Motion picture academy announces new rules for documentary features

Oscar statuettes prepare to go to their new homes.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
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On Tuesday, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced a series of new rules for next year’s Oscars (the 91st) — most notably, a new regulation that could potentially expand the number of documentary features eligible for awards consideration going forward.

Under the new rules, which were approved by the group’s 54-member board of governors at its most recent meeting, documentaries that have won a qualifying award at a competitive film festival will now be eligible for consideration “regardless of any prior exhibition or distribution by nontheatrical means.” The academy will release its list of qualifying festivals later this spring.

While it remains to be seen how great an effect this tweak will have, easing the pressure on certain films to secure a theatrical release could potentially enable more international documentaries to be included in the process and perhaps benefit platforms like HBO, Netflix and PBS that produce and acquire significant numbers of documentaries and sometimes forgo theatrical releases.


Previously, all documentary features needed to complete a seven-day run in at least one theater in both New York and Los Angeles to be eligible for Oscar consideration — a requirement that will still hold for documentaries that don’t win any qualifying awards.

As the academy continues to grapple with the ever-blurrier line between film and television, the change follows a rule enacted last year in the documentary feature category that bars multi-part or limited series from consideration. That rule, had it been enacted earlier, would have rendered 2017’s documentary feature winner, “O.J.: Made in America,” ineligible and will disqualify such critically acclaimed recent multi-part documentaries as “Wild Wild Country” and “Wormwood” from consideration.

In an additional tweak to its documentary rules, the critic review eligibility requirement has been expanded so that, in addition to the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, a film can be reviewed in Time Out New York, the Village Voice or LA Weekly. Such reviews must be written by movie critics, however, not television critics.

The other rules announced by the academy were largely procedural. Among other things, screeners for eligible films will now have to be sent through an academy-approved mailing house, which will be provided with an official list of members who have opted in to receive them.

Twitter: @joshrottenberg