For most of the world, the press release sent out by the Academy one week ago today seemed simple and direct. Headed "Oscar Credits Determined for Documentary Short Subjects", the release was only somewhat notable in that it announced the first Oscar nomination for Mitchell Block, a veteran player and somewhat controversial figure in the documentary world, for the short film POSTER GIRL, which was directed by Sara Nesson.
But what seemed simple on the outside masked an fierce dispute within the Academy's Documentary Branch. Two different committees had ruled that Block had not done enough work on the film to qualify for an Oscar nod, but those decisions were overturned by a four-person review committee that represented the Academy's Board of Governors. How and why the decision went to the four-person committee is at the crux of the conflict.
Perhaps none of this would be known outside of the Academy if Freida Lee Mock, the Oscar winning filmmaker and former Doc Branch Governor, had not emailed some of the details to Roger Ebert, who last Friday wrote about the dispute and then quickly deleted the blog post, reportedly after hearing from Movie City News' David Poland. By late Friday afternoon, all that remained was Poland's own post, which was sympathetic to Block and critical of Mock, but which remained somewhat vague as to what actually happened.
While Poland suggested that the situation was a smear job against Block, conversations with a number of Academy members over the weekend reveal a much more complicated - and a far more divisive - battle than has been publicly made known. And while the heart of the dispute rests with the Academy's real desire to limit inappropriate producer credits, it's set against a backdrop of a series of personal grudges that date back to the late 1980s.
At its essence, the POSTER GIRL fight begins with an Academy-wide effort to confirm that the producer who is nominated is the person who actually does the work of a day-to-day producer, primarily responsible for overseeing the whole filmmaking process.
It's an open secret that producer credits are handed out indiscriminately in film, so over the past few years the Academy has worked, in partnership with the Producers Guild, to strengthen the rule and to make sure nominations aren't given to money men (or women), distributors and the like.
This is true even (and maybe especially) in the documentary branch, where only two people may receive nominations for a film (as compared to three people in the Best Picture category). In addition to other controversies that mark the last few decades of the branch, there's a history of nominees (and even winners) who were not the true producer of record, and this recent effort is an attempt to rectify that.
In conversations with Academy members, several pointed to Michael Donovan, who shared the Documentary Feature Oscar with Michael Moore on BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE, as one such example. All agree that Donovan was the financier on the film, with two stating that the true producer on the film was Moore's wife, Kathleen Glynn (others suggested this was not the case). Another mentioned the double wins in the 1990s by Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center as an example of an Oscar winner who didn't take on the true tasks of a real day-to-day producer.
Nearly all noted an intense, behind-the-scenes discussion last year as to who should be the second nominee on Louie Psihoyos' THE COVE - Paula dePre Pesman, who had overseen the entire production, or Fisher Stevens, who helped shape the film into its final form during post-production. Many felt that Pesman should be the nominee, but Stevens was ultimately named as such by the Academy (and he eventually won). One Academy member called this particular decision a "Sophie's choice" caused by AMPAS rules that allow only one award be given to a documentary film's producer.
Several people who have been nominees in the past few years described a thorough vetting process, with one equating it to a cross-examination, although most seemed to take it in stride. One veteran player in the documentary world told me that the vetting process was even more stringent at the Primetime Emmys.
None the Academy members I spoke to were willing to speak for attribution and many would only confirm details that I'd heard from other sources.
This year, the Producers Guild told the Academy that they couldn't handle doing the vetting on the documentary short films, which turned the process over to an internal committee of documentary branch members, of which Freida Lee Mock was reportedly a member. It was the first time that an internal documentary branch committee had overseen the vetting process since the Academy stepped up regulation of producer credits a few years ago.
In the case of POSTER GIRL, the filmmakers filled out their paperwork asserting that Sara Nesson and Mitchell Block should be that film's potential nominees. And while Oscar procedures now allow for anonymous complaints about who should be nominated, all of the Academy members I spoke to said that there were no complaints from anyone connected with POSTER GIRL regarding Block's potential nomination.
But the history of POSTER GIRL paints a more complicated path to its inception, one that was sure to raise eyebrows of the documentary branch.
For three years, Nesson was making a feature film called IRAQ PAPER SCISSORS, about Iraq War vets dealing with post-traumatic stress. She showed a cut of the film to Block, a professor at USC and longtime distributor through his company, Direct Cinema. As Block told the story to the Columbia Business School website:
"Several years ago I developed a workshop series through the International Documentary Association that is based on my independent producing class at USC — I feel that it’s really important to provide high-quality resources to individuals who can’t go to film school. A first-time filmmaker and participant in one of the workshops, Sara Nesson, asked me to look at a film she was working on about veterans of the Iraq War.
One of the film’s seven or eight characters — Robynn Murray — really stood out. I suggested to Sara that she would be wonderful for a one-character documentary. When I got to see more footage several months later, I was blown away and offered to come on board as producer.
The movie has some of the most extraordinary documentary sequences I’ve ever seen in terms of a character being open, vulnerable, and exposed. I took the project to Sara Bernstein and Sheila Nevins at HBO and they came on board. HBO funded the completion of the project."
Therein lies what would form the basis of the objection raised by the Academy's initial vetting board to Block's nomination - the vetting board found that Block came aboard after the filming was completed and that his primary function was to suggest a short film based on Murray (Nesson continues to want to finish the feature version) and to help sell the film to HBO.
This, the vetting board unanimously ruled, was exactly what the producer vetting process had been created to prevent.
In a statement sent to us Monday night after the Academy's annual Nominees Luncheon, director Nesson confirms Block's version of the timeline:
I attended Mitchell’s IDA producing workshop in May 2009 in Los Angeles. I was producing on my own and I needed a lot of help. That is when Mitchell looked at my existing film (IRAQ PAPERS SCISSORS) and suggested a separate film be made with just one of the subjects. Mitchell conceived POSTER GIRL as a short film so no additional shooting was necessary. Mitchell worked with me to develop a sizzle reel and expand Robynn’s story. Mitchell is responsible for getting the film funded and has overseen all developments and all of the post production, marketing and distribution over the last two years.
When I asked Academy members why they disregarded Nesson's own recommendation that Block should be the second nominee, they said that while everyone accepted that Nesson believed Block was absolutely deserving of a nomination, the committees felt that it was their duty to uphold strict guidelines regarding producer credits and nominations. One Academy member pointed to Brad Pitt and Brad Grey being denied nominations on the Oscar winning THE DEPARTED and said that such moves by the Academy prove that they take the producer credit issue quite seriously.
Anyone who has submitted a documentary for an Academy Award knows that a large section of the eligibility form (this year's documentary short entry form ran 20 pages) deals with trying to delineate who the true producer is, beginning with the following "Documentary Producer Definition":
A producer initiates, co-ordinates, supervises and controls, either on his own authority (entrepreneur producer) or subject to the authority of an employer (employee producer), all aspects of the documentary production process, creative, financial, technological and administrative, throughout all phases from inception to completion, including coordination, supervision and control of all other talents and crafts.
Next, the Academy lists 24 producing functions and says that, by definition, an eligible producer's functions would "include active involvement in most of the following". The 24 functions include such things as "Selection and securing of shooting locations", "Preparation of the shooting schedule", "Selection and securing of all necessary production equipment" and "Supervision and approval of day-to-day expenditures". Although nearly half of the functions focus on post-production, it's easy to see why the AMPAS list might have created difficulty for Block with the vetting committee.
The AMPAS submission form also includes the PGA's "Producer Eligibility Form" which lists a full 32 functions and asks applicants to describe their level of responsibility for each as "Minimal", "Substantial" or "Full", or to leave blank if none at all. This section only lists 9 functions related to post-production.
After that vetting committee ruled to deny Block a potential nomination, the decision went to the Executive Committee of the Documentary Branch. This is the same process as in past years when the Producers Guild was involved. The Executive Committee is given a packet of information related to each film and they vote on whether to approve or reject the decision of the vetting committee.
While this action has been described and referred to as an appeal requested by Block, two Academy members told me that it was standard procedure. According to several Academy members, no official appeals process exists for producer credits and nominations.
The Documentary Branch Executive Committee voted to approve the vetting committee's decision by a vote of 8-3. When asked why the three people on the committee voted to overrule the vetting board, no one that I talked to would provide a specific answer.
And that, as they say, should have been that. But something happened between the vote by the Documentary Branch Executive Committee and the decision to take the issue to the Academy Board of Governors that turned a cordial discussion into a pitched battle within the branch.
At some point, two of the three Documentary Branch governors (who are currently Rob Epstein, Lynne Littman and Michael Moore, all Oscar winners) asked the full Academy Board of Governors to consider the case. While no one I spoke to wanted to discuss this decision, it's clear that this is the crux of what became an increasingly bitter argument, as some of those in the minority of the 8-3 vote pressed for the decision to be appealed to and decided by the Board of Governors.
For other Documentary Branch members, taking an appeal outside the branch was a rejection of a democratic process and of the branch's ability to make its own decisions. Several Academy members told me that some members, Michael Moore in particular, were outraged that the issue wasn't settled when the Executive Committee voted to uphold the vetting committee's decision.
The feeling amongst those who were upset was that the decision should have never left the branch.
On last Wednesday morning, before 4 members of the Board of Governors were set to vote, Michael Moore wrote to his fellow governors about the case. His letter was made public in Ebert's later-retracted blog post:
Thank you for giving up a part of your morning to deal with this issue. My feeling is that our branch has already made its decision and that the appeal was heard and rejected by our branch's Executive Committee. Mr. Block asked for another appeal, and two of our three governors felt, in the interests of due process, to ask you to hear this appeal.
I speak on behalf of the majority of the Documentary Branch Executive Committee in asking you to reject this appeal. Our branch's vetting committee voted UNANIMOUSLY that Mr. Block did not meet the criteria or qualifications. Our branch's Executive Committee then met. We considered and debated Mr. Block's appeal. We then voted overwhelmingly, by a vote of 8 to 3, to reject his appeal. We ask that you respect the decision of our branch and, again, reject this appeal.
Mr. Block is the distributor of this film. The Academy has been committed to cleaning up the abuses of the past when studio executives and distributors tried to obtain Oscars personally for themselves by calling themselves "producers." Mr. Block only came into this film when it was in post-production. He was NOT involved in any way with the conception, pre-production or production of this movie. We know the director is grateful for his help in the final stages of post-production and in distributing her film. But it is the Academy's responsibility -- and each branch's responsibility -- to determine if a credit is correct. Our branch, knowing what it takes to truly produce a documentary film, has made its decision: that Mr. Block should not be a considered a nominee for this movie.
Thank you so much for your time.
Documentary Branch Governor
Speaking on Friday to David Poland, Block refuted Moore's letter with strong words directed at the filmmaker:
“I was involved with this film since it was an idea and for Michael Moore to say something like this… I don’t understand why he would say any of this.”
Block, in his Poland interview, and Nesson, in her statement to us, also take issue with Moore's description of Block as the film's distributor. Block, who has long distributed documentary shorts and features through his company Direct Cinema, stated categorically that he was not the distributor of POSTER GIRL and the director agrees. "I own all the rights and the film is being distributed by our broadcaster and theatrically by SHORTS International," Nesson writes.
For students of the colorful, controversial history of the Documentary Branch (all 7 or 8 of us), a dispute between Mitchell Block and Michael Moore takes us right back to the bad old days of the late 1980s, when the two publicly battled over the Academy's sometimes outrageous omissions in the feature documentary category. At the time Block served on the now-retired documentary screening committee (although he is an Academy member, Block is not a member of the Documentary Branch) and was often available for public quotes after the nominations were revealed.
Writing for the Los Angeles Times in 1989, Jack Matthews sought to uncover why Errol Morris' THE THIN BLUE LINE wasn't nominated for an Oscar. In talking to various unidentified members of the screening committee, he discovered that the film was not liked - one even calls it "badly made" - and wasn't even watched all the way through (at various times, hand-raising or the shining of flashlights was enough to cut off a film before it finished):
"I think this is a case of the emperor has no clothes," said one documentary film maker on the committee. "I was shocked that the film had gotten all that attention, and my own evaluation was so different. The critical accolades were stunningly different from what I observed."
From interviews done for this story, it doesn't appear that THE THIN BLUE LINE even came close to receiving a nomination. All but one of the members interviewed said they did not consider it one of the five best films they saw. In fact, at the committee screening of THE THIN BLUE LINE enough members raised their hands to have the film stopped before it was completed.
Block was one of the only Academy members who went on the record with Matthews:
"I think (the distributors) set the film up as a shoo-in and that it created an expectation among members that the film couldn't meet," said Mitchell Block, whose Direct Cinema distributes documentaries. "But there was no backlash. As a group, we simply thought the five nominated films were better."
As for the critics, Block said they have no cause for outrage: "How can they say THIN BLUE LINE is the best documentary of the year when they haven't even seen the five that were nominated? They can say RAIN MAN is the best movie if they've seen all the features, but they can't say they know better than we do if they haven't seen what we've seen."
When Michael Moore's ROGER AND ME was bidding to receive a nomination the very next year (he didn't), Moore wrote an "publicity diary" for the New York Times that singled out Block:
The L.A. Times quoted an unnamed member of the Academy committee who said that ROGER AND ME didn't stand a chance of even being nominated because they were easily "five better films" that the committee has seen. This was the same quote given last year by a committee member, Mitchell Block, when he explained why THE THIN BLUE LINE was not nominated. Mr. Block has a financial interest in who gets nominated; he owns a documentary distribution company and, in the last 10 years, nearly one quarter of all films that have won the Academy Award for best documentary have been Mitchell Block films.
In his now-withdrawn blog post, Roger Ebert references an article he wrote in 1990 that focused on Block's influence within the Academy's documentary screening committee:
"Block seems to get an awful lot of his films nominated," says Judy Irving, director of the anti-nuclear film DARK CIRCLE, which caused a stir when it was shown on PBS last year. "When Block wanted to distribute DARK CIRCLE, he told me he could help us on a nomination because he was on the committee. He is definitely the power behind the committee--the only one who is currently active in any phase of documentaries at all."
"If you're a documentary filmmaker and want to get a nomination, you should try to get Mitch to distribute your film," says Pam Yates, executive producer of WITNESS TO WAR the 1985 Oscar winner in the documentary short category. "This is something documentary filmmakers have known for a long time. It's a clear conflict of interest, which we have repeatedly tried to get the Academy to recognize."
In the intervening years, the Academy changed its rules numerous times, including rules to prevent conflicts of interest on the screening committee. Meanwhile, Block has played the role of public scold on Moore and his style of filmmaking. In a 2008 blog post, Block refers to Moore's films as "fake nonfiction works" and called Moore "a documentary liar". He is quoted in numerous articles calling Moore's work into question, including this LA Times article from 2004 where he uses the "some people say" device:
"...Michael Moore is a controversial figure even within the documentary world. There is criticism that he plays fast and loose with the facts and does not treat subjects as ethically as he could."
There's no proof that Moore's position on Block's credit stems from this long-simmering feud, in fact more than one Academy member said they believed that Moore was reacting from another personal experience - the fact that his producer/wife did not share his BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE Oscar with him, but his financier did.
Everyone I spoke to said that conflicts with Block were common, but some were quick to note that in the 1980s Block was one of the only people actively traveling to festivals, seeking out films to distribute. At least one person said that criticism of Block's alleged conflict of interest in the 1980s was overblown, even as they too noted that Block's relationships with many folks in the field can be prickly.
Tellingly, Moore is not the only Doc Branch Governor with a history with Block, the other two Academy Governors, Rob Epstein and Lynne Littman, both have had films distributed by Direct Cinema, Mitchell Block's company.
But all Academy members I talked to insisted that none of the decisions were made to target Block. In fact, one Academy member suggested that many people involved in the initial vetting procedures were unaware of who Block was, let alone his colorful and controversial history during a time when the Academy's documentary decisions were often mocked.
Nesson, who would like to bask in the glow of her first Oscar nomination, one she feels would not have happened without Block, would love for the attention to focus on her subjects and not the Academy dispute. "The fact that we have an epidemic of suicides among the vets, 18 a day, is the more crucial issue," she wrote in her statement to us. "It's important to understand the crippling effect PTSD has on our returning Vets and my film addresses this."