How NY Times New Review Policy Could Hurt Docs’ Oscar Chances

Expect more appeals and possible rule changes in the doc feature category, insiders tell TheWrap

The New York Times’ decision to no longer review every film released in New York City could have a ripple effect on the Oscar chances of some documentary features. Under current Academy rules, a doc must have a review in that paper or Los Angeles Times to be eligible.

Or it could make film review editors at the L.A. Times the final arbiters of which movies qualify for the Oscars and which don’t.

Or — and this is by far the most likely scenario — it could be a tempest in a teapot, causing a fuss and then going away without any real impact.

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That’s what happened when the rule was first instituted in 2012 as part of a sweeping array of changes to the Academy’s documentary system spearheaded by director and then-Academy governor Michael Moore. The review requirement drew all the headlines, but it has had a negligible impact compared to other changes in the nominations process.

And that’s what will probably happen now: The Academy is likely to consider a small tweak in the rules or expand the use of an appeals process that was already in place and was designed to qualify films that didn’t get a review but otherwise met the requirements.

The Academy’s branches are currently meeting to discuss rule changes, with changes due to be announced after the Board of Governors meets in June. The Times’ policy is certain to be addressed by the AMPAS Documentary Branch as part of that review.

Members of the branch contacted by TheWrap would not speculate on the record on what might happen, but most expected that the rule would be modified to allow films to qualify if they meet the other requirements but the Times opts not to review them.

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Said one prominent member of the branch who asked not to be identified, “The Academy never intended for the New York Times or the L.A. Times to decide what gets to qualify for the Oscars, and they’re not going to start now.”

The rules were already tightened last year to require four screenings per day during the one-week qualifying runs in Los Angeles County and the Borough of Manhattan. The four showings, up from the previous requirement of two, have made it significantly more expensive to book a theater for a private qualifying run.

Those “four-wall” bookings were a primary target of the rule in the first place. The purpose of the review requirement, Moore told TheWrap at the time, was to eliminate made-for-television documentaries that did sneak one-week bookings in out-of-the-way theaters in order to qualify for the Oscars, but didn’t want to be reviewed until their more high-profile TV debuts.

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“Don’t try to sneak it into theaters when nobody’s looking so you can have your big TV premiere,” Moore said. “If you do that, it’s a TV movie and you should be trying for the Emmys, not the Oscars.”