New Doc Qualifying Rules: Arguments, Notes, Questions

Over at All These Wonderful Things, AJ Schnack writes in depth on a subject that has long been a source of contention and debate in the documentary community: The Academy’s rules for qualifying for the Oscars.

Probably the biggest change is “Rule IV.2“:

In addition to the Seven-Day Qualifying Exhibition, feature documentaries must complete a Multi-State Theatrical Rollout consisting of fourteen other exhibitions, as defined in Paragraph III.2, of at least three consecutive days each, at least twice daily, in any standard commercial format. These exhibitions must be distributed among ten or more states in the U.S. and must be completed by Thursday, November 15, 2007.

I was surprised when I first read about this rule (in John Sinno’s Open Letter to the Academy). Mainly, I wondered how many docs could actually qualify for such a thing; it seemed unrealistic. AJ, though, is in support of the new rule and he makes a very convincing argument in support of the new policy. Pragmatically, he notes that several films qualified this year and, philosophically, he argues that

if you weren’t hoping, weren’t planning, weren’t thinking all along that you’d have a real theatrical [run], then you shouldn’t be thinking Oscar.

I found myself surprised to agree with him. My only lingering question on the issue is whether these rules are actually more restrictive than those applied to narrative features. To the best of my understanding — and I could certainly be wrong on this — a film like Letters from Iwo Jima really only needs a one-week qualifying run in New York or L.A. to be considered for the Oscars. If this is the case, why hold docs to a different standard? It seems like the best way to maintain integrity in the process is to have narratives and docs follow the same rules.

Aside from this minor point, I only found myself disagreeing with AJ one one other issue — his support for the 35mm print requirement, which remains for docs short-listed for the Oscar. AJ writes:

Some filmmakers have complained that if your film is shortlisted, you must produce a 35mm film print, a costly process that is starting to seem unnecessary in the midst of the digital revolution. I find this complaint a bit hard to swallow, considering that just 6 years ago you couldn’t play a film festival without a print, but Apted says that it’s something the Documentary Branch is looking at, and that it’s conceivable that in the near future you wouldn’t have to have a print if you made the semifinals.

Actually, I think the 35mm print rule is a legitimate complaint.

While it’s true that six years ago you couldn’t play a festival without a print, it’s also true that six years ago the theatrical experience was defined by 35mm film prints. Today, projection on 35mm is still the standard, but it no longer defines the theatrical experience. Digital projection in commercial cinemas has become increasingly commonplace. We are in an era where some viewers can go see a digitally shot, digitally projected “theatrical film” like Zodiac, as I did.

Furthermore, most documentaries these days — including all five nominated last year — were shot on some form of video. A 35mm blow up may be an “up-rez”, but it is, in all likelihood, a decrease in visual quality of the camera original footage. In all likelihood, the best looking version is the film’s videotape color-corrected edit master tape, which is probably on HDCAM SR. Heck, it might be on DVCam.

My point is this: If a film can qualify for the Oscar without ever making a print (by the new rules, it can), and if a 35mm print is a downgrade in quality (as any 35mm blow up is) then why create some flaming hoop for cash-strapped filmmakers and/or distributors to jump through? This would be a minor point, of course, if such prints didn’t cost $20,000 or more. That’s chump change for a studio; for the smaller outfits that distribute documentaries I would imagine that’s a hefty price for what sounds like a few screenings for the Documentary Committee to decide whether or not you’ll be nominated.

The supreme irony of all of this angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin debating is that if a movie ends up being nominated, most people will judge the film on DVD screeners at home. This is true of both fiction and documentary features but, either way, what’s “theatrical” about that?

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Healthy (and ultimately minor) disagrements aside AJ’s whole article is great food for thought, at least if you’re a documentarian (or advocate of them) or if you follow the Oscars in that Inside Baseball sort of way.

One Response to “New Doc Qualifying Rules: Arguments, Notes, Questions”

  1. Jason Scott Says:

    I think what it does is close the door on the dream of someone making a documentary in their basement, (or across 5 years in caught time), and doing a few showings somewhere in a nearby city and getting an oscar. Pro or con, it does that.

    Then again, is the Oscar THAT IMPORTANT?