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Doc Awards Go to Online Viewing, Voting

Hot-button topic, which the Oscars may need to implement someday, adopted by International Documentary Association

The Spirit Awards tried to do it, but couldn’t.

The Oscars might be forced to do it, if they ever want to move their show into January.

But the International Documentary Association has beaten both of them to the punch, introducing online viewing of its nominated films in the marquee categories of Distinguished Feature and Distinguished Short Film for this year’s IDA Documentary Awards.

In a movie that Eddie Schmidt, president of the IDA’s board of directors, tells theWrap was designed “to make the process open and democratic,” voting in those two categories will be open to all approved IDA members who view the five nominees on a secure, password-protected website between November 3 and November 15.

In the past, final voting in all categories was done by blue-ribbon committees of five to seven high-profile professionals in the documentary field (though last year, the membership at large was able to vote in the first round to choose nominees in the same two categories). IDA executive director Michael Lumpkin estimates that the new process will lead to a voting body of 150 to 200 members, or about 10 percent of the IDA’s membership.

AnvilCommittees will continue to choose the nominees in all categories, and the winners in all but two. (Of course, the committees can make populist choices, too: last year’s big winner, right, was “Anvil! The Story of Anvil.”)

“Our awards committee really wanted to continue an effort to broaden IDA voting base and reflect the full membership,” Schmidt said, “since IDA is, first and foremost, a reflection of the documentary community.”

Anyone interested in documentary films can join the IDA for a yearly fee. Lumpkin says the most recent membership survey, taken within the last six months, shows that more than 90 percent of the members are professionals in the film industry.

To be approved to vote using the new system, members cannot have any professional connection to a nominee, must agree to watch all five films in their entirety, and must have a high-speed Internet connection and satisfy minimum browser requirements.

Before online viewing could be implemented, Lumpkin said the IDA had to satisfy film companies that it would be secure. “We’ve taken all sorts of steps that our IT guy knows a lot better than I do,” he said. “Unique IDs, URLs that expire in 15 seconds … ”

The system, he said, is based on the IDA’s current website, and how it controls access to members. Additional layers of security were added before the IDA showed the result to a major studio to make sure that the safeguards stood up to outside scrutiny.

“That was the biggest test,” he said. “If they were satisfied with it, we knew we were doing pretty well.”

The setup, which was also designed to allow IDA members outside of Los Angeles to participate in the awards process more easily, could be extended to additional categories if the organization is happy with this year’s results.

“We’ve kept this to two categories because it’s new to us, and we want to see how it works,” said Lumpkin of the online viewing option. “We’ll be watching how it works very closely.”

Others will no doubt be watching as well, since the idea of viewing nominated films on a password-protected website became a hot topic when the Academy admitted last summer that it was considering moving the Oscar show from February to January.

The accelerated schedule would likely have forced the Academy to introduce an online option in order to give its members time to see all the nominated films, but questions about how easily that could be implemented were among the factors that led the board of governors to decide not to make the move in 2012.

Previously, the Film Independent Spirit Awards has had talks with Netflix in an attempt to set up its own members-only site where nominated films could be screened, but technical issues caused them to abandon the plans. Film Independent executive director Dawn Hudson has told theWrap that she still hopes to be able to do it in the future.

The 2010 IDA Documentary Awards will take place on Friday, December 3 at the Directors Guild Theater in Los Angeles. More information is available at http://www.documentary.org.