT or NYT Reviews Qualify for Oscars

Rachel Libert and Tony Hardmon's "Semper Fi: Always Faithful." Tribeca Film Festival.

And just like that, it's gotten much harder for a documentary to to even be considered for an Oscar nomination.

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.

Per the NYT:

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.


  • Diego Arcos | January 10, 2012 8:52 AMReply

    This must be a mistake...there is no way possible this could be real

  • Kay Silverstein | January 9, 2012 12:35 PMReply

    Other than Semper Fi, I don't think "Undefeated" was released or review. It isn't scheduled for any time in theaters until Feb. This is a typical Harvey Weinstein tactic - and one that these new rules will prohibit. Harvey doesn't really release the film, no one sees it except for a select few of his buddies. If the film gets a nomination, he puts muscle behind it for a win with a late release. If the film doesn't get a nomination, he dumps it with a quick exit from the theaters. Between HBO four-walls and Harvey Weinstein, a change needed to be made.

    Agreed about Cinema Eye. Totally an inside job.

  • Mary Ann Kilpatrick | January 8, 2012 5:49 PMReply

    Which of the 15 short listed docs, other than Semper Fi, have not been reviewed by the LA Times or the NYT's?

  • Sam O'Neill | January 8, 2012 5:02 PMReply

    This is a terrible development. It makes perfect sense for the Academy to want to make sure that there are legitimate theatrical releases for docs, but the arbiter of this should not be a newspaper - it should be in the hands of theaters and theater-goers. This could be achieved by requiring a certain number of a days of a theatrical run AND a certain take at the box office. Now it is just the former. But to give the power to determine what is a "legitimate theatrical release" to newspapers, that have a totally different agenda than the Academy - is crazy.

    BTW - that Robert Greene would say that the Cinema Eyes are important is totally a head-scratcher . They are as random a competition as there ever has been. Who knows how those awards are made or by what criteria. They always seems like they were decided by a couple of guys sitting around having a beer picking the films they actually saw (or maybe they didn't even see them). They mean nothing because no one knows what the award means or why someone won.

  • JJ | January 9, 2012 10:19 AM

    Totally agree about the Cinama Eye Awards being as random as the Academy. Unless films screen at specific niche festivals who have programmers on the selection committee, and were a first pick of theirs you are out. This unless you are inside and very well connected in the doc establishment. I could pick a number of stunning docs that were strangely omitted while others on the list although strong films were not standout. Just like the critics lists that are often super safe for established film makers such as Herzog & being honest it's hard to say that "Project Nim" was in the top five films of the year. Also look at the BAFTAS how ridiculously biased to Brit films it is in all categories including docs. Think just have to take most very awards lightly.

  • tapestre | January 8, 2012 5:48 PM

    Sam, huh? Unlike the Academy, Cinema Eye is pretty damn transparent about its process:
    And it even has an award (Spotlight) that draws attention to noteworthy films that didn't qualify...