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Behind Oscar’s snub of box-office smash ‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor?’ in banner year for docs

Fred Rogers on the set of his show Mr. Rogers Neighborhood from the film, WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR,
A documentary about Fred Rogers did not earn a nomination for best documentary from the Motion Picture Academy on Tuesday.
(Jim Judkis / Focus Features)

It was not a beautiful day in the neighborhood for Mr. Rogers.

A documentary about the affable children’s television host, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” was ignored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on Tuesday. The film, directed by Oscar-winner Morgan Neville (“20 Feet From Stardom”), had been considered a frontrunner in the category due to outstanding critical reviews and strong box-office receipts. Since its release last June, the film has collected more than $22 million, making it the highest-grossing documentary of 2018.

It was one of four nonfiction films from 2018 to make more than $10 million — “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” “RBG,” “Free Solo” and “Three Identical Strangers” — a feat never before accomplished at the box office.

But only two of those commercial hits fared well with academy voters: “RBG,” the documentary about U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and “Free Solo,” which follows how climber Alex Honnold scaled a 3,000-ft. rock wall without ropes. “RBG,” co-directed by Columbia University journalism school professors Julie Cohen and Betsy West, has sold more than $14 million in theater tickets, and “Free Solo,” from husband-and-wife directorial team Jimmy Chin and Chai Vasarhelyi, has brought in more than $13 million at the box office.

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Like Neville’s “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” “Three Identical Strangers,” about triplets who reunite as adults after being separated at birth during adoption, was widely expected to earn an Oscar nod. Though it was ultimately shut out, it will get a second life on CNN starting Jan. 27 — following a similar path as another popular snubbed documentary, “Blackfish.”

The other three nominees in the category include “Hale County This Morning, This Evening,” a poetic exploration of race in Alabama; “Minding the Gap,” about young men who escape their volatile home lives through skateboarding; and “Of Fathers and Sons,” a portrait of a radical Islamist family in Syria.

While “Minding the Gap” has also been streaming on Hulu, all three of nominees barely received theatrical releases, each playing in no more than six locations. The trio are a reminder that even in a banner year for documentaries, non-fiction fare rarely breaks out at the multiplex.

Oscar Nominations 2019: See the full list of Academy Award nominees

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(L-R) - Keire Johnson Bing Liu and Zack Mulliganon set of “MINDING THE GAP.” Credit: Hulu
Kiere Johnson, director Bing Liu and Zack Mulligan in "Minding the Gap," which has been streaming on Hulu.
(Hulu)

The academy’s documentary branch has often been fickle about the most popular films in the genre, overlooking successes like “Waiting for Superman,” “Blackfish” and “Mad Hot Ballroom.” Backlash over the exclusion of “Hoop Dreams” in 1995 even led to changes in the way films are selected, something that has remained an evolving process.

“I’ve heard that the doc category is a little bit unpredictable,” says Bing Liu, 30, who makes his directorial debut with “Minding the Gap.” “I think people just kept thinking about the box-office hits as if that was an easy way to get a line on predictions.”

After his film earned the coveted jury award at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, Liu decided to partner with Hulu even though it was in its second year of original documentary programming — and therefore no experts at marketing to academy voters.

“Hulu is very much the youngest player of the streaming distributors, and they also have the youngest audience, which is part of the reason I went with them. We felt like we were growing together, in a way,” he adds.

Netflix, which had two documentary nominees last year in Yance Ford’s “Strong Island” and Bryan Fogel’s “Icarus” — and got its first Oscar win for “Icarus” — came up short this year, though it had a strong contender in Sandi Tan’s “Shirkers,” which is up for an Independent Spirit Award and won the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. documentary award.

The filmmakers behind “RBG” insist they were stunned by their film’s nomination despite the widespread admiration. At the academy’s request, they shot their live reaction to the news and posted it on Twitter; in the clip, they scream and embrace with their mouths agape.

“I think documentary filmmakers understand that absolutely anything can happen in the nomination process, and commercial and critical success doesn’t guarantee anything,” says West.

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Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg mid workout routine in “RBG” movie, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo c
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg mid-workout routine in "RBG," one of the few commercial hits to earn an Oscar nod.
(Magnolia Pictures)

But even “Free Solo’s” Vasarhelyi — who notes she has been a “proud member” of the branch for three years, while Chin has yet to be invited — says she was surprised by some of the category’s omissions.

“What makes documentarians important filmmakers is that they have really strong opinions and speak up for what they believe in,” she says. “Films have gotta have grit, and they’ve gotta have heart. But I was disappointed about ‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor?’ Morgan is an incredible filmmaker, and his film is important.”

Neville’s film documents the life of Fred Rogers, the beloved late TV personality whose mission was to educate kids and promote kindness through his long-running PBS program. Just as “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” was garnering acclaim, it was announced that Tom Hanks would play him in a feature film set for this fall, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” Similarly, “RBG” was released just months before Focus Features put out “On the Basis of Sex” in December, in which Felicity Jones plays Ginsburg.

As to whether the justice herself will walk down the red carpet on Feb. 24, the “RBG” filmmakers were still unclear.

“I wouldn’t want to speculate on that. She’s recovering from pretty major surgery,” says Cohen, referring to Ginsburg’s recent cancer operation. “I can only imagine the designers who would want to dress her.”

“But her No. 1 responsibility and priority in life is her work on the Supreme Court, as it should be,” notes West. “She puts that first and foremost beyond anything, so I’m sure that’s uppermost in her mind right now.”

amy.kaufman@latimes.com

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Follow me on Twitter @AmyKinLA


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