Filmmakers Jump Through Hoops to Qualify Docs for Oscars

There’s one pretty tricky rule that can make it difficult to get into the Oscar race.

Yesterday was the deadline for submissions in the Oscars’ documentary and documentary shorts categories. This probably wasn’t a big deal for Michael Moore, or for the makers of, say, "The Cove" or "Food, Inc." or "It Might Get Loud," all of whom have easily satisfied (or will easily satisfy) the various requirements necessary to qualify.


But for some other filmmakers, particularly those who make the documentary shorts that you never see at your local theater, there’s one pretty tricky rule that can make it difficult to get into the Oscar race:


“To be eligible for Awards consideration for 2009,” reads the Academy’s rule IV.A.1, “a documentary short subject must complete a seven-day commercial run in a theater in either Los Angeles County or in the Borough of Manhattan, between September 1, 2008 and August 31, 2009.”


Seven days. In a commercial theater. With screenings at least once a day, between noon and 10 p.m. And ads in a major newspaper.


For the kind of movie that AMC and Pacific Theaters definitely do not consider a money maker.


So how the hell are you supposed to qualify?


It turns out there are a few ways. For one thing, there’s good reason why the recent DocuWeeks, three-week documentary showcases run by the International Documentary Association and held in Los Angeles and New York, were structured as three separate one-week programs, with each film, including shorts, shown at least once a day.


And, helpfully, the screenings started every day at noon, and ended every day at 9:45 p.m.


The IDA specifically structures DocuWeeks to qualify films for the Oscars, with this year’s installments benefiting 18 features and 10 shorts.


For the shorts that qualify, the good news is that they’ll be competing in one of the smallest Oscar fields: 31 doc shorts were in the running last year, only 23 the year before. (Four were nominated each year, which gives a film substantially better odds than almost any other race outside of animated feature.)


This year’s crop of shorts includes a pair of lyrical, haunting works that are more about mood than narrative (the stark, dramatic "Salt," pictured above, and the meditative "The Solitary Life of Cranes") and another film, "Ingelore," that has the subject matter (the Holocaust) and the ending (redemptive) to make it an obvious Oscar contender.


But for the makers of shorts turned down by qualifying showcases like the DocuWeeks, the game gets tricker – particularly since HBO, a major supporter of documentary film, no longer holds its own series to qualify films.


“When the IDA turned down my Norman Corwin film, I thought that was the end,” says filmmaker and Steppenwolf Theatre Company member Eric Simonson of his 2005 short "A Note of Triumph: The Golden Age of Norman Corwin." “But Corinne Marrinan, my producing partner said, ‘No, we’ll just four-wall it ourselves.’”


Certain theaters in the Laemmle chain, he learned, are sympathetic to filmmakers looking to qualify for the Oscars, leaving matinee slots open for films trying to qualify.

Understandably, Laemmle doesn’t do it for free – though, Simonson insists, “It’s not that expensive. I mean, we had to go into debt on our credit cards, but it was less than $2,000, and maybe less than $1,000.”


Simonson four-walled "A Note of Triumph" at Laemmle’s Sunset 5 in West Hollywood, paying the theater for a one-week run.  The film qualified, made the Oscar shortlist, got nominated, and won the Oscar; this year, he did the same thing at a Laemmle Theater in the San Fernando Valley with a short about author Studs Terkel.


Provided the Academy received 30 copies of his Terkel film by yesterday, and provided the movie is shorter than 40 minutes (Academy staffers check, with stopwatches), he’ll be in the mix once more.


And despite the tricky regulations and the credit card bills, he defends the process – which isn’t all that surprising, since the guy’s got an Oscar to show for it, and an AMPAS membership card.


“It sounds weird and arcane, but if you know about what the Academy is, it’s not really that arcane at all,” he says. “They really care about honoring the medium of film, and they’re very careful not to let that art form bleed into the world of television or the Internet.”


(Photo: Murray Fredericks/Jerrycan Films)