How to Get Nominated

I found this article from the NY Times to be interesting. It is about the restrictions a documentary feature faces when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences considers it for the Best Documentary of the year.

The nominees for the 2006 Best Documentary Feature are:
Darwin’s Nightmare
Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room
March of the Penguins
Street Fight

And the Documentary Nominees Aren’t . . .
By John Anderson Published: January 29, 2006 NY Times

Come Oscar night, the nominees for best documentary will most likely be relegated once again to the back row of the orchestra. And, along with the balcony, what will again cast a shadow on the winner are the category’s seemingly perennial controversies.

Eugene Jarecki’s Why We Fight, encountered problems with eligibility rules.

Each year, the documentary branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences winnows the eligible films down to a shortlist – this year, 15 movies, 5 of which will receive nominations on Tuesday and 1 the Oscar. Just as traditional are the subsequent laments about what was nominated, what was not and why.

This year’s shortlist includes the obvious front-runner for the prize, March of the Penguins, Luc Jacquet’s study of the reproductive cycle of the emperor penguin. The movie has made more than $77 million – a high profile and high profits no longer count as handicaps in winning this award.

Why, then, did Werner Herzog’s much-admired Grizzly Man not make the cut? The film, about the naturalist and ecologist Timothy Treadwell, who was killed by the same Alaskan grizzly bears that he studied, was chosen best nonfiction film last month by the New York Film Critics Circle.

Simple explanation, said the documentarian Arthur Dong, a member of both the documentary executive committee and the academy’s board of governors: “It didn’t get enough votes.” He explained that volunteers from the documentary branch conducted initial screenings of all eligible films, voted and put their highest vote-getters on the shortlist.

How many volunteers? Mr. Dong referred the question to the academy’s publicity office. A spokeswoman there declined to answer. So it could be two people? she was asked. “I hope not,” she answered. For years, accusations of cronyism and bad taste plagued the selection of Oscar documentaries – in the 1990’s, films that were denied nominations included the epic basketball documentary Hoop Dreams; Crumb, the portrait of the maverick cartoonist R. Crumb; the true-crime documentary Brother’s Keeper; Michael Moore’s debut, Roger & Me; and The Thin Blue Line, in which Errol Morris (who finally won for his 2003 documentary The Fog of War) dismantled the case against a man on death row in Texas.

Moreover, films with Holocaust or other Jewish themes were seen to have a lock on the category: Between 1995 and 2000, the winners included Anne Frank Remembered, three other Holocaust films – The Long Way Home, The Last Days and Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport – and One Day in September, about the 1972 Munich Olympics murders. “There are not many sure things in life, but that was a sure thing,” Spike Lee said in 1998, when his 4 Little Girls – about the 1963 Birmingham church bombing – lost to The Long Way Home.

What Mr. Morris once referred to as the “Mother Teresa school of filmmaking” – the perception that if a film’s subject is exemplary, the film must be, too – has always held sway at the academy. So has the voters’ penchant for movies about the mentally or physically disabled. This year seems no different: both Unknown White Male, about a man who loses his memory, and Murderball, a forceful movie about wheelchair-bound rugby players, are on the shortlist. So is 39 Pounds of Love, about the painfully wizened Ami Ankilewitz, a victim of spinal muscular atrophy, who seeks to travel across the United States. It is said to be his long-held dream, but there is nothing in the film that does not feel stage-managed.

However the documentary nominations are ultimately decided, some films – as usual – were out of the running before the shortlist voting even began. Others were considered certainties, including After Innocence by Jessica Sanders, whose mother Freida Lee Mock, is the head of the documentary branch. Mr. Dong said Ms. Mock had recused herself from the voting, just as she did when her own 1994 film, Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision, won the Oscar.

There’s an inherent conflict between how the academy determines eligibility and how most documentary filmmakers make money. Because European television has government money and spends it on films that tackle controversial subjects, American documentarians often look there for financing, in exchange for the chance to show the film on the air.

To be considered for an Oscar, however, a documentary must have made its debut in theaters and played for at least a week in New York or Los Angeles, and films that appeared only on television – or even those that appeared on television before moving to theaters – are disqualified.

Some – the BBC in Britain, HBO in the United States – have been willing to delay broadcast to preserve a film’s Oscar eligibility. But that doesn’t mean that they are happy about the rules.
I do not think it should matter whether films have been broadcast on TV outside the U.S.,” said Nick Fraser, editor of the BBC’s Storyville series. Agnès Varda’s meditation on aging and eating, The Gleaners and I, was cited as one of the best films of 2000 by many of the major American critics’ groups, but it was ineligible for an Oscar because it had been broadcast in Italy and France before opening in the United States. And last year, Control Room, in which Jehane Noujaim examined American and Arab news coverage in the opening stages of the Iraq War, was similarly shut out, even though it was shelved by its producers for six months before being shown on European television; in the interim the required blackout period had been extended to nine months.

That rule has since been eliminated. But it doesn’t help Eugene Jarecki.

The director of Why We Fight, which opened on Jan. 20, Mr. Jarecki has produced an ambitious treatise on the American military-industrial complex, the philosophy of perpetual war and the prescience of Dwight D. Eisenhower. It won him the prize for best documentary at the Sundance Film Festival last January – just as the documentary branch announced another set of rule changes.

Ms. Mock said in an academy press release that “films with a true theatrical rollout would be ‘exempt’ – in quotes – from the television blackout provision,” said Mr. Jarecki, whose previous documentary was The Trials of Henry Kissinger.Mr. Jarecki’s legal counsel, John Sloss; members of the Sundance Institute; and executives at the BBC concluded that the academy had at last recognized that a television debut is sometimes a financial necessity for documentaries. Mr. Jarecki allowed Why We Fight to be shown on British television.

But according to the academy, Mr. Fraser said, the film violated the broadcast ban. “We were informed that these clauses had been dropped,” he said. “Had we known that the rules had retained some obligation to show first in a cinema in America, we would have rescheduled our screening.”

Mr. Dong said the rule banning broadcast before theatrical release applies to all Oscar contenders, not just documentaries. But he conceded that some of the documentary branch rules are about survival – at one point the academy’s board of governors wanted to eliminate the short-documentary category altogether and banish documentary features to the science and technical awards, which are presented in a separate ceremony.

I think the academy, with the best of intentions,” Mr. Jarecki said, “sought to make the rules evolve in a way that recognized the realities facing the financing of certain documentary films, to make it more relevant whether a film had a theatrical life in America than what its television pedigree was. That was clearly the direction they were moving in.”

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