Oscars: How the Academy's Rule Changes Will Impact the Next Race

THR's awards analyst dissects the causes and effects of the new rules pertaining to documentary and animated features.
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The Oscar-related rule changes announced Friday by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — in particular, those pertaining to the documentary feature and animated feature categories — received far less media coverage than recent developments regarding the best picture Oscar debacle and envelope-botcher PwC's future with the show. But make no mistake about it: They will have a far greater impact on the next Oscar race and perhaps many to follow. (Rules are reviewed annually by individual branch and category committees; the awards rules committee then reviews all proposed changes before presenting its recommendations to the board of governors for approval, which took place this year at the board's March 28 meeting.)

The new mandate impacting documentaries could be called "The O.J. Rule," since it was inspired by ESPN Films' O.J.: Made in America, the five-part, 7½-hour epic that the 277-member doc branch nominated for — and the entire Academy then awarded — best doc feature earlier this year. Many branch members had expressed reservations about nominating O.J., not because it's not great — almost everyone who saw it felt it is — but because they weren't sure it really was principally created to be a film doc rather than a TV docuseries and feared that recognizing it would encourage other TV networks and/or their film divisions to provide Oscar-qualifying runs for a multitude of docuseries before airing them on TV — something that the branch is not equipped to handle, inundated as it already is by traditional-length submissions. (This past year, 145 doc features qualified for Oscar consideration.)

What the doc branch declared on Friday was that, going forward, "multi-part or limited series are not eligible for awards consideration," and that it will be up to the doc branch's executive committee to adjudicate close calls. Interestingly, O.J. probably still would have qualified under the new rule, since its film bona fides were fairly established prior to its first TV airing, not only through a theatrical qualifying run, but prior to that through film-festival screenings at Sundance and Tribeca.

The same cannot be said for the highest-profile doc of 2017 so far: Netflix's Five Came Back, which likely will become the first victim of this new rule, should its backers still choose to formally submit it for Oscar consideration. That apparently was their intent when they gave it a theatrical qualifying run (as one 187-minute film) concurrent with its first TV streaming (in three parts running roughly an hour each) on March 31. The adaptation of Mark Harris' acclaimed book about five Hollywood filmmakers who served during WWII boasts A-list talent — with segments featuring the likes of Steven Spielberg and narrated by Meryl Streep — and rave reviews, as well. But it almost certainly would attract the scrutiny of the doc branch's executive committee, which, I'm told by sources close to the Academy, would, per the new rule, seek to determine the principal format for which the doc was created. In this case, the answer would seem to be rather clear: by and for Netflix streaming, which would lead to its Oscar disqualification.

Rest assured, though, that Five Came Back is unlikely to go without awards recognition; it almost certainly will receive an Emmy nomination later this year.

As far as the rule change impacting animated films, which opens up the process of selecting best animated feature nominees to an unprecedented number of Academy members, this one might be called "The GKIDS Rule." That's because it appears to have been inspired by the fact that independently made and/or distributed animated films — including nine over the last eight years from the aforementioned New York-based company — have landed best animated feature nominations that were coveted by the backers of big studio films, which cost much more to make and were seen by far greater numbers of people. Among the big studio animated films that were not nominated during that time span: Warner Bros.' The Lego Movie (the most egregious omission of all), Paramount's The Adventures of Tintin, Disney's Tangled, DreamWorks Animation's Rise of the Guardians and Universal/Illumination's Sing.

From the inception of the best animated feature category ahead of the 2002 Academy Awards through the Oscars held earlier this year, best animated feature nominations were determined by a committee comprised of roughly an equal number of Academy members from within and outside of the short films and feature animation branch, all invited to participate by the Academy. (Sources tell me the number was roughly 150, at best, which is a remarkably small representation for an organization that has numbered well over 5,000 for many years.) Committee service required attendance at Linwood Dunn Theater screenings of roughly two-thirds of all eligible animated features; attendance was carefully monitored, and nobody who came up short received a nomination ballot at the end of the process. For these reasons, it long was a struggle to find members willing to serve on the committee, and those who did agree to serve tended to be older and retired; the byproduct was that a large percentage of committee members — particularly veteran animators — supported films that employed traditional forms of animation (hand-drawn, stop-motion, etc.), of the GKIDS variety, over what some might call "edgier" animation.

On Friday, the Academy announced that any of its members who wish to serve on that committee now can do so and can do so by watching the films in theaters or at home on DVDs or via streaming on the Academy's secure website. This "opt-in" approach long has been employed by BAFTA and makes sense for the Academy, too, as it gets the organization out of the recruitment business, while also markedly improving the likelihood that the eventual nominees will have a wider appeal than many of those of recent years. For better or worse, the percentage of committee members who hail from the animation field now might be dwarfed by the percentage of committee members who do not. And, as was the case this past season, there will be nothing beyond "the honor system" to ensure that committee members have seen the number of films that they're supposed to have seen before voting. (You can be sure that many members of the public-relations branch who work on these films now will find time to volunteer to serve on the committee.)

In other words, the mountain that must be climbed for a GKIDS movie to land a best animated feature nomination just got a lot steeper. And the prospects of a nomination for high-profile studio movies — not just those from Disney/Pixar, but also Universal/Illumination (Despicable Me 3), Warner Bros. (The Lego Batman Movie and The Lego Ninjago Movie), Fox (Ferdinand) and DreamWorks Animation (The Boss Baby) — just got a lot better.

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