Michael Moore: Why the New Oscar Doc Process Shouldn’t Scare Anyone (But HBO)

The Oscar-winning provocateur details changes that will overhaul a system that has led to decades of questionable choices

New rules in the Oscar documentary process are not going to make things harder for documentary filmmakers, director and AMPAS governor Michael Moore told TheWrap.

Instead, he said, the rules that go into effect this year are going to make what Moore called "a crazy, Byzantine process" more open, more democratic and more transparent – and they're going to fix a process that has led to decades of snubs, surprises and inexplicable decisions.

Michael Moore"I saw a headline that said documentary filmmakers were fearing the changes," Moore said in a lengthy interview. "We've feared the process for the last 20 years – this is the elimination of that fear."

And if anybody should be worried about the new rules, it's not the makers of small docs – it's a giant in the doc field, HBO (which he did not single out by name, but which is one clear target of the new rules).

Also read: 'Hoop Dreams' Director Is Snubbed Again by Academy

The changes led to some controversy when the New York Times revealed a new requirement that films need to be reviewed in the New York Times or the Los Angeles Times in order to qualify for Oscar consideration.

But Moore, the architect of and prime lobbyist for the new system, described the review rule as a small part of a major overhaul. The main change is the elimination of the committees that have been responsible for nominations for decades.

In its place, the documentary branch will do what most Academy branches do: All members of the branch will vote for the nominations, and all members of the Academy will vote for the final awards.

"Why is it that year after year, so many great documentaries don't even make the shortlist?" Moore asked. "The main problem is committees, and I made it my mission to eliminate those committees."

Others, including TheWrap, have been lobbying for a change to the committee system for years. In fact, Moore said that a 2010 story in TheWrap was a particularly accurate summation of the problems with a process in which volunteers from the branch were assembled into small committees and given a number of films to score on a scale of six-to-10.

Also read: Inconvenient Truths About Oscar's Documentary Process

"It was not a democratic process, and not a transparent process," Moore said. "With some branches, you'd see the nominations and be surprised that this actor got in or that film didn't make it. With our branch, every year it was five or six or seven surprises.

"It's so jarring to think that the Maysles never got an Oscar, D.A. Pennebaker never got one, Michael Apted never got one for the '7 Up' series. And it happened again this year, when Werner Herzog ["Into the Abyss"] couldn't even make the shortlist."

The changes will also do away with a rule that said members who had a film in the running were not eligible to participate – a regulation that had the potential to knock out a hefty chunk of the electorate when you have a 166-member branch and more than 100 eligible films.

"If 50 people volunteer and you have 100 films to watch, you form 10 committees of five people each," said Moore, who in the past has served on those committees. "And if I saw 'Inside Job' in a theater and loved it but 'Inside Job' is not in the [randomly selected] box of 10 movies that I get, there's nothing I can do to help that movie get nominated."

Even worse, he said, the small size of each committee meant that each member's vote is of inordinate importance. "If there's only a five-person committee deciding the fate of those 10 films, one or two low votes can kill the movie."

Hoop DreamsIn fact, former Academy executive director Bruce Davis all but admitted to me that low scores from a small group of members prevented "Hoop Dreams" from receiving a nomination in 1994, even though that film had more scores of 10 than any other documentary in the competition.

Also read: Celebrating the Anniversary of an Oscar Snub

In the fall, Moore said he took his concerns before the executive committee of the doc branch. "I made an impassioned plea that we're at a defining moment for our branch," he said. "Let's do it like everybody else does, and let everybody in the branch vote. Let's not allow one or two people to kill the chances for a film."

The new rules, Moore added, will call for filmmakers to submit screeners to all branch members at the end of the quarter during which the film is released.

"I'm guessing it will be about 15 films every three months," he said, "and I think most people will watch most of those films."

Once the entire branch has voted to create a 15-film shortlist and select the five nominees, the final vote will be open to all Academy members, without the current requirement that members must prove they've seen all five nominees in a theater. (The Foreign-Language category retains that rule.)

The rule restricting voting to those who'd seen all five films, he said, reduced the total number of voters in the category to between 200 and 400 out of the 6,000-member Academy. "When I presented this to the Board of Governors in December, I said that we stand up on the Kodak stage every year and say, 'The Academy has selected this film as the best documentary of the year.'

"But that isn’t the truth, is it? It isn't the Academy – it's less than 5 percent of the Academy. And I don't think we want to have somebody stand on that stage and say, 'Less than 5 percent of the academy has chosen this film.'"

The executive committee, said Moore, voted unanimously to approve the new rules he'd drawn up. The Board of Governors then followed suit in December, approving rules that were not scheduled to have been publicly disclosed until after this year's Oscar show.

That changed when the New York Times ran its story, which focused on an additional  wrinkle that was added to the rules for qualifying: Not only will films need to run for a week in theaters in Manhattan and Los Angeles County, but they'll also need a review in the New York Times or the Los Angeles Times.

The intent of that rule, he said, is simple: to prevent the common practice of television networks quietly playing their docs for a week in out-of-the-way theaters, qualifying them for Oscars before staging a splashy television "premiere." 

"Too often, we are having to vote for films that are essentially television documentaries trying to get an Oscar," he said.

Sing Your Song"Television has its own award. It's called the Emmy. It's a good award. I like it. I have one. But you don't see movies like 'The King's Speech' win Oscars and then go to TV and qualify for Emmys. In documentaries, some networks have been able to game the system."

Moore declined to single out any specific networks or films, but the culprits are fairly obvious.  At the last Emmy Awards, nominees in the nonfiction categories included HBO's "Gasland" and PBS's "The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers," both of which had previously received Oscar nominations.

Three of the 15 films on this year's Documentary Feature shortlist, "The Loving Story," "Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory" and "Sing Your Song," are HBO films. All three received unpublicized one-week runs at Laemmle's Fallbrook 7 theater in West Hills prior to splashy debuts on the cable channel.

Located on the outskirts of the San Fernando Valley, the Fallbrook 7 is one of the most distant Laemmle theaters that still satisfies the requirement of a run in Los Angeles County, and is popular with companies "four-walling" their films for Oscar consideration. 

Most of the non-HBO shortlisted docs had their qualifying runs at more visible theaters in Beverly Hills, Santa Monica or West Hollywood.

Also read: And the Oscar Has Been Hijacked by … HBO!

"I feel bad that theatrical documentary film directors – Werner Herzog, Steve James ["The Interrupters"], Errol Morris {"Tabloid"], the guys who made 'Senna' and 'Nostalgia for the Light' – spend years making these films that are intended to be real theatrical experiences," Moore said. "And their potential slots on the shortlist are taken by films that were not truly theatrically released."

Moore is quick to add that he has no problem with documentaries funded by and intended for television if those docs receive true theatrical releases rather than out-of-the-way stealth bookings.

"Some networks, like the History Channel and A&E, are now giving their movies real theatrical runs," he said. "That's great. But don't try to sneak it into theaters when nobody's looking so you can have your big TV premiere. If you do that, it's a TV movie and you should be trying for the Emmys, not the Oscars."

That type of run, he said, is what the New York Times/L.A. Times rule is designed to stop. Because TV networks want the reviews to run when their films are debuting on the air, they do not solicit reviews for the stealth bookings.

The New York Times, he said, was chosen because it has a long-standing policy of reviewing every film that receives a one-week theatrical run in New York. The L.A. Times was added as a first-step fail-safe measure in case the New York Times missed a film.

And the new rules also add an appeals process for filmmakers whose work somehow doesn't get reviewed. "We will side with the filmmaker," Moore promised.

Moore admitted that the new requirement will reduce the number of eligible films, perhaps from 100 down to about 60. (This year's field of 124 is artificially inflated because it covers a 16-month eligibility period.)

And it could deal a severe blow to programs like the International Documentary Association's DocuWeeks, in which more than a dozen films are programmed in rotating one-week blocks specifically to meet Oscar qualifying rules.

Semper FiTypically, DocuWeeks films do not receive separate reviews in the L.A. or New York Times.

Among the films that qualified that way in 2011 is the shortlisted feature "Semper Fi: Always Faithful" (right). Asked how he felt about potentially knocking that film out of contention, Moore hesitated. "I showed 'Semper Fi' at my festival," he said. "It's a great film."

He paused. "The thing with 'Semper Fi,' I think they're going to be distributed in another month or two. So under the new rules, they could be eligible for next year's Oscars."

Moore said his next priority is to find ways to give small documentaries theatrical distribution – but that he doesn't want the Oscars to be bogged down with "vanity projects that try to game the system by four-walling theaters."

And he adamantly insisted that the new system will not harm smaller films to any significant degree.

Michael Moore

"At the documentary branch meeting, we were talking about whether this was going to hurt the smaller film, the independent film," he said. "And [Academy CEO] Dawn Hudson pointed out that if you look at Oscar stats over the last 20 years, since screeners have been available, that has allowed for the rise of indie films.

"When you open up the process and make it accessible, what happens? 'The Hurt Locker' and 'Slumdog Millionaire' win Best Picture. The smaller films have been helped by a more open, more egalitarian process.

"The decades of a few people deciding have come to a complete end," he said. "I think we have a better chance of 'Hoop Dreams' not happening again."