Let’s Finish the Oscar Doc Overhaul

When AMPAS announced its new documentary rules this week, I thought the idea of having a New York Times or Los Angeles Times review be a qualification for the Oscars was a good idea. Putting outsiders who have no stake in the results in a position of defining what is considered “theatrical” is a brilliant stroke. This is especially true of the New York Times, which has a commitment to review everything that plays a full week run in New York City. Their definition of a theatrical run has included venues like MOMA and films that have opened day & date on VOD, so this should not be a difficult obstacle for any film that mounts a real theatrical release.

On the other hand, there is still an obstacle created by the rules that I strongly feel is not only unnecessary, but is destructive to the integrity of the award. Earlier today I expressed my displeasure in two tweets and the reaction was so strong that I felt that I should use more than 140 characters to flesh out what I was referring to. The tweets were as follows:

In case you didn’t know, @MMFlint is Michael Moore, who has been credited with influencing the Academy’s change of rules.

The problem I am referring to is something that I have been preaching for a long time. In fact, the best way to describe it is to quote an email that I wrote to Sid Ganis, who was then the President of the Academy, in 2005. Things have changed technologically since that time, but the issue is the same. Here is what I wrote:


The current rules require a one-week theatrical run in either NY or LA at a minimum. The film must play in 16mm, 35mm or a very specific set of specifications that allow it to be exhibited digitally. The vast majority of documentary films are shot digitally these days, and in a wide variety of video formats, but mostly in mini-DV format. This includes such acclaimed work as “Mad Hot Ballroom,” “The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill” and “Darwin’s Nightmare” just to name a few. Taking such work and making it conform to the so-called D-Cinema standard, not only doesn’t make the work look any better on the big screen, but at times can actually make it look much worse. For example, a film called “This Old Cub” qualified for the Oscars last year through a one-week run at the Laemmle Fairfax theater. In order to qualify, the film was transferred (as per the requirements) to 24 fps from the original 30 fps. The artifacts of the transfer were so horrifying that the film was played at 24 fps only once per day to make sure it qualified, and then played the balance of its showings in 30 fps. The required transfer cost the filmmakers money they didn’t have, and the result was unusable for any other purpose.

In some cases filmmakers have resorted to making a $10,000 kinescope that nets a terrible transfer to 16mm—again, not usable for any other purpose.

It would seem to me that there is a discussion to be had about whether the current rules are not taking into account the reality of how most documentaries are made these days. Inadvertently, the current rules favor filmmakers with money over those who do not have the resources, and they create a scenario in which many films are forced to actually sacrifice picture quality in order to be eligible. Certainly, based on how highly Academy members revere the highest technical standards, this is not what was intended.

Don’t you think that the filmmakers are the best judges of how their films ought to be seen? I might add that independent theaters and festivals around the country and around the world have systems in place that are entirely suitable to exhibit this type of work, that are seen by audiences as having true theatrical quality, but are cheaper to employ and do not require the compromises in quality that the current Academy mandated spec requires.

As an Academy member myself, and having served on the documentary committee, I am painfully aware that there are many issues involved in this discussion, but given what is at stake, I believe it is worth a discussion.

Ira Deutchman

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