It’s almost Oscar time again, that magical night when years of hard work are acknowledged with a statuette and 30 seconds of air time. Then comes that sad sight of a filmmaker trying to thank their funders as the music swells, the mic sinks into the floor, and they’re strong-armed off the stage by a model. Granted, it’s more subtle than, say, snipers, but it seems like a cruel thing to do to someone who’s unlikely to take that stage again.
But that horribly awkward moment lies in the future. Now, it’s still about excitement and promise. The nominees for the best feature doc have been announced: 15 candidates to be narrowed to five on January 23, before the ultimate winner is announced on February 25. You have to think it’s An Inconvenient Truth this year, but stranger things have happened at sea, or so they say.
Most industry folk certainly pick the film as the winner, usually because of its box office performance. Having already won at the gate, it’s a shoe-in to win on Oscar night, they propose.
Or is it? How much of a factor is the gate when it comes to best feature doc?
The most obvious contradiction to the thesis occurred in 2004, when Fahrenheit 9/11‘s US$222.4 million (all figures according to Box Office Mojo) didn’t even get a sniff at the final five. Instead, Born into Brothels took top honors, despite only pulling in $3.5 million in the US. Super Size Me‘s healthy $28.6 million couldn’t knock it off the throne, nor could The Story of the Weeping Camel ($8.1 million), or even Tupac: Resurrection ($7.7 million). Rounding out the final five, Twist of Faith, bless it, barely charted on the money front.
Perhaps that snub could be attributed to Michael Moore’s big mouth. Last year, March of the Penguins certainly won both box office and the Oscar. Taking in $122.5 million, it whupped Enron ($4.5 million), Murderball ($1.7 million), Darwin’s Nightmare (about $200,000) and Street Fight, which scraped by monetarily.
In 2003, The Fog of War and its $5 million beat out Capturing the Friedmans (a close second at $4 million), My Architect ($2.7 million), The Weather Underground ($575,000) and Balseros, which also barely squeaked in.
In the past three years, the evidence suggests there’s not as much of a correlation between money and wins as there might have been: one win, one loss and essentially a tie. Perhaps it’s more accurate to predict that in the final five there is likely to be at least one strong box office performer, three good performers, and one great film that failed to pry money from moviegoers’ pockets.
But, beyond not letting money be the decider, the Academy has also done an admirable job on another front. Feature docs in general, I’ve noticed, have more frequently come to serve an agenda – they set out with a defined position and support their case. Facts and questions that don’t serve the film’s goal are ignored, while the truth is spun to fit the mandate. You might dismiss it as simply a reflection of the sorry state of US politics, but it’s not just a weakness in some American docs. I’ve been appalled lately by some of the biased films I’ve watched coming out of the UK and France, to name only two.
The Academy has generally steered clear of those films, preferring strong observational docs over opinion or dogma, objectivity over agenda. That’s not to say there aren’t strong political or social messages in the films, or even controversy, but you’re not likely to make it far with the judges if you’re simply grinding your axe. Funny that the Academy judges have higher standards than the average electorate.