One of the first public signs that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was planning to revise the rules for documentary qualification - which had been hardened in a controversial set of revisions put in place for this year - came in an LA Times article written by Mark Olsen about this blog. In it, Olsen spoke with Academy Executive Director Bruce Davis, who foreshadowed the changes announced on Tuesday:
"(Davis) said that the rollout rules will likely be "streamlined" for next year, in no small part because of the response the academy has gotten from the documentary community, both online and in a series of meetings between AMPAS governors and filmmakers."
The streamlining came Tuesday. Gone is the requirement for a 14-city theatrical roll-out. In its place, a complete reversal of the direction the Academy's Documentary Branch has been headed for the past several years - instituting stricter rules in an attempt to guarantee that nominees were in fact theatrical films. For next year's Oscars, films will only have to play for a week, two screenings a day, in both the County of Los Angeles and in the Borough of Manhattan.
For the record, I have been generally in favor of the Academy's rule changes as I believe that they support and encourage the wider theatrical distribution of documentaries. I have been troubled about certain issues, however, including the question of what constitutes an acceptable theatrical venue - a question that received varying answers from varying representatives of the Academy. And recently, I'd come to realize that the rules were creating some unintended consequences for filmmakers and were clogging theatres nationwide with a glut of documentaries, which were often playing to empty houses.
Word first began to circulate that a possible change was underway in late summer, as it became apparent that the Academy's multi-city roll-out wasn't deterring films without theatrical distribution from attempting to qualify. Many, including myself and presumably some at the Academy, thought that the roll-out requirement would discourage films from trying to qualify via undercover screenings (usually in small towns with no publicity or reviews), believing that filmmakers would choose instead to wait until after they had their actual theatrical run.
This led to at least two seemingly unintended consequences. First, filmmakers were shelling out tens of thousands of dollars in order to qualify. Second, many of those smaller theatres were being booked solid by an influx of more than twenty films attempting to qualify.
For much of the last month, one of those theatres - the Moxie Cinema in Springfield, Missouri - has been a veritable showcase for nonfiction film, screening a number of feature films that are gunning for this year's Best Documentary Academy Award. Many of these films, including TAXI TO THE DARKSIDE, Alex Gibney's acclaimed follow-up tp his Oscar-nominated ENRON: THE SMARTEST GUYS IN THE ROOM, won't officially open in the US for weeks or even months. Some may never see what one might consider to be a traditional theatrical run - with reviews, marketing (even the grassroots kind) or even audiences. Most - if not all - of those films have been playing to nearly empty houses.
"People in Springfield are reluctant to see a film that they know absolutely nothing about," Dan Chilton, co-owner of the Moxie, told me a few weeks ago. "It's a hit to your ego (as a theater owner) to see a theater be so sparsely populated."
The economics of the arrangement, however, have been at least somewhat appealing to theaters like the Moxie, as they were paid approximately $650 by distributors working for various filmmakers to screen the films for three days, two times a day. In most cases, the distributor let the theater keep the box office in addition to the screening fee.
That $650 fee, multiplied by fourteen cities, added onto fees for distributors, publicists and prints or digital copies means a great deal of money for most filmmakers trying to qualify outside the traditional theatrical route.
One filmmaker who spoke to Los Angeles-based Laemmle Theatres (who is helping a number of films, including several that have backing from HBO) told me that they were quoted a fee of $10,000 for a one-week qualifying run, followed by $20,000 for the 14-city rollout.
The IDA, which helped a number of film qualify via its DocuWeek program (full disclosure - including my own), charged filmmakers a varied rate for the one-week qualifying run - $8,500 for a digital projection, significantly less if you had a 35mm print. Their roll-out was a comparatively inexpensive $5,000.
In addition to Laemmle and the IDA, Maine-based Shadow Distribution became involved in the process by helping six films - other than in house titles such as GYPSY CARAVAN - qualify, something the company had not done previously. Owner Ken Eisen told me by phone several weeks ago that the difficulty was not in getting theatres to show the films, but the 3 day, 2 screenings per day requirement.
"It's a low-level commitment to do (aast year's requirement of) 2 days, 1 screening a day. This doubles the commitment"
But Eisen noticed that despite the cost and the extra time commitment, as well as the dire warnings from the filmmaking commitment that the new rules were too onerous, filmmakers seeking a nomination were not deterred. "It doesn't seem to have stopped anyone," he said, even though "it's a considerable expense for the filmmakers."
One of the filmmakers working with Eisen and Shadow told me that Shadow charged the smallest fee - $2,000 - out of anyone they had contacted. The same filmmaker had negotiated with Laemmle to get $1,000 knocked off their qualifying run (they paid $9,000). In the end, they estimated that they'd spend around $21,000 for the Oscar run, with hopes for a real theatrical sometime in 2008.
This outlay of cash seemed to surprise the Academy, with one member telling me that the rules were never intended to cost filmmakers money. Indeed, it seems the Academy assumed, as did I, that films expecting a release in 2008 would wait until 2008 to qualify.
When asked why films wouldn't choose to wait, Shadow's Eisen told me that he usually notes three reasons why filmmakers may choose to jump the gun.
- "Some of the films being qualified will not get a theatrical run unless they get nominated for an Academy Award."
- "Some are wedded to a TV date," meaning that if they were to wait too long they'd be disqualified under the Academy's rules regarding television broadcast (which must come 60 days after your qualifying run).
- "Even if you have a (theatrical release) planned for February, you might want to have a nomination to drive people into theatres."
The problem with this rationale, which I believe is rooted in an antiquated view of documentary releasing, is that in each year since the Academy began changing qualifying rules in order to promote theatrical distribution, at least 3 of the 5 nominees for the Oscar have been films that were high profile theatrical releases. Last year, all five films were films that had completed a traditional theatrical release (with reviews, press and audiences) prior to the announcement of the Academy Shortlist in mid-November. While I don't believe the Academy operates by a quota system, the results seem to suggest that a traditional theatrical release is a more likely route to a nomination.
Whether the changes announced yesterday are purported by the Academy to help guarantee that qualifying films are actual theatrical releases, there is still plenty of wiggle room for filmmakers to do two undercover runs in NY and LA, although Manhattan theaters are notoriously difficult to book.
I'd suggest that if the Academy wanted to put some teeth into this requirement, they'd add that films must be made available for review. This would ensure that the release was an actual theatrical - as filmmakers would be reluctant to lose their press or reviews for what amounts to a four-walling run that they hope no one will notice.
Toronto International Film Festival Documentary Programmer Thom Powers disagrees with me on this point, telling me yesterday that the Academy's early deadline for qualifying, which remains at the end of August, makes the undercover runs essential for films that are due to premiere at Toronto in early September.
"Hollywood routinely uses TIFF to launch fall fiction films for the awards season. But doc makers are being penalized from using this major platform effectively because they need to qualify before TIFF," Powers told me. "I raised this point at an open meeting with the Academy committee in New York this spring. Michael Apted and Rob Epstein acknowledged this was problematic in front of a large crowd. But no change. Maybe next year."
However, Powers does see positives in the change. "In general, I think the rule changes are moving in the right direction, creating more opportunity for worthy films to be considered."
Filmmaker Jennifer Venditti, whose acclaimed film BILLY THE KID, is qualifying in theaters now prior to upcoming January release, echoed Powers' sentiments.
"If this means that it will be more possible for smaller-budget films to be considered, without large financial backing or distribution, then I am very pleased," Venditti said. "It will mean that more films will be considered based on merit rather than being so reliant on money, thus diversifying the selections."
Another filmmaker who's going through the qualifying process, WE ARE TOGETHER producer Teddy Liefer seemed relieved. " Although it’s been suggested over the last few months that there would be an easing up on the rules for qualifying documentaries, some filmmakers still feared they might instead become tougher. The Academy should be commended for today’s announcement – they’ve done the right thing."
While discussion and debate over this past year's controversial Oscar rules has been simmering to a slow boil in the documentary community since last winter, it really caught fire when IRAQ IN FRAGMENTS producer John Sinno wrote, in an open letter to the Academy, that "(t)his 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. Fewer controversial films will qualify for Academy consideration, and my film Iraq in Fragments would have been disqualified this year. This announcement came as a great disappointment to me and to other documentary filmmakers. I hope the Academy will reconsider its decision."
Yesterday, after the Academy had done just that, I asked Sinno whether he thought his letter helped spur the move.
"I don't know if my letter had an influence on the Academy, but the changes they've made are excellent. The new rules demonstrate that the Academy is keeping the interests of independent documentary filmmakers in mind and that they are open to input from people working in the industry. It's great news."
For more of our reporting on the Academy's rule changes, check out our Oscar archives.