Oscars Overhaul Short-Documentary Rules, Plan to Expand Doc Branch

A year after revamping the feature-documentary rules to bring in more voters, the Academy's Documentary Branch changes more rules and plans for a larger branch

One year after opening the Documentary Feature category to involve more voters, the Academy is doing the same for Documentary Shorts, which likely had fewer voters this year than any other Oscar category.

And in another change that could have a significant effect on the documentary awards, the Academy is expected this year to invite substantially more members to join the branch than ever before. The Board of Governors, according to branch governor Rob Epstein, has responded favorably to requests to relax the restrictions on new members for that specific branch.

AMPASThe Academy has not publicly announced the changes, but Epstein, one of the three representatives of the Documentary Branch on the Board of Governors, confirmed the new moves to TheWrap this week.

The main rule change is in the Documentary Short category, where Academy members will no longer have to attend special screenings in order to cast ballots.

Instead, all members of the Academy will receive screeners of the five nominees and will be eligible to vote for the winner.

(The committee process that chooses a shortlist and then comes up with the nominees, however, will remain in place.)

The rule requiring members to attend special screenings before voting is believed to have restricted the number of voters to only a few hundred members. The new process should substantially raise the number of voters — though it may also make lobbying for viewers and votes more tempting in a category where in the past campaigning offered a limited return.

The category's qualifying rules have also changed. In recent years, doc shorts have qualified through seven-day commercial runs in either Los Angeles County or the Borough of Manhattan in New York, but new rules will also allow them to qualify by winning a top jury award at one of 24 film festivals.

According to an AMPAS list obtained by TheWrap, the festivals include the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, Hotdocs, the Los Angeles Film Festival, Sundance, Slamdance, SXSW, the San Francisco and Seattle International Film Festivals, Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival and a number of international festivals.

“One of our goals was to try and bring more international shorts into the pool of candidates,” said Epstein. “Some of us have been seeing great international shorts at film festivals around the world, but they haven’t been getting through our qualifying process.”

For the first time, winning a Student Academy Award in the documentary category will also qualify a film for the Oscars.

SlomoAssuming the winning films meet the other requirements, that means that Josh Izenberg’s “Slomo" (right), Michael Almereyda’s “Skinningrove” and Jessie Auritt’s “The Birdman” have already qualified for the Oscars by virtue of their recent wins at SXSW, Sundance and Slamdance, respectively.

While the previous rules resulted in 31 eligible films in 2012 and 35 the year before, the new rules should increase the number of qualifying shorts.

The potential increase in the size of the doc branch may be an even more significant change, though no final decision will be made until a Spring meeting of the Board of Governors.

Epstein, though, said that branch reps had appealed to both the board and the AMPAS Membership Committee that the branch should be allowed to increase its size substantially in light of the growth of nonfiction filmmaking over the last decade.

“We made a case to the board and the committee,” he said. “There was great support for it, and there has continued to be great support. We expect that we’ll have the opportunity to invite a lot more members than we have in years past.”

For the 2012 Oscar voting season, the doc branch consisted of 173 members, making it the second smallest of the 15 AMPAS branches. (The recent creation of a new Costume Designers Branch from within the 370-member Designers Branch may result in another smaller branch.)

New members are typically invited to join the Academy in June, with the Board of Governors setting a limit for each branch designed to keep the overall size of the Academy to slightly less than 6,000.

Over the last four years, between seven and 10 people have been invited to join the Documentary Branch each year, out of total invitations of between 134 and 178.

“From our perspective, we’ve had a backlog of veteran filmmakers that we felt we needed to bring into the branch,” Epstein said. “This is exciting, because it gives us the opportunity to invite younger filmmakers and broaden our membership.”

The changes are part of a series of new moves that began last year, when the Academy overhauled its Documentary Feature process. The new rules in that category did away with the committee system for nominations, which had resulted in a number of baffling oversights and snubs over the years.

Although a few expected contenders were left off, doc observers generally gave high marks to both the 15-film shortlist and the final five nominees produced under the new rules.  

AMPAS“We’re currently conducting an internal survey to see how our branch members responded to the changes, and we don’t have those results yet,” said Epstein. “But speaking for myself, I think we ended up with an incredibly strong shortlist and five amazing nominees, any one of which would have been a worthy winner.”

“Searching for Sugar Man” won the Oscar (right) in a field that also included “The Invisible War,” “How to Survive a Plague,” “The Gatekeepers” and “Five Broken Cameras.”

The list of qualifying festivals (and awards) for short docs:

Bilbao International Festival of Documentary and Short Films
  Gold Mikeldi for Documentary
Chicago International Film Festival
   Best Documentary Short
Edindocs
   Best Short Documentary
Full Frame Documentary Film Festival
   Jury Award for Best Short
Hotdocs
   Best Short Documentary
International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam
   Best Mid-length Documentary
Krakow International Film Festival
   The Golden Dragon for Best Short Film
   Silver Dragon for Best Short Documentary
Los Angeles Film Festival
   Best Documentary Short
LA Shorts Fest
   Best documentary
London International Documentary Film Festival
   Best Short Film
Melbourne International Film Festival
   Best Documentary Short Film
Morelia International Film Festival
   Best Mexican Short Documentary
Plus Cameraimage
   Golden Frog for Short Documentary
San Francisco International Film Festival
   Best Documentary Short
Seattle International Film Festival
   Best Documentary Short
Slamdance Film Festival
   Grand Jury Award for Short Documentary
Silverdocs
   Sterling Award – Best Short Film
Student Academy Awards
   Gold medal, Documentary category
SXSW
   Best Documentary Short
Sundance Film Festival
   Short Film Jury Award: Non-fiction
Tampere Film Festival
   Best Documentary
Traverse City Film Festival
   Best Short Documentary Film
Tribeca Film Festival
   Best Documentary Short
USA Film Festival
   Best Short Non-Fiction Film
Visions du Reel, Nyon
   Best Short Film