Hey, everyone. ”Moriarty” here. I find myself at a loss to explain a motherfucking thing the Academy does in regards to documentaries. Been that way for yeeeeears. Elston’s got something to say. Something you should take seriously if you care about the Oscars being any sort of fair indicator of quality.
Hello. Elston Gunn here. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have quietly established new eligibility rules for documentary features. In addition to a seven-day qualifying exhibition where docs have to play for at least seven consecutive days, twice a day, in either New York or Los Angeles, they now must complete a multi-state theatrical rollout of fourteen other markets (!) in at least ten different states (!!) twice a day for at least three consecutive days each. The seven-day qualifying exhibition also must be completed by August 31, 2007. So, any doc that premieres at this year's Toronto International Film Festival (which likes to secure world premieres) in mid-September obviously won't make that August deadline and therefore will have to wait for submission the following year (2009 awards show). Short documentaries now must also run in at least for additional cities in the U.S. once a day for two consecutive days. Furthermore, documentaries filmed digitally must be shot in a particular format and meet certain projection requirements if they want to avoid being blown up to 16mm, 35mm or 70mm. If the above mentioned requirements aren't enough, keep in mind these films still must be marketed in a way that is considered "customary" to the industry, and festivals or special screenings do not count toward the qualifying exhibitions. It's like the MPAA's screener ban all over again. Which is to say, that the smaller budgeted documentary features will be the ones to suffer. You could shoot the greatest documentary of all time for $100 on mini-DV and you're still going to have to jump through fiery hoops or pay a hefty price to get the Oscars to consider thinking about at least putting it on their nominee shortlist. "More engagements for qualifying means more money," says Mark Urman, THINKFilm's Head of U.S. Theatrical Releasing. "More importantly, 35mm prints need to be in Academy hands at the end of November. You need to pull the trigger on blowup before you get nominated and, in fact, before you even make the shortlist. You need to be very serious, confident and well-endowed to do so." "This new rule is like requiring a narrative feature to be released on 2000 screens in order to qualify for Best Picture," says Glen Reynolds, owner of the producer rep company Circus Road Films. "Hardly any documentaries get released over 10 states. So it will limit the choices to the few really big docs like AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH and then maybe a doc that some random financier managed to four-wall across the country. It’s too risky for distributors to put most documentaries out this wide." "Risky" is how Jonathan Caouette describes his film TARNATION, which he made for $200 (before film transfer and music rights), incorporating home movies and assembling it using iMovie. Caouette's film did eventually play in more than ten states and was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award, though. "I think there is so much unseen talent in this world and I was fortunate enough to have the endorsement of Gus Van Sant and John Cameron Mitchell to come on as champions for the film, so this helped TARNATION get the attention that it most likely never would have received," says Caouette. Many documentaries need nominations and awards to get the word out that they exist at all, especially those who aren't nurtured by larger studios. "I think, yes, awards in general do and can boost a film's profile, " continues Caouette, who is at work on three more films. "My film, personally, was a struggle because it was so way outside of the box in every aspect and just plain unprecedented. The fact that I really made this film initially for $200 and some change frightened the industry. Therefore, even sight unseen people were referring to the film as risky. No one at first wanted to buy the film until my distributor, God rest their soul, came on. Then the awards began happening and then people really started to notice it. Life is strange." "The sad part is that these new requirements actually will wipe out about seventy five to eighty percent of feature documentary submissions," says Curt Johnson, who won an Oscar for the short doc THOTH in 2002 and whose documentary YOUR MOMMY KILLS ANIMALS will be released in the fall (I did a Q&A with Johnson last year for AICN while he was in post-production on the film). "Not many people can afford all that just to fall into being considered for an Academy Award." Johnson continues, "With YOUR MOMMY KILLS ANIMALS I had to do sneak peek screenings around the country just to get the distributors attention along with the reviews so theaters would see that they could make money off it. Aside from Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock's docs, most people still don't view docs as a moneymaker and since my film doesn't take a viewpoint, that really confused the studios which forced me to do some real outside the box stuff to promote the film like a 6-foot bunny in Toronto and the music video that hits next month." However, the new projection rule threw Johnson for a moment. "That's the only tricky part for the film right now," Johnson says. "I was a little confused because if you blow your film up to 35mm, there are no restrictions on projector, but with HD, it's very specific. I met with the distributor and found out that getting a theater with that specific projector will add another $9,000 to the run. We're lucky that we shot it on the HD format that just falls in line with the requirement, otherwise I would've had to do the usual 35 mm blowup that costs around $29,000." That's a lot of extra capital to be spent by somebody. "It will cost a lot of money to see it through," adds Urman. "Films that don't have distributors or films with small distribs will take a beating. Bear in mind, a lot of films find distribution only after shortlisting. Who pays until then?" And if these new rules would've been in effect a decade ago, the awards and nominations list of years past could be unrecognizable. Says Urman, "I've had four nominees in the past five years and some of them would not have qualified, or I'd have had to spend a lot more to get them there with no guarantee of payback." Elston Gunn