Documentary filmmakers are supposed to be devoted to the truth, but Gerald Molen appears to have entered a realm of pure fantasy.
Molen, the producer of the documentary “2016: Obama’s America” (and before that, an Oscar winner for producing "Schindler's List") sent a letter to AMPAS president Hawk Koch last month, blaming the presence of noted liberal Michael Moore on the Academy’s Board of Governors for his film’s failure to be nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary earlier this year.
Making Moore and his fellow doc-branch governors Michael Apted and Rob Epstein “the gatekeepers in charge of which films get nominated seems patently absurd,” Molen (photo below) wrote, adding that the “assumed bias” caused by Moore’s presence on the board would hurt the Academy.
Films shouldn’t be “punished,” he said, for failing “to fit the dogma of what some believe is politically correct.”
The one phrase in Molen’s letter that rings true is “patently absurd,” but not because it makes a lick of sense to point fingers at the Academy over his film’s failure to be nominated.
Can we count the ways in which his charges are idiotic?
1) Through efforts that were to a large part spearheaded by Moore, the entire membership of the Academy’s Documentary Branch voted for the 15-film shortlist, and then for the five nominees.
Moore, Epstein and Apted controlled three of 172 votes. And documentary filmmakers are not known as a group that likes to be told what to do.
2) Over the years, commercial success has been essentially irrelevant to Oscar success. Of the 20 top-grossing docs of all time, only five were nominated for an Oscar. (Three won.)
“2016” was last year’s top-grossing doc. “Chimpanzee” was second and “Katy Perry: Part of Me” was third. Neither was nominated, but neither is claiming bias against primates or busty pop stars.
With $33 million in domestic grosses, “2016” is the fourth highest-grossing doc of all time, behind “Fahrenheit 9/11” ($119 million), “March of the Penguins” ($77 million) and “Justin Bieber: Never Say Never” ($73 million). Of those, only “Penguins” was nominated for (and won) an Oscar.
In fact, Michael Moore himself found out that box-office success doesn’t mean much to Oscar voters with “Sicko,” “Capitalism: A Love Story” and “Fahrenheit 9/11,” all of which are among the top 15 moneymaking docs of all time and none of which were nominated.
(Moore opted not to submit “Fahrenheit,” the top-grossing doc of all time, in the documentary category, hoping instead for a Best Picture nomination that never came.)
3) The snub of “2016” was not limited to the Academy. The other two major awards given to documentary films are the IDA Awards and the Cinema Eye Honors, and Molen’s film did not receive a single nomination for either of them.
His complaint against the Academy might hold more water if some other body that hands out film awards thought his doc was worthy of one.
4) If there’s a bias against “2016” on the basis of its politics, it includes the entire critical establishment. The film has a 26 percent positive rating on RottenTomatoes.com, the kind of rating that you never see in Oscar nominees in major categories.
By contrast, the five films that were nominated in the documentary feature category – “The Invisible War,” “The Gatekeepers,” “5 Broken Cameras,” “How to Survive a Plague” and the winner, “Searching for Sugar Man” – all have ratings of more than 90 percent. And two of them, “The Invisible War” and “Plague,” have RottenTomatoes approval ratings of 100 percent.
Of the 15 films that made the shortlist, “Detropia” had the lowest rating, at 84 percent positive – or 58 percentage points higher than “2016.” Ten of the 15 were higher than 95 percent.
And over the last 10 years, 48 of the 50 documentary-feature nominees have ratings higher than 85 percent, 43 of 50 higher than 90 percent, and 30 of the 50 higher than 95 percent.
The lowest rated doc in the last decade? It scored a 77, which isn’t anywhere near the critical neighborhood occupied by “2016.”
The bottom line: Critics didn’t like “2016: Obama’s America,” and other awards groups didn’t consider it worthy of nomination. The one area where it did well, box-office returns, typically does not translate to Academy approval. And the effect on the voting of one, two or three members of the Board of Governors has never been smaller.
Koch reportedly answered Molen’s letter by pointing out some of these things, but in truth the allegations hardly merit a AMPAS response and barely deserve attention.
When “2016: Obama’s America” was in theaters, director Dinesh D’Souza slammed an Associated Press story fact-checking his film as “a crude and inaccurate attack masquerading as a news story” and labeled President Obama’s criticisms of the film “clumsy, ill-aimed and misleading.”