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Like every Oscar blogger, I get on the case of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences about things that I feel they’ve done wrong or could do better whenever they come up (i.e. this, this and this). I do it from a place of great affection and out of a desire for the organization and its members to be the best that they can possibly be, but I’m sure that my good intentions don’t keep those sorts of posts from being a pain in their collective ass.
It’s only fair, then, that when the Academy and its members do great things — and they often do — I should take note of those as well.
And so it is with great pleasure that I can report that I recently learned about two Academy members who are a true credit to their organization, in terms of the passion and diligence with which they approach their responsibilities. They are not household names. They are more than a little eccentric. But they, as much as any A-listers, are the sort of people that the Academy should be proud to count among its 6,028 voting members.
For the last two years, all of the members of the Academy’s documentary branch — who numbered 175 in 2012 and 210 in 2013 — were mailed massive boxes containing every documentary that had qualified for consideration for the best documentary feature Oscar. The idea behind this initiative was to make it easier for more branch members to be involved in the selection process; previously, only members who were based in Los Angeles had the opportunity to attend screenings of the eligible films. But what became clearer than ever when these boxes showed up — containing 124 films in 2012 and 147 films in 2013 — was that none of the branch’s members, regardless of their location, could possibly watch all of the films before they had to identify which 15 deserved to make it onto the shortlist from which the five Oscar nominees would eventually be chosen.
Or so I thought.
When I said as much to Mitchell Block, an Oscar-nominated member of the branch beside whom I was seated at the International Documentary Association’s IDA Awards earlier this month, he replied, “You don’t know Ken Rudolph, do you?” A few days later, I was on the phone with Rudolph and it quickly became clear to me that someone ought to make a documentary about him.
Rudolph, 72, has been a member of the Academy since 1975. He made several award-winning documentary and animated shorts in the late 1960s and early 1970s — which is why he was initially invited to join the Academy’s short films and feature animation branch (he later transitioned to the doc branch) — before shifting his focus to special effects and title sequences and eventually starting his own company, a boutique animation house called Kenimation. In 2007, upon arriving at the realization that CGI had rendered his services obsolete, he decided to retire. “I rode that horse as long as it was possible to ride,” he told me.
Without a spouse or children to attend to, he found that the best part of retirement was that he could watch as many movies as he wanted — which turned out to be a lot. “I’m very into film festivals as a hobby,” he said, noting that at the lengthy Seattle International Film Festival he liked to attend about 140 films over the course of just six weeks. He began watching around 500 films a year, in total, and writing about them on his website, which he had started back in 2000 “to keep track of what I was watching.”
When the Academy started sending him the boxes of documentaries to watch two years ago, he embraced the challenge, watching every single one of them (“I watch them alone”), writing analyses of them on his website and using a spreadsheet to record how he felt about each of them (“93 of the 147 from 2013 were 9s or above in my book, but then I’m an easy grader”) and how much time he spent watching them (“13,738 minutes, or 229 hours, in 2013″). He said with a laugh, “I’m not really obsessive-compulsive — but I have a little bit of that.”
Some find Rudolph’s behavior hard to understand. He, however, insists “it’s not a stunt. I love movies and I love documentaries and it isn’t an onerous task at all — except that I only had about a month to watch the last 80 and that became a bit tough. I limit myself to a maximum of five a day.” Rudolph said he communicates online with others who share his obsession with films. “There are a lot of people like me — maybe not a lot of Academy members, although most of them try to be diligent,” he said. “It helps to be retired. I couldn’t do it when I was actually working.”
Which begs the question: Is the Academy going about the selection process in the best way possible? “They have to do something about it,” Rudolph conceded. “147 entries is just too much. Last year, with 124, was a struggle! I don’t blame anybody for not watching them all. The people I know on the documentary committee are astounded that I actually do this.”
Recognizing that most branch members cannot or will not make the time to watch nearly as many of the longlisted films as Rudolph, the Academy provides each with a list of 15 that it encourages them to prioritize, “so at least somebody would have watched all the films on the list,” Rudolph explained. Branch members are also given access to a password-protected online message board on which they are encouraged to recommend docs that particularly impressed them — “But they limit it to 40 characters,” Rudolph sighed, “so you can’t really do any review. All you can do is mention a film you like.”
Eventually, branch members receive a ballot containing 15 lines, onto which they write the titles they feel deserve a slot on the shortlist. Rudolph objects to this system of voting. “Everyone should be rating all of the films that they watched instead of filling out 15 lines,” he told me, “because if you’re just filling out 15 lines then it’s obvious that the highest-profile films are going to have an advantage because those will be the ones that get watched first.” (He adds, a bit conspiratorially, “I think that was [documentary branch governor] Michael Moore‘s objective.”) “If everyone were to rate the films instead of ranking them, then a film that was great but wasn’t seen by as many people would still have a chance. The current system works out to be unfair, in my opinion.”
Rudolph, who certainly has a unique perspective on the matter, shared a case-in-point from this year’s doc longlist: “This year there’s a very good film called The Square and there’s another film called Uprising, which is almost the same film. However Uprising is 100 times better, in my opinion. But Uprising never got any publicity and The Square did, so I don’t know how many people ended up watching Uprising, which may have something to do with why The Square made the list of 15 and Uprising did not.”
While Rudolph said he feels that 2013 “was a great year for documentaries,” he also noted that of the 15 docs that eventually made the shortlist — 20 Feet From Stardom, The Act of Killing, The Armstrong Lie, Blackfish, The Crash Reel, Cutie and the Boxer, Dirty Wars, First Cousin Once Removed, God Loves Uganda, Life According to Sam, Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, The Square, Stories We Tell, Tim’s Vermeer and Which Way Is the Front Line From Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington — “only three of those films were on my top 15. Most of the ones I liked a lot more were obscure films that didn’t get a lot of publicity.” He says of his fellow branch members, “They didn’t get it ‘wrong,’ but they could have done better” — if, he was clearly implying, they had seen more of the eligible films, like him.
Rudolph emphasized that he was sharing these thoughts not to bust the chops of the Academy, but with the hope of making it even better. He feels that being a member of the Academy is “the greatest lifetime sinecure that one can have if one is a fan of motion pictures,” and that the best part of it is the access that it provides to documentaries, foreign-language films and shorts that few others get to see. (If you can believe it, in addition to his doc branch duties, he has also served on the foreign-language committee, which is composed entirely of volunteers from across the branches, since 1978 and has also watched every film on the longlist of Oscar-eligible shorts, which usually number around 30, each year until 2013, when he knew he would be overwhelmed with trying to watch all of the foreign-language films — but he did watch all eight films that made the shortlist.)
Might he ever have any interest in running for the Academy’s Board of Governors in order to share his ideas from a position of greater influence? “No,” he said. “I’m never in town when they meet because I’m always at a film festival. And I’m not a political person. Politics don’t interest me. Films interest me.”
Shortly after I spoke with Rudolph, I mentioned our conversation to Mark Johnson, the chairman of the foreign-language committee, marveling at Rudolph’s commitment to the doc branch. Johnson told me that Rudolph attends more of the foreign-language screenings than most, as well, and was pleased that I would be covering him but urged me to speak with Michael Goldman, too. Goldman, Johnson said, was also a member of the foreign-language committee — and had seen every film that had been submitted for consideration for the best foreign language film Oscar in the 21st century, including the 76 that were entered this year.
He had my attention.
Goldman, whom I reached by phone, is 74 years old and married with two children and two step-children. He retired from the business three years ago after a long and distinguished career. He had been president of Manson International, a large company co-founded by his father that came to specialize in the sales and marketing of independent American films in foreign territories, which led to his invitation to join the Academy as a member of its executive branch in 1975. Subsequently, in 1981, he founded the American Film Marketing Association (now known as IFTA), which sponsors the American Film Market to help sell American films overseas, and served several terms as its chairman. (He remains its chairman emeritus.)
As someone who clearly had a great personal and professional interest in foreign-language films, it was only logical that Goldman, upon joining the Academy, began volunteering on the foreign-language committee. After just four years, his knowledge and diligence had impressed Academy president Fay Kanin enough to prompt her to invite him to become a member of the foreign-language committee’s much smaller executive committee.
At the time, the executive committee’s responsibilities were fairly mundane — determining voting rules and procedures, adjudicating matters pertaining to eligibility, etc. But in 2008, after a string of high-profile shortlist snubs by the full foreign-language committee, the Academy, at Johnson’s urging, empowered it to henceforth meet after the full committee had picked its top six films for the shortlist to add on three additional films, forming a group of nine from which the five Oscar nominees would ultimately be chosen.
In order to know which films most merited a “save,” however, executive committee members would, presumably, need to have seen even more of the submitted films than the members of the full committee, who were expected to see no fewer than 80 percent of a specific one-quarter of the submitted films (which this year worked out to around 15). And, unlike the documentary branch, the foreign-language committee does not provide its members with screeners of the submitted films, meaning that members have to actually leave their home to see the films at Academy screenings in Los Angeles.
For Goldman, this was no problem: since 2001, the Los Angeles resident had never missed any of the entries. “It’s a self-challenge,” he explained to me. “There used to be fewer films, but there are more and more these days, which actually makes it more rewarding.” He regards each screening as a potential revelation. “You get wonderful surprises from strange countries. You wouldn’t think that Mongolia or Iceland would produce great films, but they really do.” And how does he manage to see such a huge number of films? “I just make it a priority in my life,” he said. “Once, while driving to a screening, I got a flat tire, so I hailed a taxi, left my car on the side of the street and came back for it afterwards.”
Goldman acknowledged that his “family suffers because of the engagements I won’t go to because I want to see the films,” which are initially screened on Saturday afternoons and Monday and Friday evenings but eventually build up to five nights a week. “But my wife is a native-born Italian who was raised in Argentina and moved to this country so we could be together, so she enjoys going with me to the movies that are in one of the languages that she speaks, or that have some reputation.” Most of the time, though, he attends the screenings alone.
When asked about this year’s best foreign language film Oscar race, the shortlist for which was announced last week — Belgium’s The Broken Circle Breakdown, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker, Cambodia’s The Missing Picture, Denmark’s The Hunt, Germany’s Two Lives, Hong Kong’s The Grandmaster, Hungary’s The Notebook, Italy’s The Great Beauty and Palestine’s Omar — Goldman said that he didn’t feel that he should share his thoughts until after the Oscars. (Besides, he’s got other things to focus on: in the meantime, he also serves on the student film committee, watching 50 to 70 student films per year — albeit none of which have runtimes of more than 40 minutes — because he wants “to encourage as many young people as possible to get into the film business.”)
He did, however, say that the degree to which the foreign-language shortlists and nominations have been criticized in recent years strikes him as unfair. “I think it is impossible to come up with a shortlist of nine films without making a group of people unhappy about something or other,” he elaborated, and granted that not announcing a shortlist at all “would probably bypass a lot of the problems.” But the bottom line, he said, as someone who has been a part of all of the general and executive committees’ deliberations in recent years, is that “the films are discussed very thoroughly before they’re voted in, and I am very satisfied with what goes on.”
* * *
So the next time someone disparages the Academy’s AARP-aged members (who are often collectively described as out-of-touch simpletons) and/or dismisses the members of the Academy’s documentary branch and/or foreign-language committee (the shortlists and nominations of which are often criticized for what they exclude rather than celebrated for what they include), we should all remember that things aren’t quite as black-and-white as all that. For while there are undeniably things that the Academy can and should do — and is doing — to diversify its membership and improve its voting processes, there are also some members who fall into both of the aforementioned groups who are already contributing over and above what anyone could reasonably expect and who don’t deserve our flak.
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