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Oscar Secret Weapon: Airing Documentaries on TV (Analysis)

Blackfish Still - H 2013
"Blackfish"

Nearly 21 million people saw "Blackfish" on CNN — surely many were Academy voters — as the small screen becomes the biggest ally in a push for attention.

This story first appeared in the Nov. 29 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Handicapping this year's best picture Oscar race is child's play. There's a potential 10 open slots, and, let's face it, there really are at most about two dozen movies seriously contending for one of those. The odds of squeezing in are almost 50-50. But the best documentary feature race -- now that's a tough call. It's partly because there are so many docs in play -- more than 150 films have been submitted. It's partly because so many of them are seriously good. And it also is because such new players as Netflix and CNN are jumping into the game, giving individual titles the type of wide exposure that could impact the race's outcome.

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Why is the doc competition hot and getting hotter? For starters, your average documentary -- at least, your average festival-approved doc that has made the cut at Sundance, Tribeca or Toronto -- usually is a lot more compelling than your standard studio release. (Docs tend to focus on real human beings, in all their complexity, whereas Hollywood movies all too often turn flesh-and-blood humans into cartoon cutouts.) This year's contenders are as different as Sarah Polley's Stories We Tell (in which the actress-turned-director stages re-enactments of scenes from her parents' marriage) to Joshua Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing (in which Indonesian death squads reimagine their crimes as if they were scenes from Hollywood movies) to more traditional but no less winning films like Morgan Neville's 20 Feet From Stardom (a celebration of unsung backup singers).

Then there's the makeup of the Academy's doc branch. It used to be a pretty insular club, but it's undergone a makeover. This year, 42 documentary filmmakers were invited to join. The branch now numbers 217 members and has instituted a new voting procedure. Instead of relying on several small committees to divvy up the films, rate them and produce the shortlist of 15 films that will be announced in early December, the branch has turned to all of its members, providing them with screeners of all the entries. Each of them will have a vote that will decide both the shortlist and the eventual nominees that will be revealed Jan. 16. No one expects everyone in the branch to watch all 150-plus movies, but the hope is that enough individual members will sample enough different films so that somehow all the movies will get a viewing.

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But here's where it gets wild. Movies that get a broadcast airing once they play their theatrical qualifying run could enjoy an advantage -- either during the phase one nominating process or during the final Oscar voting, which is open to the entire membership of the Academy. And those movies that get a boost from broadcast could enjoy an extra measure of buzz. For example, PBS' POV is airing Samantha Buck's Best Kept Secret, which looks at students with autism, and HBO has presented Lucy Walker's The Crash Reel, which recounts how snowboarder Kevin Pearce coped with a debilitating accident. That movie is returning to theaters Dec. 13 because the HBO airing served as great promotion, says Walker.

And suddenly, CNN, under its CNN Films label, is raising the bar even higher. Gabriela Cowperthwaite's Blackfish, about the mistreatment of killer whales at SeaWorld, was released theatrically by Magnolia. It then became the No. 1 CNN Films premiere of the year when it debuted Oct. 24 on the network. During the course of 17 airings, it attracted 20.6 million viewers. True, the movie was interrupted by commercials, which could undercut it in the eyes of some Academy viewers, but "the trade-off is the impact we were able to achieve," says Vinnie Malhotra, senior vp development and acquisitions at CNN. "A lot of documentary filmmakers are looking to have a conversation, and we were able to create a conversation that put the spotlight back on SeaWorld."

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Netflix also is betting that it can create a broader audience for docs. It recently picked up Josh Greenbaum's The Short Game, a look at young golfers, and Jehane Noujaim's The Square, an account of the Egyptian revolution. An audience award winner at Sundance and Toronto, The Square "is history truly unfolding in front of you on the screen," says Lisa Nishimura, Netflix's vp original documentary and comedy specials. Netflix, along with Participant Media, is planning theatrical bookings day-and-date with the film's arrival on Netflix during the first quarter of the year. And if the movie also is an Oscar nominee? "Working with the filmmakers and Participant, we'll certainly support a campaign," says Nishimura.

Oscar handicappers take note.