Frustration over Oscars’ documentary short list

If you enjoyed a documentary in a movie theater in the last year, odds are you won’t be seeing it at the Oscars in March.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has revealed its “short list” of 15 films, culled from 89 submissions, that are eligible to be nominated for best documentary feature.

Documentaries: An article in some editions of Friday’s Calendar section about the short-listed Oscar documentary features said “The September Issue” was not eligible for consideration this year. The film that was not eligible was “Michael Jackson’s This Is It.” —

More notable than what’s on that list may be what’s not: Most of the top-grossing and critically praised documentaries of the year, including Michael Moore’s “Capitalism: A Love Story,” Chris Rock’s “Good Hair,” the struggling rock band chronicle “Anvil! The Story of Anvil” and R.J. Cutler’s inside peek at Vogue magazine, “The September Issue.” The Michael Jackson documentary “This Is It” was not eligible this year, as the category covers movies released before Sept. 30.

Only four of the 15 pictures sold more than $500,000 in tickets in theaters: “The Cove,” “Food, Inc.,” “Every Little Step” and “Valentino: The Last Emperor.” Eight of the films have no reported box office and appear to have played only for the one-week theatrical runs in Los Angeles and New York that are required for movies to be eligible for an Oscar.

“I am disappointed and dismayed, but I’m not shocked because I think the processes of both the documentary and foreign-language selections are, let’s call them, works in progress,” said Howard Cohen, co-president of Roadside Attractions, which distributed “Good Hair,” “The September Issue” and “The Cove.”

This is far from the first time that some of the best regarded documentaries didn’t make the short list. In 1989, there was uproar when “The Thin Blue Line,” about a man who was wrongly convicted of murder in Texas, failed to get an Oscar nomination.

A year later, a letter signed by 44 filmmakers was sent to the academy expressing “shock and outrage” over the omission of Moore’s “Roger & Me,” about the effect of General Motors layoffs in Flint, Mich.

“Hoop Dreams,” about two inner-city youths struggling to become professional basketball players, was one of the best-reviewed movies of 1994. But it too was snubbed. So was Werner Herzog’s “Grizzly Man,” a critically acclaimed 2005 film about a man who lived among Alaska’s grizzly bears. Certainly in the last several years, some commercially successful documentaries -- such as “An Inconvenient Truth” and “March of the Penguins” -- have taken the prize.

Bruce Davis, executive director of the academy, defended the process of selecting documentaries, which has been changed several times in reaction to past controversies.

“In the documentary category and best picture, it would be nice if the best works of art were also the pictures that had been seen by the most people,” he said. “It doesn’t always work out that way.”

The short list was compiled by approximately 145 members of the academy’s documentary branch, each of whom watched and voted on more than 20 of the 89 films submitted for this year’s prize. The voters, who represent about 86% of all the academy’s documentarian members, must now watch all 15 short-listed films to vote for the five nominees, after which all eligible Oscar voters will pick a winner.

People who worked on documentaries that were widely expected to make at least the short list expressed sadness and surprise Thursday.

“We were really disappointed about ‘Tyson’ and ‘It Might Get Loud,’ ” said Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, referring to the films about boxer Mike Tyson and the influence of the electric guitar. “We thought they were two of the best of the year.”

“Given the passionate reactions from critics and audiences to this picture, we were given cause to be very hopeful,” said Rebecca Yeldham, a producer of “Anvil!” “I’d be lying if I said we weren’t disappointed.”

“We are surprised,” said Chris McGurk, chief executive of “Capitalism’s” domestic distributor Overture Films. “But we’re in good company with the other documentaries that got left off the list.”

One person who likely wasn’t surprised by the news was Moore, whose “Capitalism” is the top-grossing documentary of the year.

“I don’t expect to be on the short list,” he said in an interview last week. “The top-grossing documentary of last year, ‘Religulous,’ didn’t make the short list. So, I don’t take any of it for granted.”

Freelance writer Lisa Rosen contributed to this report.