For about two dozen documentary filmmakers, the road to Oscar just might begin in a small West Hollywood multiplex and a downtown New York arthouse.
The International Documentary Assn.'s DocuWeeks program, a three-week showcase designed specifically to meet the Academy's eligibility requirements, began on August 12 at the IFC Center in New York City, and kicked off on Friday at Laemmle's Sunset 5 theaters in West Hollywood.
Out of more than 100 submissions, the IDA has chosen 17 features and seven shorts to screen in three separate one-week programs, with each film screening twice a day to meet Oscar-qualifying requirements.
In the 14 years that DocuWeeks has been running, it has qualified 17 Oscar nominees and seven winners.
On Thursday night, HBO did what it traditionally does to kick off the L.A. portion of DocuWeeks: it sponsored the opening-night festivities, showing its new Harry Belafonte documentary "Sing Your Song" and hosting a party at the XIV restaurant across the street from the Sunset 5.
That arthouse multiplex is a smaller venue than the Arclight, where the IDA held DocuWeeks the last couple of years. But the Arclight, said IDA executive director Michael Lumpkin, would have been prohibitively expensive this year, so the showcase was moved to the Sunset 5.
Filmmakers who participate in DocuWeeks pay the IDA a fee commensurate with the cost of renting a theater for a qualifying run on their own — though it brings with it the added cachet and publicity of part of DocuWeeks curated program.
The cost varies depending on whether the film is shown digitally or on 35mm film; for features, according to Lumpkin, it ranges between $14,000 and $20,000. (One of this year's films, "Dying to Do Letterman," has raised more than $40,000 on Kickstarter to cover the cost of participation and of additional promotion and publicity.)
HBO's opening-night film turned out to be a fairly routine, hagiographic and by-the-numbers look at the fascinating life and career of singer, actor and activist Belafonte – but the focus at DocuWeeks is not on a kickoff film that already has a home on cable TV, but on the others that will be using the showcase to qualify for the Oscars and, in some cases, attract the attention of distributors.
"Ever since they announced that we were in DocuWeeks, we've been getting lots of calls from distributors and people wanting copies of our DVD," said Marc Smolowitz, the director of "The Power of Two," a doc about two half-Japanese twin sisters who have battled cystic fibrosis and have become organ-donation advocates after undergoing double lung transplants.
Another first-week film, Nick Brandestini's "Darwin" has received rave reviews for its portrayal of a small community in California's Death Valley: "Teasing out tales of shady pasts and estranged children, [Brandestini] exposes ever-deeper layers, connecting relationship and genealogy dots gradually and without fanfare," wrote Jeannette Catsoulis in the New York Times.
"Unfinished Spaces," which screened at the Los Angeles Film Festival earlier this summer (photo on previous page), is a striking, eye-opening and beautifully-made doc about the National Art Schools in Cuba, five remarkable complexes commissioned by Fidel Castro and designed by three young architects in the early 1960s. When the utopian idealism of Castro's revolution was replaced by an oppressive Soviet mentality, the visionary works fell out of favor and were never finished, although they continued to be used.
Other first-week films include "The Boy Mir – Ten Years in Afghanistan," which follows a young boy over the course of a decade and is a follow-up to "The Boy Who Plays on the Buddhas of Bamiyan"; "S.O.S./State of Security," a look at longtime White House counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke, whose warnings about Al Qaeda were ignored before 9/11; and a program of four short docs, including "Library of Dust" from "We Live in Public" director Ondi Timoner.
In New York, meanwhile, DocuWeeks moves into its second week with a program that includes "Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey," about the man who created and works the beloved Sesame Street character; and "Hell and Back Again," one of a couple of DocuWeeks films dealing with Afghanistan, this one focusing on a Marine wounded while fighting the Taliban.
DocuWeeks continues through Sept. 1 in New York, and Sept. 8 in Los Angeles.