It takes “much money” to qualify for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature – "much money" after the film is made.
You might be an inspired director. You might have created an astounding and luminous work. You might leave adoring audiences weeping with joy and sorrow. Boo-yah! That is just not enough to get you short-listed for a Documentary Oscar, and if you don’t make the shortlist, you will not be thanking your mother, father and God while accepting the golden boy on the stage at the Kodak Theater on February 26, 2012.
Not to say that the 2011 shortlisted documentaries aren’t deserving. Not at all. It is just that making the shortlist incurs significant marketing and distribution costs over and above the cost of making the film. The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences has rules and adhering to those rules is expensive. For an emerging indie filmmaker who has just maxed out her credit cards, getting to the next step maybe impossible. See Rule 12!
To be eligible for an Oscar, a feature length documentary must complete a seven-day commercial run in both Los Angeles and Manhattan and must be exhibited using 16mm, 35mm or 70mm film. (If you are short-listed, you will need 35mm or 70mm – not 16mm. A digital video to 35mm transfer will cost you $20,000+.) Digital video, though much less expensive to produce is not allowed for the screenings. And the film screenings must be advertised in The New York Times, Time Out New York or The Village Voice; Los Angeles Times or LA Weekly. A column inch in the Times costs over $800. So these rules guarantee that some groundbreaking films by emerging filmmakers won’t be eligible and will never make it onto the shortlist.
These regulations have caused critics and film aficionados to decry both the list and the Academy. Some very impressive films including Inside the New York Times have been left off the list this year. Big name directors Werner Herzog and Errol Morris films were left off the list with Into the Abyss and Tabloid respectively. In addition to these omissions, film bloggers have been firing up the Internet with their personal snub lists. The most popular titles I’ve listed in alphabetical order:
Beats, Rhymes and Life
The Greatest Movie Ever Sold
How To Die In Oregon
Life in a Day
Christopher Campbell who SPOUTS opinions on pop culture and movies makes the excellent point: Where are the social issue films this year? Noting that what we do have are “films about dance, photography, horse whispering, a monkey, Jane Goodall, inner-city football -- it's not exactly global warming.”
Some International Documentary Association colleagues have weighed in on the subject. Kirk Jackson, producer and director at Going Home Pictures writing about films that were omitted says, “I would like to have seen "To Be Heard" and "How To Die In Oregon" (assuming it was eligible) on that list, as they are some of the more resonating films I've seen this year.”
Shu Ling Yong, documentary filmmaker, adds, “The Interrupters should definitely have made it on that list too. Saw it at Sundance and found it incredibly gripping.”
Asif Kapadia, director of the highly acclaimed and similarly snubbed Senna, agrees with Shu Ling, calling the Academy’s snub of Steve James’s The Interrupters “madness.” To which Roger Ebert – a critic who nearly always hit the mark - tweeted: Shocker! James’s seminal documentary Hoop Dreams was controversially slighted back in 1994 as well.
From the shortlist, five nominees will be announced on January 24th. A few can be rented now from Netflix. And I recommend that you do. Here are the lucky 15 that made the first cut:
“Battle for Brooklyn"
"Bill Cunningham New York" (Netflix)
"Hell and Back Again"
"If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front" (Netflix)
"The Loving Story"
"Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory"
"Semper Fi: Always Faithful"
“Sing Your Song"
"Under Fire: Journalists in Combat"
Leigh Divine, producer/director, has the final word on the subject. “I was not surprised to see Semper Fi on there- extremely powerful, important story of a man's struggle to understand his young daughter's death and where that question took him. Incredible.”
Here is that astounding trailer.
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