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Arts & Entertainment

Oscar's cure for documentary nominees worse than what ailed it?

Oscar statues are seen at the Kodak Theatre.
Oscar statues are seen at the Kodak Theatre.
Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

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The rumor started early this week: the Academy Awards Board of Governors had a solution for the notoriously controversial documentary category. Official word came down yesterday.

Two major changes are in place. First, voting has been simplified and democratized for Academy members. Second, the eligibility rules have an unprecedented new standard. For a documentary film to be considered, "a review by a movie critic in 'The New York Times' and/or the 'Los Angeles Times' will also be required," said a news release from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

"It's kind of an odd thing," L.A. Times film writer Nicole Sperling said. "There was no consultation with either paper before the rule was passed."

The rule will trim what some say has become an unwieldy number of film submissions. But will worthwhile films get cut, too? Ric Robertson, the Academy's chief operating officer, told The New York Times: "We may indeed lose worthy films. But I don't think we’ll lose worthy theatrical films."

According to Sperling, the L.A. Times reviews films that have been in theaters for at least a week. "It still is under discussion whether or not our policies are going to be changed," she said. The N.Y. Times totes a similar policy.

With the advent of digital video, many documentaries destined for television have sought to meet the bare requirements for Oscar submission. KPCC film critic Andy Klein said that "the number of documentaries in the last 10 years or so has probably quintupled."

KPCC film critic Wade Major agreed, owing most of the genre's expansion to new technology. "Everyone can now afford a professional level camera that you can go out and make a documentary with and edit it with your home computer," said Major. "Barriers to entry for being a documentary filmmaker have plummeted just in the last few years."

By their very nature, the majority of documentaries are not commercially viable enough for major theatrical release. Filmmaker Victoria Mudd told the L.A. Times, "This new requirement favors wealthy filmmakers. It weights the scales toward people with money and with connections to reviewers ... I think it puts too much power in publicists and critics."

Major isn't sure he likes the changes either, after being exposed to movie politics when his wife was involved with "The Buena Vista Social Club." "We know there is an enormous layer of politics that goes on already, and when you introduce all of the politic that would go on to get a review that’s prominently featured, to work the best publicists, now you're adding politics on top of politics," he said.

Klein said the policy is peculiar, but he can't think of a fairer solution. "On the one hand, you want to have rules that encourage inclusiveness, and on the other hand, it's inclusiveness that makes it so difficult," he said.

When it comes to feature films, publicists, critics and deep pockets hold a lot of sway with Oscar, too. Why should documentaries be treated any different? Had the documentary category truly gotten out of hand? How much power does this give the editorial staff of The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times? Will they change their current review policies in light of this?


Andy Klein, film critic for KPCC and the L.A. Times Community Papers

Wade Major, film critic for KPCC and

Nicole Sperling, Film Writer, Los Angeles Times