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How to Win an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature (or At Least Have a Shot at It)

How to Win an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature (or At Least Have a Shot at It)

Of course, anyone who tells you they know the secret to winning an Oscar is lying because there is no one guaranteed path to the Academy Awards, but as the panelists at yesterday’s “The Race for the Documentary Oscar” session at Sheffield Doc/Fest acknowledged, there are some fast paths to get there.

In a panel featuring Philippa Kowarsky, founding and managing director of Cinephil, a sales and co-productions company (“The Gatekeepers,” “The Act of Killing”), Academy-award winning producer Simon Chinn (“Man on Wire,” “Searching for Sugar Man”) and Nick Fraser, commissioning editor, BBC Storyville (“Man on Wire”), the discussion ranged from the cost of qualifying theatrical runs, the value of a publicist and other considerations for an Oscar run.

After a clip from “Searching for Sugar Man,” which Chinn produced, he took a moment to acknowledge the recent tragic loss of the film’s director Malik Bendjelloul. 

“It’s very difficult for me to watch this clip given the news about poor Malik. I want to dedicate something to Malik’s memory,” said Chinn, who delivered an impromptu tribute to Bendjelloul. “Malik came to me in 2011. He sort of cold-called me. He said, ‘I have this film I’ve been toiling away at for years. It’s the greatest story.’ And it was…He was a wonderful, infectious, enthusiastic. He really had the story that he thought could go all the way. He said the word ‘Oscar’ and my advice was ‘put that out of your mind.’ It didn’t seem to me to be a film that was predestined for Academy success.”

Below are other highlights from the panel:

1. You’ve got a built-in advantage working with a larger distributor such as Sony Pictures Classics, which can afford the expenses of an Oscar campaign.

“Once we had given over [“The Gatekeepers”] to Sony Pictures Classics, we were their sous chefs, we were assisting with what they needed. It’s an incredibly well-oiled machine and they know it so well – in fact, that year (2013), they had two films – and they won for “Searching for Sugar Man.” — Kowarsky

“Those guys [at Sony Pictures Classics] are Oscar machines. Harvey Weinstein [of The Weinstein Company] is their nemesis. They are driven — like no other producers I’ve ever worked with — to Oscar glory and understand the process in a way I’ve never seen before.” — Chinn

2. There is no one way to get to the Oscars — and the best film doesn’t always win.

“Every film has its own life and its own path [to the Oscars] and its own way of getting there. So many amazing films don’t go to the Oscars. Often the films that are chosen you say ‘really?’ I know so many other films that were not in there.” — Kowarsky

“Maybe the [new documentary voting] system is more democratic, but it is far from a meritocracy.” — Chinn

3. Publicity — and the enthusiastic participation of the filmmaker —  is key in an academy campaign.

“Of course, Sony Pictures Classics, or any distributor, can’t do without filmmakers. Every distributor we’ve ever worked with, the month before the film goes out in the U.S. requires a full month of the filmmaker popping all over the country to support it….No distributor can do it without the good will and participation of the filmmakers.” — Kowarsky

4. Just being nominated can help boost box office for a film and a filmmaker’s career.

“The nominations are just as important… I think the Oscars are very good for business and they’re good for getting money for new projects. I think documentary filmmakers should be rich.” — Fraser.

5. Winning an Oscar is, of course, even better for your career (or can be, if you play your cards right).

“The benefit of winning the Oscar [for ‘Man on Wire’] wasn’t going to the Vanity Fair party — it’s that the next project is easier to finance. The money just kind of came immediately and swiftly for [‘Man on Wire’ director James Marsh’s next film] ‘Project Nim.’ The deals I was able to do were of a completely different nature.” — Chinn

6. Feel-good movies that Academy members can watch at home with their families have a better shot (under the new documentary rules which allow Academy voters to watch screeners).

“‘Sugar Man’ was the first year of the new rules. Among the changes, the most significant change might be that in the previous system at nomination stage, you had to go see all five films in a cinema at an Academy screening and then sign an affidavit saying you have seen all five films at a cinema. It significantly reduced the pool to the hardcore of the documentary branch. In the new system, they actually send DVD screeners to 6,000 people who don’t have to go to cinemas anymore and get to vote through an electronic online system, which sounds more electronic but inevitably its a system of favors, popularity and resources…’Sugar Man’ was far and away the most commercial film of that year.” — Chinn

“‘Searching for Sugar Man’ and then ’20 feet from Stardom’ are a certain kind of film that you watch at home with your family and then you vote for it.” — Kowarsky

I actually think the outcome [of the Academy awards] is just as much dependent on the taste of Academy voters. It is an almost flawless expression of Academy members’ taste except occasionally when things slip in.” — Fraser

7. Don’t even think of going for an Oscar without a distributor on board. 

“It’s very tough and very costly. I wouldn’t recommend it. If you’re doing it on your own, it means you’ve shopped around and all the distributors have said ‘no.'” — Kowarsky
8. Just winning an Oscar is no guarantee of a successful career.

“The misconception of the Oscar is that it’s a path to greatness and glory…the Oscars can produce a kind of crushing pressure on young filmmakers and old filmmakers. There are certainly plenty of directors who won Oscars who haven’t gone on to do much — or who didn’t work for a long time.” — Chinn

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