Oscar’s doc rules rally the troops

There's been a lot of talk recently about the the rules for feature docs being submitted to the Oscars, with Waltz With Bashir being held up as one of the main victims of these strange guidelines. Thom Powers, TIFF's documentary chair, spoke with realscreen about other films that are suffering and the changes he thinks should be made to the system.
October 9, 2008

Under the current rules for submissions to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, all feature documentaries must have had their qualifying run before August 31. Under a newer amendment added last fall in the interest of simplifying the submission guidelines, contenders must have had a theatrical release in both New York and Los Angeles for at least one week in length in order to qualify. While this is admittedly more straightforward than the previous rules which required screenings in at least 10 states, the old rules at least allowed distributors to hold sneaky screenings just to qualify. Whereas, screening in the two media hubs in the States makes it much harder to be covert.

Either way, Thom Powers, documentary chair for the Toronto International Film Festival, and many other festival representatives and filmmakers alike agree that it’s the early deadline of August 31 that makes the rules difficult to digest. While other genres of film must do their time in theaters by the end of the year, Powers argues the rules for doc features has been a terrible blow to filmmakers for years.

Over the summer Powers spoke to over 100 filmmakers about this issue and while each of them had their own problems with different aspects of the guidelines, not a single one disagreed with the need to change this deadline. ‘My feeling, even though I could make the argument for other rules being problematic, I wanted to start with the one rule that everyone has consensus on that this is a terrible, terrible system and the August deadline has got to change,’ says Powers. A petition started by TIFF proposes that filmmakers submit their DVDs for consideration by August 31st, but that they should have until the end of the year to have their qualifying run in theaters. The petition was signed by 75 documentary filmmakers, the large majority of whom have either won an Oscar, been nominated or made the shortlist. ‘We were trying to spell out to the Academy that it’s not a film festival issue, it’s a filmmaker issue.’

Aside from the problem that many docs don’t screen until after getting their debut at festivals such as TIFF or the New York Film Festival, fall is simply the prime season for any major theatrical release, and as Powers points out, this stipulation is affecting more than just Bashir. Harvard Beats Yale 29-29 is a film by Kevin Rafferty that screened at TIFF, but is due for theatrical release in November to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the game the film documents. ‘It would be insane for that film to have done a qualifying run before August 31st,’ says Powers.

Another film affected by the rules is Stephen Walker’s Young@Heart the third highest grossing theatrical documentary this year, according to Box Office Mojo, just under Expelled and Shine a Light; and a critical favorite this year. It’s not the deadline that’s plaguing the Fox Searchlight distributed doc. It’s ineligible for submission because it aired on British television, and under the Academy’s rules a film must not air on television within 60 days of its qualifying run in theaters. Walker feels this rule doesn’t make sense for documentaries because many need initial funding from television broadcasters to get off the ground. ‘Obviously as a director I’m not going to lie to you and say I wouldn’t want this to be submitted and have a chance, of course I would,’ he says. ‘This issue is going to come up again and again.’

Another troubling item that made filmmakers worry about the Academy’s attitude toward docs was a comment made by the Academy’s executive director Bruce Davis in an August New York Times article. In it he said the Academy was used to getting around 60 submissions in the doc category and that they were ‘scared to death’ that they’d receive more than 100 this year. ‘Documentary production increasing is one of the most exciting things going on in cinema in the past ten years,’ says Powers. ‘It’s worrisome that the Academy is afraid of that, they should be embracing it.’

However, Powers is optimistic the Academy will take their argument into account at the meeting of the documentary committee at the end of October. He feels that the Academy has gone out of its way to listen to TIFF and the voices of the documentary filmmakers the petition represents. ‘I think they’ve got to make a change because if they don’t they’re going to be saying to 75 prominent documentary filmmakers, ‘we don’t care what you think.”

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