Oscar Documentary Overhaul Creates Screener Overload for Voters (Exclusive)

Oscar Documentary Overhaul Creates Screener Overload for Voters (Exclusive)

Doc branch members are now swamped with more than 150 screeners

More than 150 documentary features have qualified for the 2013 Academy Awards, and some members of the doc branch have thrown up their hands at the prospect of wading through them before voting.

The Academy did not respond to requests to confirm the size of the field, but doc-branch members and others with knowledge of the process say that this year's qualifying films numbered 151, handily beating the record of 126 eligible docs set last year.

Members of the branch have already received screeners for more than 130 of the films, with one final box of entries still to come.

“It’s crazy,” a branch member who asked not to be identified complained to TheWrap this week. “I have boxes of films, and there’s no way I can watch most of them.”

For the second year in a row, nominations will be handled not by the special committees that used to divide up viewing and scoring the eligible films, but by the entire membership of the branch, which numbers over 200 after inviting a record 42 new members in June.

Also read: Jennifer Lopez, Rosario Dawson, Joseph Gordon-Levitt Among 276 Invited to Join Academy

The old process guaranteed that each eligible film would be seen by a group of voters, and would make the shortlist if that group gave it high enough scores on a scale of 6 to 10.

But the process was widely criticized for putting decisions on each film in the hands of a small, randomly-selected committee that could be made up of as few as 10-15 people, or on occasion even fewer. The numbers made it possible for a handful of naysayers to imperil the chances of a worthy film by giving it low scores – and over the years, many acclaimed, high-profile docs failed to make the 15-film shortlist.

In the final year of the system, docs that didn't make the list included Steve James’ “The Interrupters,” Werner Herzog's “Into the Abyss” and Patricio Guzman's “Nostalgia for the Light.”

The new system was designed, in the words of former branch governor Michael Moore, to make the process “more democratic,” placing screeners in the hands of every member, asking them to simply vote for their favorites and tallying the results using the Academy’s preferential system.

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

But the huge number of eligible films, which is 50 percent more than qualified only three years ago, will make the members’ task of sorting through the screeners a daunting one, particularly for those who haven’t been religiously watching the DVDs as they’ve come in over the course of the year.

(Strangely, say members, packaging on the AMPAS screeners is not uniform – some are labeled with just the title, some with the title and director’s name and some with company information.)

“I’m a filmmaker,” said one voter with a groan at a recent doc event. “Do you think I’ve been going through the screeners all year as they’ve come in? Of course not.”

With the new system in place, higher-profile films apt to be known by most members are at a distinct advantage over lesser-known films that could be overlooked by swamped voters, although the ability of any voters to game the system is also significantly reduced.

“Under the new rules, nobody is expected to watch them all, and there are advantages and disadvantages,” one Oscar-winning filmmaker told TheWrap this week. “One advantage of the old system [is that] a good movie would be considered even if it didn't have a studio pushing it. One disadvantage is that a fewer number of voters had a huge amount of control.”

This year, some unhappy voters worry, a number of filmmakers have wasted the money, time and effort it took to qualify, since without a high profile they’ll have almost no chance of getting enough voters to watch their films.

To help doc-branch voters decide what to see last year, the Academy created a private message board, on which members could offer suggestions as to which films deserved attention. The ensuing shortlist was strong and varied, without many of the baffling snubs that frequently characterized it in the past — and while it was composed largely of studio-distributed or high-profile docs, it also included the smaller films “The Waiting Room” and the eventual nominee “5 Broken Cameras.”

Eligible films in this year’s race include Sarah Polley’s “Stories We Tell,” Joshua Oppenheimer’s “The Act of Killing,” Lucy Walker's “The Crash Reel,” Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s “Blackfish,” Jacob Kornbluth’s “Inequality for All,” Martha Shane’s and Lana Wilson’s “After Tiller,” Alex Gibney’s “The Armstrong Lie,” Jehane Noujaim’s “The Square,” Errol Morris’ “The Unknown Known,” Morgan Neville’s “Twenty Feet From Stardom,” Dave Grohl’s “Sound City,” Teller’s “Tim’s Vermeer,”  Frederick Wiseman’s “At Berkeley,” Roger Ross Williams’ “God Loves Uganda,” Sean Fine’s and Andrea Nix Fine’s “The World According to Sam” … and 136 others, all fighting to be seen by enough voters.

  • JoeS

    I applaud the IDEA of a more democratic system, but, as this article points out, the ridiculous number of eligible titles will very likely create a system that is worse than the one it replaced. An average everyday Non-Documentary branch voter is going to nominate the Doc released by a big distributor which managed to get a fairly wide release (and reviews and web articles) 99% of the time.

  • TC Kirkham

    I Can help Academy voters with this – you only need to see one film – the Sundance dual-winning “Blood Brother”. Once you have seen this documentary, the others will pale in comparison – and I hope beyond hope it gets noticed, because if it doesn't, it will be yet another year where the most worthy film for the award gets totally snubbed by an elitist group of Academy members who are too lazy to actually sit down and WATCH a film, much preferring to moan about how they don't have the time to see them…

  • Yonatan

    “An average everyday Non-Documentary branch voter is going to nominate the Doc released by a big distributor which managed to get a fairly wide release (and reviews and web articles) 99% of the time.”

    -Which is exactly the case as non-documentary films. “Small” / Independent films have a tougher time to get nominated too.

    • JoeS

      Yup. But, at least before the current effort, Animation and Documentary categories had folks within that branch of expertise doing the sorting. Now, some sound editor who has a stack of Pixar DVDs that he watches with his kids is going to do the selections? (and I know sound editors as friends, so not picking on them)

      Just because Best Picture is done that way, doesn't mean that Animation, Docs and Foreign Films should be.

  • Bob

    What is the best — or least bad — system for whittling down the contenders to the five nominees? The old system perhaps was not as “democratic” but it seemed to guarantee that all qualified entries were seen and rated by at least some qualified evaluators. That meant it was possible for a great but not widely or studio distributed entry had a better chance than the new system, a fairer way to proceed,

  • Grace Jung

    Cry me a river. Documentary is a vulnerable category in the industry overall. Voters have a special position in this case, and they should give every screener their undivided attention and care, then vote for the best one.

  • skycape202

    Another eligible film that should be listed is “Casting By.” Really great film about the one important role in making a film that does not receive an Academy Award. It's a truly fascinating story of a woman who changed the way movies were cast.