Inconvenient Truths About Oscar's Documentary Process

Why great non-fiction films like “Exit Through the Gift Shop” and “Joan Rivers” might not make the cut but “Inside Job” will

It’s not as easy to criticize the Academy’s process for picking documentary nominees as it used to be.Inside Job

But let’s face it, it’s still pretty easy.

The doc category may have given us some indelible Oscar moments, from Al Gore's appearance to Michael Moore's rant, but it also has a history of snubs and omissions.

And in a remarkable year for non-fiction filmmaking of all kinds, the looming possibility of more Oscar-doc controversies means it’s time to take a look at a process in which:

>> films are judged by surprisingly few people;

>> the most active filmmakers are ineligible or unable to vote; and

>> the final slate of nominees is almost invariably made up of issue-oriented docs — to the exclusion of the odder, entertaining works that make the field so vital these days.

In mid-November, when the Academy releases its shortlist of feature docs that will remain in contention for the Oscar, it’s a near-certainty that some eminently deserving films will be left out.

Among the likeliest to be snubbed: “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work” and “Louder Than a Bomb.”

“They’ve made a lot of internal changes, and the system is definitely better than it used to be. But I would argue that the folks who are really contributing to the field, who are responsible for what’s really happening in non-fiction film these days, are not participating,” said AJ Schnack, a filmmaker and journalist and the co-chair of the CinemaEye Honors, which aims to honor a broader swath of non-fiction films than the Academy does.

“One of the reasons we started Cinema Eye is that we thought the Academy was missing the innovative and artistic films, and leaning heavily toward things that dealt solely with important topics.”

In other words, the voters will probably find it easy to send movies like “Waiting for ‘Superman,’” “Inside Job” and “The Tillman Story” into the next round – but for the likes of “Joan Rivers” or “Exit” or “Catfish,” things could be considerably tougher.

“It’s not a perfect system, but it’s a working system,” Rob Epstein, one of the governors in the Academy’s documentary branch, told TheWrap. “And it’s definitely a different ballgame than it was 15 years ago, when there were so many groundbreaking feature documentaries that weren’t even making it into the pool of nominees.”

Certainly, the doc process has improved markedly since the days when essential filmmakers like Errol Morris were routinely snubbed, or when a small group of voters could manipulate the vote to deny a nomination to the most acclaimed non-fiction film of the 1990s, “Hoop Dreams.” (TheWrap wrote about the details of that injustice here.)

Nominations are now made by the members of the documentary branch, which didn’t exist when “Hoop Dreams” was released in 1994. The voting itself has been changed to make it less vulnerable to manipulation.

A true jury of peers, the full branch membership uses two rounds to come up with a list of five nominees from the entire body of qualifying films. This year, Epstein said, more than 100 films met the requirements, which include seven-day commercial runs in New York and Los Angeles, along with various technical requirements, submission paperwork and 30 DVD copies of the film, plus 40 more copies if the film makes the shortlist of 12 to 15 films.Exit Through the Gift Shop

Then comes the preliminary voting, and one of the main problems here is the relatively small number of voters who actually judge each film. Branch members who volunteer are sent a selection of screeners of eligible films, and asked to watch and score each film; the shortlisted films are then narrowed down to the final five in a second round of voting.

But in the initial round, each volunteer is asked to view about 15 films. If, as Epstein said, “the vast majority” of the branch’s membership agreed to participate in the vote, that means that each eligible film will be scored by between 15 and 20 voters.

That’s an awfully small sample – and if an entertaining film happens to draw a collection of voters who prefer heavier fare (or vice versa), it’s out of luck.

“When you’re watching by yourself on a screener,” said Schnack, “the films that deal with social issues tend to play better than the ones that are meant to be entertaining to a broad audience.”

Complicating matters further, Academy members who have films in contention are ineligible to vote.

This year that knocks out new member Morgan Spurlock, and Oscar winner Alex Gibney, and a host of other high-profile filmmakers – and that doesn’t even count the ones who simply don’t have the time to participate because they’re too busy making their own movies.

“The people who are really doing the work are not the ones who vote,” said one Academy member who often works with documentary films. “And the ones who do vote just don’t understand what’s going on in the field these days.”

The result, said Schnack, stacks the field against docs that aren’t old-fashioned and traditional, at least in the early rounds.

“The hardest thing for a film like ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop’ will be getting onto the shortlist,” he said. “I expect it to get nominated if it gets on the shortlist, and if it gets nominated it could even win. But its biggest wall to climb will be getting on that shortlist.”

The Academy’s Epstein disagreed that his members have shown a tendency to prefer serious films above all others. “The bottom line is, it’s a group of individuals voting with their hearts,” he said. “Sometimes the balance gets tipped in one direction or another. You can put forth a hypothesis, but inevitably it’s going to go the other way another time.”

Eddie Schmidt, the president of the board of directors of the International Documentary Association (whose IDA Awards are generally more reflective of the full range of non-fiction filmmaking), agreed that a change may be on the horizon.

“What you see with the Oscars is an accurate reflection of the general taste of the members, but I think we’re going to see that taste change,” Schmidt told theWrap.Marwencol

“I think there will be a trickle-down when the filmmakers who are making these exciting films reflecting different styles are invited to join the Academy. Morgan Spurlock just got in this year … I think you’ll see a subtle shift in tastes as new filmmakers join.”

In the meantime, the Academy’s predilections have already scared off one of the best documentaries of the year: “Marwencol” (left), Jeff Malmberg’s engaging and moving look at an upstate New York man who constructed an elaborate, miniature fantasy village in his back yard as a way of healing from a vicious barroom beating that put him in a coma for months.

On a tight budget and skeptical that the Academy would respond to a film like his, Malmberg told TheWrap that he opted to spend his money elsewhere. “The Academy's specs for qualifying were too expensive for a little film like ours,” he said, “and I also felt like the chances of actually getting nominated were next to zero … [We chose] to spend our money and energy on the actual release.”

  • AndyWarhorse

    Oh my God, when I saw the Joan Rivers movie, I COMPLETELY didn't realize it was a GREAT FILM! How could I have missed that? An Oscar-worthy documentary! I'd better rush back to my DVD and pop it back in! No, on second thought, I'll drink a glass of Clorox.

  • http://www.ellmanentertainment.com Linda Ellman

    As a filmmaker who made the Oscar short list with a “serious” doc, “On Native Soil” The Documentary about the 911 Commission Report, I hate to see “serious” films knocked. However, I do applaud the folks who prompted the writing of this article. I suspect at least one of them is behind one of the docs tagged in the article. Bravo to you! You got your film's name in front of the public. That's something, as an outsider in the Doc world, I wasn't really able to do.