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New Rules Could Give Oscar Documentary Field a Different Look This Year

A change in the Oscar documentary process could help unconventional films like "Samsara" and "Searching for Sugar Man" — but maybe not "2016 Obama's America"


Submissions for the Academy's Best Documentary Feature award have now closed, and a change in rules means the field of nominees could have a very different look this year

Bear in mind, it probably won't be different enough to include the year's top-grossing doc, "2016 Obama's America" — though it'd be the very definition of irony if that conservative film made the cut, since the new rules that could alter the Oscar doc landscape were spearheaded by Documentary Branch governor and famous liberal Michael Moore.

Under new rules proposed by Moore and passed by the branch and the Board of Governors last year, more members will be eligible to vote for the docs in the nominating process – and when their votes are tallied, it will be done using the preferential system, which often awards love-it-or-hate-it movies rather than the safer consensus favorites that prospered under the old system.

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

Searching for Sugar ManIt could mean that the Academy will find room for more of the pop-culture or social docs that were often overlooked under the old system in favor of straightforward issue-oriented films; movies like "Searching for Sugar Man," "Paul Williams Still Alive," "Wish Me Away," "Marley," "Jiro Dreams of Sushi," "The Iran Job" and "The Queen of Versailles" might find it easier to get the needed support than they would have last year.

And "Samsara" (above), the wordless and narrative-free doc that has done surprisingly well at the box office, seems tailor-made for the new rules – it's a thoroughly unconventional doc that could well be dismissed by a small committee, but might win enough passionate adherents in a larger body of voters. 

It's also hard to imagine that harder-hitting docs that were overlooked in past years —  Werner Herzog's "Into the Abyss" and Steve James' "The Interrupters" among them — wouldn't be able to garner enough support to at least move to the 15-film shortlist under the new system.

2016 Obama's AmericaAs to whether the new process will help 2012's three top-grossing docs, "2016 Obama's America," "Chimpanzee" and "Katy Perry: Part of Me" – well, that seems far-fetched, new system or not.

Nature films like "Chimpanzee" haven't been a typical part of the lineup for decades, concert films almost never get in, and while the anti-Obama movie has played well to conservative audiences (not exactly the Academy's constituency), few have accused it of being a quality piece of cinema.

We won't know how it all plays out until January, when the nominations are announced, or November, when the shortlist is revealed. But while the initial reaction to the new rules was focused on the requirement that qualifying films receive a review in the New York Times or  the Los Angeles Times, the controversy over that rule was something of a red herring.

In the long run, opening up the pool of voters and moving to the preferential count will likely have a bigger impact on the films that are nominated.  

Here's how the major change works:

In the past, the first round of voting for the doc awards was in the hands of small screening committees. These groups of volunteers from the branch would received a randomly-selected batch of DVDs, and would give each film a numerical score; the films with the 15 highest scores would move on to a shortlist.

Moore said that the committees could contain as few as five members, placing the fate of each film in the hands of an inordinately small number of members.

Also read: Inconvenient Truths About Oscar's Documentary Process

The new system does away with the committees and the scoring system. Instead, all members of the branch, about 150, will receive screeners of all the eligible films (prepared and sent out at Academy expense), and will simply vote for their five favorites.

That brings the voting in line with most other Oscar categories – which also means that ballots in the category will be counted using the preferential system, a complicated process that sorts ballots by the film listed first, and then redistributes them round-by-round until only five films remain. 

The preferential system places heavy weight on a voter's first choice and makes it far better to be passionately loved by a minority of voters than mildly liked by a majority. A film that is ranked first on only 10 of the ballots will automatically make the 15-film shortlist, while a movie ranked third or fourth on 50 ballots may well be left off the list.

The Invisible WarThat means the emphasis could shift from the consensus films that prospered under the averaged-score system to more daring and divisive films that can do well under the preferential process.  

Also read: How Oscar Comes Up With Its Nominees: a Demonstration

As for what films might end up on the shortlist, a few titles stand out: Kirby Dick's devastating rape-in-the-military doc "The Invisible War," Lee Hirsch's powerful "Bully," Amy Berg's "West of Memphis" (which will have to face the hurdle of having a film on the same subject, "Paradise Lost 3," nominated last year), Alex Gibney's Catholic Church expose "Mea Maxima Culpa," David France's AIDS doc "How to Survive a Plague," Eugene Jarecki's drug-war doc "The House We Live In" and Malik Bendjelloul's tremendously entertaining "Searching for Sugar Man."

2012 docs that have grossed more than $1 million at the box office, in addition to "Sugar Man," "Bully," "Marley" and "Obama's America," include Lauren Greenfield's keenly-observed tale of excess among the super-rich, "The Queen of Versailles," and the Disney nature doc "Chimpanzee." (The former is a more likely nominee than the latter.)

Director Steve James, whose "Hoop Dreams" was snubbed two decades ago, leading to a previous overhaul of the doc system, and whose 2011 film "The Interrupters" caused an outcry last year when it was left off the shortlist, is back with "Head Games," about sports-related concussions.

Other possibilities include "Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry," "Beauty Is Embarrassing," "The Central Park Five," "Chasing Ice," "Detropia," "Escape Fire," "Ethel," "The Gatekeepers," "The Imposter," "Last Call at the Oasis," "The Law in These Parts," "One Day on Earth," "The Waiting Room" and the Keanu Reeves-produced "Side by Side," a series of conversations about the future of film in the digital age. 

But it's hard to determine which films have qualified; many of the most acclaimed docs have screened on the film-festival circuit, which itself does not give a film the one-week Los Angeles and New York runs required to qualify.

Last year's field consisted of more than 100 documentaries. This year's, which is expected to be slightly smaller under tightened qualifying rules, will be set by the number of films that submitted their paperwork by the end of the day on Monday, and completed their qualifying runs by the end of the year.

By mid-November, when the shortlist is revealed, we should know if Michael Moore's new rules have changed the look of the Oscar doc landscape. And Moore should know if by making the process more democratic, he also opened the door for a filmmaker on the opposite side of the political spectrum.

But he's probably not losing any sleep over it.