For the last few years, a rising tide of documentaries seeking Oscar eligibility has forced the Academy to create tighter and tighter rules. As the rules stand now, a documentary must play one-week theatrical engagements in Manhattan and Los Angeles before August 31. As a result, and also out of fear for spoiling future publicity, some documentaries are sneaking themselves into remote theaters in both cities, striving to qualify but also going unnoticed. For better or worse, the blogosphere has prevented such blindness to occur. Meanwhile, some films that will not obtain an official theatrical release are splitting screens in random locations with no word-of-mouth or exposure. Just the other night, I was walking in the East Village, when I noticed SXSW 2008 docs like Sex Positive listed on a multiplex marquee. No noise was being made, nor do the filmmakers seem to seek it. They just wanna get the nomination.
“Okay, I make indie narrative features, so why should I care?” might be the reaction for some. But, you should. The domino effect these speedy engagements create, forces a gridlock at the local theaters. This makes it that much harder to book a smaller film, squeezing out titles that could potentially bank on summer counter-programming. Toronto International Film Festival documentary programmer Thom Powers has posted a reaction to this year’s rules on the TIFF Doc Blog. Thom’s got a good professional reason to be annoyed: the current Oscar deadline means that most nonfiction features premiering at TIFF (September 4-13) without distribution, will be required to wait until August 2009 to look for Oscar attention. Toronto programs many terrific new documentaries, and they should not be penalized for editing through the summer. I suggest you give his post a read, and think about whether or not the Oscar rules make sense, considering fiction films get four extra months (until December 31) to compete in a greater number of potential categories.