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Inside Michael Moore’s Oscar Documentary Reforms and His War on HBO: Pros and Cons

Inside Michael Moore's Oscar Documentary Reforms and His War on HBO: Pros and Cons

At the Cinema Eye Honors Wednesday night, which honored Steve James’ “The Interrupters,” among other docs not on this year’s Oscar shortlist, Oscar-winners Michael Moore and Alex Gibney hotly debated the Academy doc rules. New Academy governor Moore is right to take on the Oscar documentary branch’s arcane voting procedures; the 25-member executive documentary committee led by Moore, Rob Epstein and Michael Apted unanimously passed new rules (outlined in their memo to branch members below) which were then approved by the Board of Governors.

The problem until now is that branch members’ well-intentioned zeal to screen every qualifying low-budget doc to give it a chance at an Oscar (with or without a distributor) via small committees means that if just one or two distempered voters don’t like the movie, it’s toast. That’s how the likes of James, Errol Morris, Werner Herzog and Apted’s “7 Up” series were overlooked over the years. “That’s over,” Moore told me. “We have to stop the madness. Let’s open it up, start a democracy movement, stop the committees’ private voting. The editors vote for editors. Let the entire documentary branch pick the five nominees, and then let the entire Academy see all five films and vote. I live in Michigan, and I don’t get to vote.”

Pro: Opening up the voting to the entire documentary branch, which will be fed batches of screeners over the course of the year, is a good thing. But it does raise other issues.

Con: Too many DVDs to screen is one problem (some 160 films qualified last year). So the Academy is requiring for next year that movies not only have the usual one-week qualifying run–in LA and NY–but get reviewed by either the New York Times or the LA Times. “It’s New York Times policy to review every movie that is released in a New York movie theater,” says Moore. “HBO doesn’t want a review in the New York Times.”

Con: Moore and the Academy are declaring war on HBO. Why? Truth is, a lot of docs wouldn’t get made without TV funding. But in order to try for an Oscar, you now must have a real theatrical release. On the one hand, Molly Thompson’s A&E Indie Docs department funds docs — such as “Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Elliot Spitzer” and “The Tillman Story”– and supports their theatrical release. It is Sheila Nevins, long-time doc czar at deep-pocketed HBO, who wants to have it both ways.

HBO avoids getting reviewed during a doc’s qualifying run (they did not like it when Manohla Dargis reviewed Marina Zenovich’s Roman Polanski Sundance doc during its run in Pasadena, for example). They want their films to be eligible both for the Oscar and the Emmy–and they want all their publicity and TV reviews to run at the time of their HBO debut. There’s no reason that a well-reviewed theatrical run can’t enhance awareness of an upcoming HBO doc. Now HBO is going to have to change its ways and choose. Is each doc a feature theatrical film eligible for the highest award in the movie industry, the Oscar, or a TV movie seeking validation via that industry’s highest accolade, the Emmy? “Consider the reverse,” says Moore. “If ‘The King’s Speech’ is first shown on HBO, it’s eligible for an Emmy. Oscars are for real movies distributed in theaters. ‘Senna” and ‘Into the Abyss’ and ‘The Interrupters’ were made to be in movie theaters. Their slots were taken away by films intended as TV movies.”

Booking theatrical runs cost more money than DocWeek, which charges some $20,000, but does not seek reviews. “You pay to get into DocWeek,” argues Moore, while admitting that it has become very difficult for indies to get theatrically released since the crash of ’08. The doc branch will have an appeals process for any filmmaker whose film played a gig like the Film Forum, but did not get reviewed.

Con: The new voting system would favor name brands and Weinstein Co. marketing campaigns. The downside of asking the Academy doc branch to view all Oscar-qualifying docs–even if there are fewer of them– is that now there will be a screener pile. The same forces that come into play on the feature side—marketing, publicity, for your consideration ads, dog-and-pony shows –will bring to voters’ attention the films that have been lauded and feted and bought and paid for. “Our branch is not swayed by Harvey,” insists Moore. “We’re a different breed.”

Obviously, the likes of Moore and Gibney are already name brands whose films will get released and moved to the top of the pile. At the bottom of the pile will be all the little movies from nowhere with no marketing budget that no one has ever heard of. (I know how it works for me, try as I might to look at everything.) That’s what documentarian Lynne Littman is afraid will be lost with the new rules: at least with the old committee system, everything got screened.

Now smaller filmmakers without distributors, who maybe don’t have fest awards to tout, will have to use their limited means and moxy to gain some traction, lest their films remain buried. This is one area where Moore, for all his populism, acts more like a Republican: “Let the market rule.” Moore’s argument is: we should be like the rest of the Academy.  But what if some of the Academy’s rules are bad? With feature films, the market really does eliminate some magnificently made small-scale films from consideration by the Academy. “Is there some way to flag films and put them in front of people?” asks one Academy doc voter.

Pro: The doc branch has always pushed for making docs available on screeners, and now they will do the same with the final voting. No longer will you have to sign into a screening in NY or LA to vote. This takes away a vote-rigging strategy for smaller films.  Once nominated, filmmakers could rigorously control the number of screenings so that only the films’ passionate supporters would see them and therefore be part of a critical voting block.  (Members who hadn’t seen all films in a theatrical setting couldn’t vote.) This brings docs closer to being on the same footing as feature films. And Academy CEO Dawn Hudson has long pointed out that the advent of Academy screeners opened up the Oscars to the indies.

Con: There’s still the question of how the Academy will handle small features in an increasingly digital universe that is no longer defined by theatrical release. “Five years from now the theatrcial market for not just docs but fiction films may be in peril,” says on filmmaker. “My biggest concern comes for innovative theatrical releases on VOD and online streaming which will be more and more prevalent. If the Academy doesn’t account for those, this will become the Michael Moore rule. I would still like the doc branch to tinker with this current formula to do better than the rest of the Academy on this front.”

Thus Moore is still fighting for films to be seen in theaters, when market forces are taking them online. How will the Academy handle that going forward? The 25-member exec committee of the Academy doc branch, at least, has built in a review policy, so they can poll their members and see how the new process works. “We will not leave any stone unturned,” says Moore. “We want to be fair and just, egalitarian and transparent.”

Date: Tue, 10 Jan 2012 12:10:50 -0800

Subject: 85th Academy Awards Documentary Rules

Dear Documentary Branch Member: For the past year and a half, your Documentary Branch Executive Committee has been working hard to make the voting process for the feature documentary Oscar more inclusive of the entire branch and the entire Academy. As you know, for years we have employed the “committee system” to screen potential documentary nominees. Some felt that this was not a perfect system, that  just a few people could eliminate a worthy film from consideration. Eighteen months ago, a proposal was made within the Documentary Branch Executive Committee to bring us in line with most other branches in the Academy, where every active branch member can vote for the branch’s five nominees. After carefully studying this issue, your Executive Committee decided that it was time we joined the rest of the Academy and let everyone in our branch simply vote for their favorite feature docs of the year. No more committees. No more 6.5, 8.5 scoring system.  No more not being able to vote for a documentary you loved simply because it was not in the box of films you received. From now on, all of us in the Documentary Branch will receive screeners of all submitted feature documentaries.  Each member will vote by preferential ballot for his or her top 15 films.  This ballot will result in a shortlist of 15 films.  Then we will all receive a second ballot, listing all shortlisted films, and all active branch members will be able to choose the five documentary feature nominees. Filmmakers will be asked to submit their entries and screeners 30 days after their film has its theatrical release and you will be sent those screeners as soon as they are available.  We hope that this will spread the viewing load over more of the year. We believe that greater participation by more people will allow us to honestly say, “The entire branch has spoken.”

In the same spirit, the Executive Committee took a step to open Oscar voting to the entire Academy.  Although voting members will still be required to see all five feature documentary nominees before voting, they will no longer be required to see them in a movie theater.  This makes it easier for all 5,800 members to engage in our category and view and support our nonfiction work.  The Executive Committee also wanted to ensure that only those feature documentary films which receive a true theatrical release will be eligible for the Oscars.  By requiring a movie review in either The New York Times (which has a policy of reviewing all films that open in New York) or the Los Angeles Times, we hope to eliminate documentaries that “premiere” on television after a quiet, unreviewed qualifying run. As a fail-safe, the Executive Committee instituted a liberal appeals process wherein all the filmmaker has to do is say, “Hey, my doc played at the Film Forum and the Times forgot to review it!”, and this will be investigated. The Documentary Branch Executive Committee voted unanimously for these changes and in December, the Academy’s Board of Governors approved them. As happens every year, the Branch governors along with the Executive Committee members and staff, will review these new rules next year to make sure that they have accomplished our goals: a more democratic, easier and inclusive voting process and a guarantee to the Academy that the documentaries we nominate are truly theatrical documentaries. We are very proud of this step forward for our branch. We welcome your feedback and questions.

Thank you.

Rob Epstein

Michael Moore

Michael Apted


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