Michael Moore objects to new Oscar documentary rules

As anyone in the U.S. government will tell you, democracy is messy.

The latest group subjected to its unkempt ways is the documentary branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

For those of you following along, the mercurial branch has been trying to refine its voting process for the Academy Awards for years. In its latest iteration, announced in January, the branch instituted two new policies: first, that every member of the documentary branch could vote on the nominees, as opposed to the secret committee that used to decide the chosen five; and second, that titles could be deemed eligible if they received a review in either the New York Times or the Los Angeles Times.

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Unfortunately, they all got more than they bargained for, as evidenced when a box of 70-plus movies showed up on the doorsteps of all 176 members, to be screened before the shortlist of 15 titles is announced in November.

Documentarian Michael Moore served up his ire at the unintended consequences of the new rules on Twitter on Wednesday. As a member of the academy’s Board of Governors and the documentary branch’s executive committee, Moore had a hand in shaping the new rules and was rather upset by the outcome:

“Over 130 ‘documentaries’ have ‘qualified’ 4 this yr’s Oscars. But as u all know, 130 docs were not released in theaters this yr. So now what?”

“Once again, scores of ‘documentaries’ which didn’t get a REAL theatrical run have ‘bought’ their eligibility to qualify for the Oscars.”


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What went wrong?

Moore, reached hours before he began live-tweeting the first presidential debate, said the flood of unintended eligible titles stems primarily from the decision by the academy to require each eligible film to receive a review from either the New York Times or the Los Angeles Times.

After the rules were announced in January, the Los Angeles Times independently decided to review films that screen during the DocuWeeks festival, a two-week program in August that features 17 films. The decision was made because some films showcased in the series in the past had received Oscar nods but had never been reviewed, according to film editor Julie Makinen.


“It becomes a class issue,” Moore told The Times. “Ones that can game the system are the ones that have deep pockets: Either the filmmaker is wealthy, comes from a wealthy family or has wealthy backers so they can put up the money.”

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The International Documentary Assn., which has put on the festival in New York and Los Angeles for the last 15 years, confirmed that it does require a $20,000 entry fee to participate. But the two-week festival selects only 17 features from a pool of around 100.

According to Michael Lumpkin, the executive director of the association, the movies are chosen by a dozen committee members culled from the documentary community itself. Lumpkin said he finds no fault with the admission fee, arguing that any movie that screens in a theater is paid for by someone.


“It is a theatrical showcase that is providing films with theatrical screenings in New York and Los Angeles,” he said, adding that the event’s primary function is to provide the selected movies with a platform to qualify for the Academy Awards.

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“For us, if we had gone into DocuWeeks uncertain that the films there wouldn’t have been reviewed, we would have had to ask ourselves, ‘Is this worth doing?’”

Moore also questions why documentaries made for television -- such as Rory Kennedy’s “Ethel,” which opens in Los Angeles on Saturday, courtesy of HBO Documentary Films prior to its airing on the cable network on Oct. 18, and “The Waiting Room,” in theaters now prior to its airing on PBS next year -- seek academy recognition when their projects are financed and produced by television companies.


“Could you imagine if [those behind] ‘Game Change’ or ‘Mildred Pierce’ on HBO said, ‘Oh, we got Emmy nominations, we should try to get an Oscar too. It would be too weird. But somehow with TV docs that are on the History Channel, Discovery, the Learning Channel, PBS and HBO, somehow it’s OK to make yourself eligible for both an Emmy and an Oscar,” he said.

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“The purpose of the academy is to honor films that are theatrically released, and those of us who want to fix the system want to be supportive of and encourage more movies to be seen in theaters, not sent to the TV and Internet ghetto.”

Moore hopes to rejigger the rules once again come Nov. 2, when the branch meets again.


His proposal will very specifically outline which theaters in New York and L.A. are eligible for one-week screenings, with the hopes that films that are not traditionally booked by theater owners -- those that are paid for by the distributors -- are eliminated under stricter guidelines. Also, he wants to reinstate a rule that allowed films to qualify if they were selected by specific, high-profile film festivals, such as Toronto or Telluride -- showcases that don’t require an entry fee.

“When we voted on these last year, someone said we will keep trying to make this right but those that want to get around it will always find a way to get around it,” Moore said. “I thought we could outsmart it. That was clearly not the case.”


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