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April 10, 2007

Comments

Jonny Leahan

Excellent piece, AJ. Thanks for clarifying those rule changes in a language I can understand!

I couldn't agree more... these changes could have the effect of creating a real, national "network" of theaters which support indie docs and give more people more access to more docs.

Curious to see how this all pans out...

SFguy

I'm glad to see someone arguing forcefully for theatrical releases of documentaries, but I think this Oscar rule change business is another beast. I was at the San Francisco governor's meeting, when Apted and Epstein appeared to present the rules. And I do say "present" rather than "explain" or "exchange ideas about", because the only helpful part of the event was hearing the rules read out loud in Apted's well-enunciated British accent. I've rarely been to a discussion like that where more contempt and disconnect was displayed toward the very community that was supposed to be represented at this meeting. The ritual response to every point made at the event was "We're not looking for opinions, but facts. Please send us a letter about particular films that would be excluded." As if having opinions at a supposedly open forum about rule changes affecting our community was somehow ludicrous! And Apted in particular displayed an almost pathological antipathy toward what he disdainfully called "TV Documentaries". Every point someone made was rebutted with "Well, we don't want TV documentaries sneaking in". It got to the point where someone asked why narrative films didn't have the same requirements, and Apted replied "Because documentary filmmakers will try to find a way to cheat." This coming from a guy who can't really be considered a documentary filmmaker anymore, certainly not in the same sense you or I would.

Aside from disappointment at the arrogance that permeated the proceedings, the worst thing that comes out of these rules is that the very people Apted seems obsessed with barring from the selection process will barely blink at the rules changes. I have friends who are theater owners, and they've already reported that HBO is basically four walling their requirements away, a process that started within days of the announcement. For the bigger companies, paying a couple thousand dollars more is barely a drop in the marketing budget. But for someone who's self-distributing the film, it might mean the difference between ever making a movie again or not. I commend AJ for having a great run, but I know people who were on the shortlist this year that went to great financial risk and struggle just to get to the 8 theaters, and I doubt very much they'd make 15. This kind of survival of the fittest attitude is always propagated by those at the top of the heap. I'm sure Apted can call any theater anytime and have them program a documentary about his poodle. That's just the way it works in exhibition. I could make the same exact call and pitch to a a theater as a distributor, and they won't listen to a word I say. Because it's so hard to make money for people all down the pipeline, you are going to see a lot of worthy films with tough and less commercial topic rising to the top of the Oscar heap. That's just a fact. And the truth is, that's the case for narrative films too, so we may just have to accept that entertaining and more mainstream docs will carry the day the way they do in the rest of the Oscars. And that's fine, but please don't say that it's for the doc community's sake somehow. These same "cheaters" and "TV documentarists" have been carrying the art of documentary film for decades, with no help from the academy or theaters.

I am glad for the allowances for alternative venues, which may genuinely help. But that is a more complicated and slippery world than it seems, hardly the "Set up a projector and let it fly" panacea. I guarantee there will be quibbles over whether an exhibition was a "true" theatrical run, and someone will be disqualified because those guidelines are so vague.

I will be shocked and amazed (and immensely gratified) if a movie with a primarily digital run makes it onto the shortlist in the ensuing years. How will they compete with an HBO that will snap up regular theaters in any city it chooses? How many narrative films of this nature were nominated? How many "Mutual Appreciation"s and "George Washington"s have been nominated for Best Picture? What this does is just further push doc oscars into that world where money and muscle win the day. And that's fine, has its own power and tradition, but please let's not try to tell the majority of independent filmmakers that this is somehow good for them. They'll just have to find other routes to success, as they always have.

Karen Cirillo

"This will make it much more difficult for independent filmmakers’ work to qualify for the Best Documentary Feature Award, while giving an advantage to films distributed by large studios."

Sorry, I love docs and am the first to support them, but why is everyone under the impression that independent films (of any genre) even matter to the Academy? I mean, what independent fiction feature has a shot at being nominated at the Academy Awards? What fiction film gets to be considered when it was made for television (remember when The Last Seduction was barred because of its HBO connection?)?

The rules may or may not be acceptable or feasible for doc filmmakers and the Academy certainly doesn't treat the documentary category with the same respect as everyone else (remember last year when the filmmakers didn't even get to go on stage?) but the Academy Awards piss people off for ALL their decisions.

The real problem here is that an entire nation of excellent filmmakers and excellent films are competing for ONE award that matters. And for that, the results will never satisfy.

Ira Deutchman

I would like to point out that Emerging Pictures has 24 digital screens in 23 cities and growing by a few per month. According to last year's rules, our theaters would not have qualified docs for the Oscars, but under this year's rules we do. We've been lobbying the Academy for this change and we're grateful that we can now participate in the process. The next step is to get them to accept that the digital standards they have chosen for Hollywood work are not relevent for independent work. The Oscar should go to the best film, not the wealthiest filmmaker.

Rtrank

Many great points made and an important piece. However, I do take exception to Spike Lee's remarks about a film I produced, "The Long Way Home" and suggestions that it wasn't worthy of awards or accolades.

Our film was a selection of the documentary competition of Sundance Film Festival, it won the Chicago Film Festival and was selected by a group of festivals to numerous to list here. Just prior to the Oscars in 1998, Siskel and Ebert gave it their famous "2 thumbs way up" and other critics had it on their top lists.

"The Long Way Home" was made as a theatrical feature and, at a great expense to a non-profit institution, was released theatrically around the United States. We did not have a major distributor working with us. We did it on our own. Whatever monies we received from Showtime, which purchased our film after Sundance, didn't cover what it cost us to do our theatrical release and didn't even cover a fraction of our production costs. When we were nominated for Best Feature Documentary, we did not have the resources to run ads in the trades to promote our film to Academy members. "4 Little Girls", which was an excellent documentary and deserving of all the praise and honors it received, was underwritten by HBO and had promotional ads running in both trade papers almost every day for the 6 weeks leading up to the awards. We couldn't compete with that. People found out about our film by word of mouth.

It is a misconception that films about the Holocaust have won an unusually large number of Oscars.
The Documentary category for the Oscars was created in 1941. The first documentary about the Holocaust to win an Oscar was in 1981, 36 years after the end of World War Two. It took almost 4 decades for a film about the largest mass murder of a people to be honored in this way. To name 2 landmark films about the subject that were overlooked: "Night and Fog" and "The Sorrow and the Pity". If the make-up of the Academy, as Spike Lee maintains, is weighted towards a certain kind of documentary, then what is his explanation for this fact? Between 1981 and 1995, 4 films about the Holocaust were awarded Oscars. From 1995 until the present another 4 films about the Holocaust were awarded Oscars, one of them a Short. Since 2000, only one film about the Holocaust has been nominated. I would venture to say a similiar number of films about nature and the environment, the fight for civil rights, the tragedy of war, as well as docs about art and science have won as many if not more Academy Awards than Holocaust themed non-fiction films.

The non-profit I write and direct for, Moriah Films, continues to be committed to making theatrical documentaries. Our last two features, "Unlikely Heroes" and "Ever Again" played in theatres around the country. Our newest film "I Have Never Forgotten You: The Life and Legacy of Simon Wiesenthal" premiered as a selection of the Berlin Film Festival and has also been selected by Tribeca. The new Academy rules will be costly for us but we believe in the importance of making documentaries to be shown in theatres. The discussion about finding a way for all worthy films to meet the new rules is an important one. Denigrating other films and filmmakers takes away from that discussion.

MS

Hollywood and the film industry--a town made by Jews, an industry made by Jews, In short, a media industrial complex controlled by Jews. If there is a documentary made about the holocaust that is at best mediocre, it will at least be nominated and most likely win. There is no way around that...unless a documentary is made about Israel. Arthur Cohn is a Zionist. We see his views are supported by the majority creators of the media industrial complex. All other subject matter is secondary. Just hope and pray that if your film is nominated that it is not in competition with any films dealing with Jewish historical or political, cultural subject matter.

AJ Schnack

I debated whether to delete the above comment, but decided to leave it because I think that covering up this kind of ignorance does no one any good.

The fact is that in addition to the two landmark films listed in Rtrank's comment, the epic film Shoah was not nominated for Best Documentary, nor have any number of films on the subject which have been made in the last few years. Your paranoia has no basis in truth. But then, you can't expect much from someone who actually spouts nonsense like "a media industrial complex controlled by Jews".

If I can take the topic seriousy for a moment, perhaps the run of Holocaust-themed documentaries winning the Oscar can be attributed to the feeling, after Spielberg's Schindler's List, that it was time to focus attention on this issue for a new generation. We witness today in Darfur the dreadful costs of human beings willing to look the other way when genocide occurs.

MS

Schindler's lists glorifies the holocaust to a great degree. Notice how beautifully shot it was....the black and white soft focus etc. This was not an accurate portrayal in this sense. Watch Playing For Time if you want to see the stark reality of this dreadful time. RE: My ignorance: certainly not every film about the holocaust has won an Oscar or even been nominated. However, if you were to count how many have and how many have not, you will certainly find the HAVE's ahead of the game.

RE: Media Industrial Complex: Not paranoia at all. Do some research on this history of propaganda/PR and network, studio ownerships over the last 100 years. You will be pleasantly surprised. I also suggest you watch a documentary called: Hollywood: An Empire of Their Own as a starting point and take a look at the NEO-CON movement. An organization lead by extremist Jews and Christians....

MS

Schindler's lists glorifies the holocaust to a great degree. Notice how beautifully shot it was....the black and white soft focus etc. This was not an accurate portrayal in this sense. Watch Playing For Time if you want to see the stark reality of this dreadful time. RE: My ignorance: certainly not every film about the holocaust has won an Oscar or even been nominated. However, if you were to count how many have and how many have not, you will certainly find the HAVE's ahead of the game.

RE: Media Industrial Complex: Not paranoia at all. Do some research on this history of propaganda/PR and network, studio ownerships over the last 100 years. You will be pleasantly surprised. I also suggest you watch a documentary called: Hollywood: An Empire of Their Own as a starting point and take a look at the NEO-CON movement. An organization lead by extremist Jews and Christians....

eric

Interesting discussion. But as a Canadian, I have to say I really don't get U.S. doc filmmakers' obsession with the Oscars and theatrical distribution, and disdain for television. All around the world, documentaries are made with the help of television pre-sales. (As indeed are feature films. Look at the credits of European films. Many have Canal+, Channel 4, etc. as part of their financing.) And guess what - the sky hasn't fallen. The Europeans make creative, artistically challeging films.

The Academy is an old men's club that recognizes five feature docs a year. Usually they're not the best films made that year. So, who cares? Focus on TV distribution in the U.S. and abroad, make your money back, and put it into your next film. Why waste your time and energy on money-losing theatrical runs?

Then there's the "feature-length" thing. I've long since lost count of documentaries I've seen that are 60- or even 45-minute films masquerading as features. Filmmakers will go to any lengths to stretch a thin storyline to 75 or even 90 minutes just to make the film "feature length." To what purpose? To put people to sleep? When was the last time you saw a film and said, "boy, I wish that were longer."

Bottom line: the race for the Oscar and the obsession with theatrical runs is not good for the art of documentary film. And I'm not so sure it's good for the commerce either.

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