Monday, January 9, 2012

Why the Academy's changes make complete sense [UPDATE]

Last night, social media were up in arms over news of rule changes for documentaries with the Academy Awards. This is becoming an annoyingly familiar occurrence. Every change, no matter how good always has a loud chorus of detractors.

So it was when the Academy announced months ago that they would no longer be a predetermined number of Best Picture nominees as in previous years but that they would have a flexible number between 5 and 10 depending on how many nominees received first-place votes. Many objected, yet this is a good change that adds some mystery and drama to the process and makes clear the importance of the first-place vote. Many voters and observers are under the mistaken impression that everyone nominates multiple films or filmmakers in each category. However, that is not the case.  The Academy's nomination ballot is preferential, meaning that only one vote per category counts. If a favourite(s) gets eliminated, they can move on to subsequent pick(s) so that the ballot still has a voice but still only ever counting one vote at any given time.

When members received their ballots which only had five slots for the Best Picture nominees, again people were confused. But again that was a wise decision that makes it clear that they are not nominating ten films. They are nominating one film with some backups in order of preference.

Confusion and outrage reigned again with this latest brouhaha about the changes to the documentary section. The storm was created by a misleading New York Times article "Oscar Rule Will Cull Non-Fiction Contenders" which made it seem like the the Academy was trying to drastically limit the number of documentaries in a way that would favour larger, more expensive documentaries.

The self-serving article stressed a new requirement that documentaries be reviewed by The New York Times or The Los Angeles Times to qualify. But without giving any explanations, many leapt to the conclusion that Academy members were abdicating their judgment in favour of critics. Here is an example from The Guardian and POV blog at, while David Poland at Movie City News wondered "Why does The Academy find new & amazing ways to fuck documentaries every year?"

This is simply not the case, since there is no requirement that the reviews be favourable or not, only that they be reviewed. The review requirement is intended to weed out television documentaries that never had any intention of being viewed by the public or film critics. Sometimes films have secret runs in theatres that no one attends. Those films would technically qualify in that they screened theatrically, and could then go on to become eligible for the Oscars as well as the Emmys. Now they will be forced to choose what their primary platform will be.

Both the LA Times and the New York Times have a policy of reviewing every theatrical release, so getting a review from them is not at all unreasonable especially since it doesn't even have to be a good review. Even then, there will be an appeals process whereby films can qualify if they show that they did have a good-faith theatrical run that slipped through the cracks. Academy governor Michael Moore said, "We’ll have a very liberal appeals process."

Lost in all this gnashing of teeth were many other changes that are clearly for the better. As it stands right now, nominating and the voting are convoluted processes that leave most of the power in the hands of older, inactive members who can afford the time to join committees and attend scheduled screenings.

Here's how it works up until now. Documentaries that have had a one-week theatrical run in both Los Angeles and New York (whether or not anyone watched) can be submitted. This year they had 124 submissions, up from 101 last year (the qualifying period was longer as they moved the deadline from September to December; thus this year's submissions included films screened from September to December 2010 as well as all of 2011). Films are divided amongst volunteer committees of Documentary Branch members so that each committee doesn't have to watch more than around 10 each. Only 157 of the Academy's 5,783 members make up the Documentary branch. Each film is graded between 6 to 10 and films with the highest scores make up the shortlist of fifteen films. New committees are struck to redo the whole process in reducing the shortlist to the five nominees. To vote for the Best Documentary Award, you must attend all five Academy screenings of the nominees.

This whole ordeal is difficult for younger, more active members and is why the Documentary shortlists, nominees and winners have often been seen as "safe" and skewing towards older audiences.

In addition to the requirement for a review, the new changes include dispensing completely with the committees. The Academy will make DVD screeners and online viewing available to branch members on a quarterly basis. Any member of the Documentary Branch can nominate documentaries, just as with the other branches (i.e. actors nominate actors, writers nominate writers, etc.). And all 5,783 members of the Academy will be able to vote for Best Documentary, not just the branch and not just those who attended the Academy screenings.

Many of these changes were spearheaded by Michael Moore, who has won the Oscar (as well as the Emmy) and has been "snubbed" in previous years. He led a committee that came up with these changes which were then approved unanimously by the branch's executive committee and the board of governors.

These changes are clearly all for the better. Yes, some smaller films may get hurt by the change. From this year's Documentary Feature shortlistSemper Fi: Always Faithful was not reviewed by either Times newspaper, nor was Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, even though it did have its theatrical run (David Poland says as many as 5 of the shortlisted films would not pass under the new rules). But the really high-profile omissions such as The Interrupters would not likely have been excluded under this new process. In the old system, one person who took a strong dislike to something could give it the lowest rating possible of 6.0 and skew its average enough to make sure it didn't progress further. The new process gives more people a say.

We'll see if all these changes have their intended effect. It's very possible that the number of nominees won't drop substantially once this year's larger qualification window is taken into account. The other changes, though, can't help but bring more films into the conversation and make for a more interesting field. More people watching and talking about documentaries cannot be anything but good for film.


UPDATE January 10: Steve Pond has written an excellent article at The Wrap that explains the changes in great detail. He fingers HBO as the main target of these changes, not the small documentaries. He points out that three of the shortlisted Documentaries this year are by HBO which held secret qualifying screenings, and that HBO's Gasland and PBS's The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers both received Emmy nominations last year after having received Oscar nominations.

UPDATE January 12: The Academy has officially adopted the new rules for the Documentary and Short Film categories.

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