Oscar 2011: New Rules for Documentaries

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is set to announce new rules this week for Oscar’s documentary category that will have far-reaching implications for the next year’s race. The biggest change is that in order for any film to qualify for the 2012-13 awards season, it must have been reviewed by either the Los Angeles Times or the New York Times, which reported the story on Sunday.

The change solves two issues for the documentary branch of the Academy, Ric Robertson told Variety. First, it will reduce the number of films that branch members must watch for the nomination process.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, it ensures that films that are nominated have distribution and have had a theatrical release.

In general, both LAT and NYT reviewers write only about documentaries that are shown in theaters, which, by default, limits the pool to films with theatrical distribution.

“We can’t judge every documentary made for every possible audience,” Robertson said, adding that the branch’s executive committee has been looking for ways to ensure that nominated films have a “legitimate theatrical release.”

“This isn’t a new quest for the documentary branch, it’s just a different way of trying to solve the puzzle.”

The change is likely to hit the International Documentary Assn.’s DocuWeeks fairly hard because the showcase, which takes place annually in New York and Los Angeles, was designed to provide a de facto Oscar-qualifying run. For a fee, each film would play for a full week in theaters, regardless of whether a filmmaker had secured distribution.

Robertson acknowledges that DocuWeeks has been a good way for filmmakers to get their work out. “but we have to have our own criteria.”