Arthur Hiller, president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, said Wednesday that he and the academy governors will review this year's five Oscar-nominated documentaries in the face of criticism that the academy failed to nominate the popular basketball film "Hoop Dreams" for best documentary.
Hiller stressed he was not launching a formal investigation of the documentary category, which over the years has drawn fire for ignoring a number of highly acclaimed documentaries, but did acknowledge that the review could lead to changes in the nomination process.
"We'll be taking a close, hard look at the procedures of the documentary committee to see if changes need to be made," Hiller said.
Hiller admitted he was "completely mystified" that "Hoop Dreams" was nominated only for editing. "I am one of those who loved the film," he said.
"I should make it clear, as with most of the rest of the world, I haven't seen the five documentaries that were nominated," he added, "but, I'll be watching the nominees in this category with great interest. I'm curious to see how worthy they are."
Because there is no documentary branch, nominees this year were decided by a 47-person committee voting by secret ballot.
The first course of action, says Hiller, will be to ask all 36 members of the academy's Board of Governors to review the five films. While he declines to elaborate on concrete alternatives to the current system, other academy sources suggest two possibilities: that the criteria for membership on the documentary committee, which is now a volunteer operation, could be stricter. Or that the size of the committee could be increased to promote diversity.
This year, the documentary committee reviewed 63 films before casting secret ballots for the top five nominees. To qualify, the movies must only have played in an approved list of festivals rather than being shown for a week during a Los Angeles run, which is the rule for virtually all the other categories.
"The documentary committee consists of 47 people--much fewer than the 400 on the foreign-language film committee," notes one academy insider. "By tightening the entry criteria, we could limit the number of films and, presumably, add to the number of people willing to invest the time viewing them. That would make for a broader group."
The specter of conflict of interest was also raised over the fact that the unknown and unreleased "Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision" made the final cut when it was directed and produced by documentary committee chairwoman Freida Lee Mock. Mock had disqualified herself from the balloting this year because of the submission.
An academy source calls it a Catch-22: "For years we've been taking hits from critics saying we don't have documentary filmmakers on the committee. Now we have one, who disqualified herself, and we're getting charges of 'cronyism.' If we have people making documentary films on board, should they be forced to abandon their careers?"
Nevertheless, the switchboard of the International Documentary Assn. fielded dozens of calls on Tuesday complaining that "Hoop Dreams" was snubbed, except in the category of best editing.
The film, a three-hour chronicle of the lives of two black basketball players, had been awarded the top documentary prize by the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn., the National Society of Film Critics and the Golden Globes. The Fine Line Features release, which has grossed more than $3 million since it opened in October, had even been mentioned as a best picture long shot.
" 'Hoop Dreams' is certainly the highest profile documentary of the past year--one of the few to cross over into the mass market," says Betsy McLane, executive director of the IDA, a group representing 1,600 documentarians, or people who support documentary films. "Though we felt it was one of five films worthy of our top award last November, you can't condemn them without knowing what movies they reviewed."
Maybe so. But the omission--the latest in a series that includes Michael Moore's satiric "Roger & Me" and Errol Morris' "The Thin Blue Line"--has called the academy selection process into question.
"If you look at the greatest documentaries made over the past 10 years, the one thing they have in common is that none was nominated for best documentary by the academy," contends Liz Manne, senior vice president of marketing at Fine Line.
"The only people who complain seem to be those who are left out," countered Mitchell Block, a documentary distributor and member of the committee. "If there's a problem, it's that working documentary filmmakers are disqualified from being on the committee. We actually have a higher standard in terms of self-interest than any other branch." A number of people in the Hollywood community suspect that Fine Line's academy campaign created something of a backlash.
" 'Hoop Dreams' suffered unfairly from the company's attitude that the movie was 'bigger' than a documentary," said a leading film executive. "Like 'Lion King,' it deserved to be acknowledged--but in its own area. Pushing for a best picture nomination ticked people off." Producer Marvin Worth ("Malcolm X") alludes to another kind of backlash.
The documentary committee, he said, may have been upset because the film "crossed over" and enjoyed success in the commercial arena.
The controversy over "Hoop Dreams" was just part of the buzz swirling throughout the film industry after Tuesday's Oscar nominations. From assessing the strength of "Forrest Gump," to marveling at the rise of the independents--particularly Miramax Films--it seemed everybody had an opinion.
Scott Rudin, producer of "Nobody's Fool," said he was shocked at the omission of "Hoop Dreams"--which he termed "the best picture of the year"--but "excited" at the range of Oscar nominees.
"The fact that you don't see a handful of 'Gandhis' speaks to a younger academy--one less committed to rewarding stolid movie-making," he said. " 'King George,' 'Pulp Fiction,' 'Four Weddings' . . . are subversive pictures at heart."
Some Hollywood observers were wondering if any film is strong enough to overtake "Gump," which walked away with an impressive 13 nominations.
"'Gump' will probably win because it's mainstream," said one producer, adding that "Pulp Fiction's" chances could be hurt "because it's counterculture."