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February 13th, 2012 5:54 PM

Q&A on New Rules for Best Documentary Academy Award Voting and Eligibility

Thank you for your feedback on our new rules for Academy Award voting and eligibility. We are pleased so many of you have welcomed these changes.

Some of you, though, still have some questions. Due to some stories in the media that did not explain the new rules correctly or fully, there is a little confusion around what they all mean. (Rest assured, The New York Times will have no say in which films are eligible for Oscars!)

We would like to take an opportunity to answer some of your questions and to state clearly the two simple tenets behind the new rules, which apply only to the Documentary Feature category:

1.  Everyone Votes on Everything. In the documentary features category, all 160 branch members will now pick the 15 films for the shortlist. Then, we will all vote to pick the five nominees. We have retired the committee screening system.

2. Theatrical Films Only, Please. We have established a number of benchmarks that films must meet to guarantee that only those titles that have had a true theatrical run are eligible for the Documentary Oscar. One of these benchmarks is a review from The New York Times and/or The Los Angeles Times, which the filmmakers will be required to submit. Why the New York Times? Because it has a policy of reviewing every single film that received a theatrical run in New York City. This includes documentaries, even those that are self-distributed. This will end an era of "hidden" screenings that were used in the past to qualify.

Here is a handy FAQ on what this all means:

Q: Why are you ceding control over Oscar eligibility to the New York Times?
A: We're not. We are simply using the Times' existing policy of reviewing every film that opens in New York City as one of the pieces of proof that must be submitted to the Academy to prove that your film had a theatrical run in New York and Los Angeles.

Q: Why not a review from another publication?
A: The New York Times has a stated policy: it publishes a review of every film that gets at least a one-week run and never leaves out any film, regardless of how "small" that film may be.

Q: What if the Times fails to review a documentary that opened in New York?
A: Then we will make sure that the theatrical documentary in question is declared eligible by the Academy. We have instituted two fail safe measures that will guarantee no documentary filmmaker is shut out simply because the Times forgot, or made a mistake, or didn't follow their own policy:

1. The Academy will also accept a review from the L.A. Times, and

2. We will have a liberal appeals process that will grant eligibility to any film that had a legitimate one-week run in NY and LA, even if it received no reviews.

Q: What if the Times changes its policy and stops reviewing every film?
A: Then the Documentary Branch executive committee will review the benchmarks to qualify for eligibility, as it does every year.

Q: What is the reason for this new rule?
A: The Academy has asked our branch (and all branches) to ensure that all eligible films are theatrically released movies. The Oscars are not for TV movies or films whose filmmaker had paid the theater to show it. With a theatrically released film, the theater is supposed to pay the filmmaker (and the distributor) for the film, not the other way around.

Q: But we live in a time now where movies come in all forms, on various formats, and are distributed in many ways. Don't these Oscars rules seem a bit out of date?
A: The Academy has made many changes in recent years to keep up with the changing times. Years ago, it was decided that films don't have to be shot on film; they could be shot digitally on video. The Academy also decided that films could be projected digitally, and that they can be released on Video On Demand the same day they are released in theaters. A special Academy committee has been formed to consider further changes that might be necessary, but these are changes that are made by the Board of Governors, not by individual branches within the Academy.

Q: Documentaries are not like feature films. They are often funded by television and the line is often blurred between whether a film is a "TV documentary" or a "theatrical documentary." Shouldn't the documentary Oscar be simply given to the year's best documentary, regardless what venue it is meant for?
A: This is a valid idea, and both the IDA and Cinema Eye hand out such documentary awards each year. The Oscars exist to reward films released in movie theaters; this is the stated mission of the Academy. In years past, the Academy has wondered whether documentaries should even be part of the Academy Awards. We believe they should be - and the greater membership of the Academy agrees. Eleven years ago, as a show of its belief in nonfiction filmmaking, the Academy formed the Documentary Branch. 

Q: How will the new voting for Best Documentary work?
A: It's simple. Periodically, every member of this branch will receive a batch of DVDs of eligible documentaries submitted to that point. (Documentary films must submit their paperwork within 30 days of their theatrical release.) Realistically, most documentaries will be submitted immediately before the deadline, but with the new rules ensuring that we will be judging only films with a theatrical release, we expect the number of submissions will be reasonable. We know that it won't be possible for everyone to watch all the films, but with 160 people participating, we believe more people will see each eligible film this way than through the old system where films initially were only being seen by a small group of voters.

Then, at the end of the year, you will be asked to list, in order of preference, your 15 favorite documentaries of the year. This will, in essence, be our "primary" and it will form our shortlist. From that shortlist of 15, there will be a second vote to select the five nominees for the Documentary Oscar. All documentary branch members (and only branch members) vote to choose both the shortlist and for the five nominees. There will be no more screening committees for documentary features.

When the five documentary nominees are announced, the entire membership of the Academy will then be able to vote for Best Feature Documentary. The five documentary nominees will be on the Oscar ballot along with all the other categories (except for foreign language films and short documentaries [see below]). Academy members will no longer be required to see the documentary nominees during their one-week qualifying theatrical run or during the few nights the Academy shows them during the voting season. Academy members can now view the documentary nominees at any time, in any venue - including their home via a screener. We will ask them to please only vote in our category if they have seen all five films. When the Oscar is announced, it will reflect the will of the entire Academy.

 Q: Opening it up so everyone can vote is a good idea, but won't that help the bigger documentaries that have some sort of studio backing? How will the "little film" have a chance?
A: To begin with, the Academy has agreed to pay for the production and mailing of the documentary screeners to every Academy member. This levels the playing field so that those who can't afford to send out these screeners will now be able to do so. And beginning next year, the Academy hopes to stream the five nominees to every member of the Academy, making it possible for even more voters to watch the documentary nominees.

The recent history of the Academy Awards shows that independent films have the same chance at an Oscar that the big studio films have. Ever since screeners were allowed, films that, in the old days, would have remained somewhat obscure have been noticed and rewarded. Oscars for Best Picture have gone to films such as "The Hurt Locker" and "Slumdog Millionaire." Nominations have gone to movies such as "Winter's Bone" and "Animal Kingdom." This year, a silent film from France has garnered ten Oscar nominations. Screeners have balanced the scales, and anybody who makes a good movie has a shot.

Our branch is made up of independent filmmakers. We are always looking out for "the little guy" because that's most of us. The criticism over the years has not been that the "little" documentary is too often overlooked; it has been that the documentaries which seem to do well and resonate with the public are the ones that are seldom nominated. With a more accessible voting system, not only will more of the Academy be watching more documentaries, but also, we believe, everyone will have an equal chance at winning an Oscar.

Q: What about the short documentaries? Do the new rules apply to them?
A: No. We are doing this one step at a time. For the short docs released in 2012, the old system and rules will apply. We will be discussing this year if we should apply the new rules to short docs in 2013. However, the Shorts Branch, which covers Live Action and Animated shorts, has voted to do what we have done with feature documentaries and open it up for everyone to vote.

Q: Who voted on these new rules?
A: After a year-and-a-half of exploring it and discussing it, your 25-member Documentary Branch executive committee - made up of a cross-section of documentary filmmakers from our branch - voted unanimously for these changes. Then, the 43-member Board of Governors of the Academy voted to approve the rules.  This is the process by which rules changes work per Academy by-laws.

Q: How will you know if the new rules have worked?
A: In our motion to create the new rules, we included a clause that requires our committee to do a survey after a couple of years to see how many films each of our branch members are viewing. We also committed to creating procedures that will ensure no eligible documentary goes unseen. We have taken a big step in making our process more democratic, and we will be vigilant in guaranteeing that it works fairly for everyone.

Please let us know if you have any questions. We look forward to these changes making our process more democratic and accessible, and we encourage you to watch the eligible documentaries throughout the year and participate in the voting. When we select the Best Documentary next year, it will be because all of us got involved and made our voices heard.
Rob Epstein
Michael Moore
Michael Apted

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