Another year, another change to the qualifying rules for the Documentary Feature category of the Academy Awards. And another complaint about how those changes affect the contest. Except here’s the thing: the Oscars are not a contest. They’re awards. If you don’t know the difference, I can make it as plain as can be. A contest is something you enter and try to win. Awards are something bestowed on someone or something for achieving greatness, outside of any competitive motivations. At least that’s how it should be. You can argue that awards are given as prizes for contests. You can point out that the Oscars have always been something intently entered. Today, you can even argue that many movies are made solely as “bait” for Academy recognition.
I don’t know of any documentaries that have been tailor made for an Oscar the way a lot of Hollywood dramas seem to be. There are shallow reasons for making docs, sure, but when it comes to hunger for awards, it’s typically after the fact of being produced that a documentary aims for honors. And it can be a pricey affair, more so in the past. Films have paid thousands of dollars for qualification, whether via showcase by the now extinct IDA DocuWeeks program or by way of directly renting out screens in New York and Los Angeles in a scheme known as four-walling. A lot of the films that have done this are frankly not any good. They won’t get or don’t deserve an Oscar regardless. That money should have been spent on making a better film.
The latest controversy about Oscar eligibility rules involves the recent amendment stipulating that documentaries must play a minimum of four shows a day, one of which has to be during primetime hours, in their qualifying weeklong run in New York and Los Angeles. That shuts out certain “small” and DIY films that have traditionally paid their way into eligibility and probably were more concerned about that qualification than being seen. Or that was the best distribution they could get, given that documentaries aren’t huge theatrical draws and so theaters might push them to the showtimes during slower business hours. I’ve never really heard about the latter being common.
One criticism is that the rules shut out “more serious” movies, too, but that’s ridiculous. Look at the nominees — not the winners — of the Documentary Feature Oscar over the past few years, since it has begun to narrow eligibility to truly theatrical releases. It doesn’t get more serious than war, genocide, rape, revolution, AIDS, the Israel-Palestine conflict, domestic terrorism and justice for the wrongfully convicted. Yes, most of these have a cinematic production quality and strong storytelling and in some cases feel-good moments. They’re not just issue films for the sake of being issue films, which I think is what the “more serious” argument refers to. Those kinds of advocacy commercials for a cause have no place at the Oscars. Not anymore.
The Academy Awards are a popularity contest. They always have been, and if the Documentary Feature category is only now experiencing this fact it was long overdue. The films that are nominated and the film that wins may not be the very best of the year, but they are for the most part still great films, among the best of the year. Meanwhile, the actual best of the year have so many other ways to be honored. Other documentary awards are popping up by the year. And so are festivals, with their own legitimate kudos. They are championed by critics, celebrities and social media word of mouth. Most importantly, they are seen. Isn’t that the real goal? What good is a statuette if people still don’t care to or bother to watch your movie?
I don’t want to say that the Oscars are worthless. They garner a nominee a lot of attention and sometimes more money in the case of the honor maybe boosting box office and home video rentals. There’s no need to boycott them if you happen to earn a nod. But documentary filmmakers need to focus on simply making the best documentary they can. If it’s a worthy achievement, it will be honored. If it’s an enjoyable or truly important movie, it will be seen. And if it’s not good enough, hopefully someone involved is able to acknowledge that and accept it rather than attempt to put more money towards marketing and qualifying a lost cause.
A lot of documentaries are made every year, and a lot of them are pretty good. Many are not. There are a number of ways to tell if yours is among the former. Maybe it played a prestigious festival like Sundance or Hot Docs — not that I’ve ever experienced a festival that didn’t have some clunkers in their program. Maybe it was even well-attended at those fests and received positive buzz. Maybe it earned great reviews. Maybe a distributor picked it up. Maybe it was a box office hit. Anyone who can’t check one of these boxes off, unfortunately for the people who put effort into their film, probably shouldn’t be complaining about Oscar rules.
Am I wrong? Are there worthy docs out there that have any chance that really need to be paying money to be accepted into little festivals and paying money for sham festival awards and paying just to be projected to an empty auditorium? I don’t buy it. If an incredible film that is small yet necessary (seriousness needn’t be a factor) and slipping through the cracks out there, something that can really stand by a claim that it’s one of the best films of the year, I’d love to know it, see it and support it any way I can. So would other critics, doc fans, theater owners and distributors. So would Academy members and doc branch voters. Try hard to make a great film, and try hard to get it seen. Nothing else matters.
Besides, the Oscar race for this year is already pretty much in the bag.