When the documentary committee of the Academy changed its rules earlier this year in a way that requires members to consider (or even watch) the entire list of 130-plus qualified docs before voting, the groan could be heard from Malibu to Nova Scotia. Even prime mover Michael Moore has had second thoughts. That decision’s effects continue to ripple outward, and Powers and his crew — including senior programmers and DOC NYC executive director Raphaela Neihausen— see the Short List as a way to do their part both for the beleaguered AMPAS members and for the filmmakers.
“That certainly emboldened us,” says Powers. “It felt even more pertinent this year, viz a viz the Oscars because of the new Academy voting rules that depend upon documentary branch members taking a look at all the documentaries that came out this year. We wanted to take time to shine a spotlight on 10 that we thought nobody should miss.”
Additionally, the Short List, now in its second year, was expanded from four films to 10, and Academy members have been invited to attend for free, as long as they flash their AMPAS cards. The hope is that they’ll take advantage of DOC NYC’s experienced programmers signposting the best of the bunch — even if the chosen ten aren’t meant to be definitive.
“I wouldn’t say that these 10 out of the 100-plus that are qualified are the most important 10,” says Powers. “I would rephrase the statement as: These are 10 of the most important to pay attention to. I could have credibly done a list of 30 that I could strongly get behind. But I have limits to what I can program. There is certainly no snub meant to any film that’s not on this list.”
The truth is that it’s debatable whether all the films included in the Short List this year really need the help — Gibney, Kennedy and Berg all have sizable reputations already, as does Joe Berlinger, whose “Under African Skies” also made the cut. Academy members could credibly check those names on the ballot even without seeing the films, even if the DOC NYC sidebar means they don’t have to.
So in a sense, the Short List is merely taking on the filtering job that the Academy used to do itself. And in the larger entertainment context, outside of awards considerations, only a misguided curmudgeon would argue that docs don’t deserve all the help they can get.
“What I have observed over the years is that filmmakers — none of whom are getting rich off this — when they get close to awards consideration often wind up having to fork out more money to rent screening rooms or hire publicists,” says Powers. “They wind up having to spend more money just to keep their film visible. So what I want to do is give them a free opportunity, give them a screening room and promote it to boot.”
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