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Oscars’ New Documentary Rules Can’t Kill DocuWeeks (Updated)

IDA's annual showcase receives a promise that the L.A. Times will review all its films, satisfying tightened Academy regulations

DocuWeeks, the annual showcase designed by the International Documentary Association to qualify docs for the Academy Awards, will serve in that function again this year, despite attempts in the Academy's Documentary Branch to end its qualifier status.

IDA executive director Michael Lumpkin told TheWrap on Monday that the Los Angeles Times has agreed to review all the films in this year's DocuWeeks, which will run from August 10 through August 30 at the Laemmle NoHo 7 in North Hollywood, and from August 3 though August 23 at the IFC Center in New York.

DocuWeeks logoThe Times confirmed that it plans to review every DocuWeek film.

Those Times reviews will enable all 17 feature films to qualify for Oscar consideration. (The rules for qualifying short documentaries were not changed, and DocuWeeks will continue to satisfy those requirements.)

New rules suggested by Oscar-winning director Michael Moore and passed by the branch late last year were designed to disqualify vanity bookings and stealth runs of made-for-television documentaries. The main target of Moore's rules appeared to be the type of quiet runs that HBO routinely used to qualify its films for the Oscars while making sure that reviews were held until the movies' television debuts.

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

But Moore also told TheWrap in January that he did not consider DocuWeeks to constitute a true theatrical release, because the IDA charges filmmakers to participate. "You're paying 20 grand to buy eligibility, and we should not be a part of that," he said.

DocuWeeks charges a different fee depending on the length of the film and its format. Last year, it cost between $14,000 and $20,000 for the DocuWeeks runs in Los Angeles and New York. Some filmmakers paid additional amounts for publicity and travel.

Paying the money does not guarantee a DocuWeeks booking; the IDA chooses its films from a large number of submissions. (86 features vied for the 17 spots last year.)

One of the new Academy rules requires films to receive a review in either the New York Times or the Los Angeles Times to qualify. The New York Times was chosen because of its policy of reviewing every film that has a one-week run in Manhattan, and the L.A. Times was added as a safeguard. (According to Moore, a liberal appeals policy would be put in place for films that were not reviewed.)

The New York Times does not review DocuWeeks films, because the paper considers it a film festival rather than a standard theatrical release. The Los Angeles Times in the past has reviewed some but not all DocuWeeks entries.

The Times' general review policy, film editor Julie Makinen told TheWrap, is to review every full-length film that plays for a week in Los Angeles County.

"As we were reexamining our policy last year, we concluded that reviewing DocuWeeks would be consistent with our guidelines," she wrote in an email. "Although we considered reviewing DocuWeeks 2011 films — prior to the Academy changing its rules — we didn’t have enough lead time to prepare to review all of the films. This year, our intention is to review every DocuWeeks film. Once DocuWeeks concludes, we will evaluate the experience and make any needed adjustments."

The new Academy rules mandating a review in the L.A. or New York Times, she added, were instituted without anyone from AMPAS consulting with the Times.

In a statement to TheWrap on Monday, Moore said that a review in the L.A. Times was not intended to be proof of a theatrical release.

"The intent of adding the L.A. Times review was only done as a safeguard should the N.Y. Times fail to follow its own policy of reviewing every single documentary film that opens in Manhattan," the statement read. "The L.A. Times does NOT have that policy (reviewing every single documentary that opens in L.A.), so therefore we did not make an L.A. Times review a form of proof that a documentary was theatrically released.

"Everyone understands the spirit and intent of the new rules: level the playing field, introduce full democracy to the documentary branch, let everyone vote (instead of it being done by committee) — and guarantee the Oscar we hand out each year goes to a theatrical movie that had a real run.

"The fact that documentary filmmakers even need DocuWeeks really speaks to the larger problem: the scarcity of distribution and exhibition options for nonfiction filmmaking. THAT'S the real issue, and one that I believe our branch will now turn its attention to."

Hell and Back AgainOver the years, DocuWeeks has qualified around 180 features and shorts for Oscar consideration, with those films receiving 19 nominations and winning seven awards.

Among the DocuWeeks qualifiers last year were the Oscar-nominated feature "Hell and Back Again" and short "The Barber of Birmingham," as well as "Semper Fi: Always Faithful," a doc that made the Oscar shortlist and one that Moore singled out as being "a great film" in his conversation with TheWrap.

This year's DocuWeeks will be the 16th to be held. Submissions are being accepted until May 11, and the lineup of films will be announced in July.

Additional information is available at www.documentary.org/docuweeks.