Michael Moore's New Plan: Eliminate the Oscar Documentary Rules

After years of tweaking and changing the Oscar documentary rules, Michael Moore says he's going to propose ending the special treatment

Michael Moore has taken another look at the Academy's notoriously messy documentary process, and he has a new proposal:

The way to fix the documentary rules is to eliminate the documentary rules.

Todd Wawrychuk/AMPASInstead of making additional tweaks in an often-changed system that this year has overwhelmed voters with a glut of fourth-quarter screeners, Moore has decided that the best approach is to stop worrying about qualifying runs, reviews or TV movies vs. theatrical docs.

Also read: New Rules Could Give Oscar Documentary Field a New Look This Year

"Instead of making one fix after another, how about no rules?" said Moore on Sunday, adding that he was revealing his plans for the new proposal for the first time to TheWrap. It was just last year, following a push led by Moore, that the Academy reworked its rules surrounding documentaries.

"What I'm going to propose is that instead of going back to the drawing board and making up new rules, let's just put an end to that right now. No more special documentary rules. How about we play by the same rules as every other branch?"

The approach, he said, would mean that documentaries would qualify for the Oscars under the same standards that other films are subject to – standards that are less restrictive than the doc-branch regulations.  (For one thing, they require only a one-week run in Los Angeles County, not one in L.A. and one in New York.)

"We should abide by the rules that every other branch has to abide by," he said. "And we should leave it up to the Academy staff to decide if films qualify, the same way they decide for every fiction film."

The Oscar-winning director doesn't foresee any alteration to the main change that was made when the new rules were instituted earlier this year; that change was the elimination of small screening committees that created the 15-film shortlist.

The elimination of those committees, he said, has been unanimously embraced by the branch and will continue in the future, as will the Academy's decision to foot the cost of preparing and sending screeners of every eligible documentary to all branch members.

But Moore said he has also talked to Academy CEO and COO Dawn Hudson and Ric Robertson, to his fellow Documentary Branch governors and to some New York-based members, and gotten support for eliminating all special documentary rules and saying that any film that meets the overall Academy qualifying criteria will also be eligible in the Best Documentary Feature category. 

"The response to this has been very good," said Moore. "I think the counter-intuitive nature of it might actually be the solution. And everybody loved the idea of not having to read any more articles about the documentary branch coming up with another new rule."

Moore still has to propose the change to the doc branch's executive committee; if they approve it, he would then take it to the AMPAS Board of Governors.

"The executive committee may say, 'When we changed the rules last year, we decided to give it two or three years. Let's stick with that,'" he said. "Or they may say, 'You're right, why not?' I think that sometime within the next year or two, this is what we should do."

A year ago, in an effort spearheaded by Moore, the Academy overhauled its doc process in an attempt to fix what had been years of oversights, puzzling nominations and controversy over a process that put too much power in the hands of small committees.

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

By eliminating the committees and ensuring that the branch's 173 members would all receive screeners of every qualifying doc, Moore promised a new era of fairness, democracy and full representation.

But another rule, which was designed to weed-out made-for-TV docs and what Moore called "vanity projects" by requiring a review in the New York Times or the Los Angeles Times, failed to have any effect on the size of the field.

Michael MooreWhat's worse, Moore admitted, is that documentary releases weren't spread out through the entire year.

Voters, who earlier in the year received boxes of 10 or 12 screeners, received a package around the beginning of October that contained more than 70 screeners.  With ballots due back in early November to create the 15-film shortlist, the prospect of wading through that many docs flabbergasted branch members – and the total number of entries, which Moore said was more than 130, meant that the push to limit the number of qualifying docs had failed completely.

In fact, this year's total sets a new record for the largest number of documentaries to ever qualify for the Oscars – and it means that the category has set a new record for three consecutive years, and four out of the last five. 2008's total of 94 set a record, as did 2010's 101 and last year's 124.

(The International Documentary Association, which has less restrictive qualifying rules, also reports that the number of eligible films has gone up every year in the last five years.)

The number of films, Moore admitted, places enormous pressure on voters. "Nobody is going to watch all 132 movies," he said. "But you don't have to watch all of them.

"Nobody in any other branch feels an obligation to watch every fiction film that is released. When they pick the five nominees for Best Editing, not a single editor is saying to him or herself, 'But I didn't see "Resident Evil 3' yet! It's not fair!' Nobody goes that deep into the weeds on this."

The old committee system would have ensured that every eligible film was viewed by voters, but it would hardly have delivered fairness: Even if the majority of the branch volunteered for committee duty, the sheer number of entries this year would have meant that each film would probably have been viewed by no more than 10 members in the first round of voting.

Those numbers would make only one or two low scores potentially devastating, and would rob the vast majority of branch members of the chance to help their favorite films. (Committee members could only vote for the 12-15 films they received, which were selected randomly.)

In the aftermath of the avalanche of fourth-quarter titles (with 11 more due shortly), the doc branch sent a letter to its members pushing back the deadline to Monday, Nov. 26, which will move the release of the shortlist from mid-November into early December.

It also created a password-protected bulletin board on the AMPAS website, on which members could log in and post recommendations for films that should be seen.

Academy members are traditionally discouraged from campaigning, and Moore insists that the bulletin board will be policed. "You can't go there and campaign," he said. "You cannot attack. You cannot go on and say, 'This film sucked.' You can post a sentence or two about why voters should watch a movie."

Traverse City Film Festival(Moore himself said he plans to go on the bulletin board this week and post his own recommendations, beginning with the docs he programmed at his own Traverse City Film Festival.)

The sheer number of members of the doc branch – 173 currently, though Moore is pushing to increase that by at least 50 percent, arguing that non-fiction filmmakers deserve to make up more than three percent of the Academy – will ensure that every deserving film will be seen by enough voters to give it a chance, Moore argued.

Initially, he admitted, his reaction to the glut of releases was to try to figure out a way to change the rules to cut down on the number of eligible films. Then, in the last week, he had a change of heart and realized that that was a problematic goal.

"We're not ever going to create a perfect system," he said. "So we should just switch over to trusting ourselves, and trusting our staff to vet these films, then let the chips fall where they may.

"This is what our members do for a living. They have a sense of what to watch – and when you have 170 voting, what they watch is going to run the gamut."

Repeatedly, Moore went back to the same theme: It's time for the doc branch to stop fiddling with its qualifying rules every year, time to give up on fine-tuning its definitions of what constitutes a proper documentary.

"At some point it begins to look a little ridiculous if the Documentary Branch changes its rules every year," he said. "The intent behind it has been good, the intent has been to reform a very bad system of voting. 

"But if you look at what we do, I don't think we're better than the Directors Branch or the Actors Branch or the Writers Branch or the Editors Branch. And I think this sense of Documentary Branch exceptionalism is not becoming of us. I think we should act and behave as every other Academy branch and every other member has to act and behave.

"I liken this to taking documentaries off the kids' table, and letting them sit with the grownups."