Oscar's docu rules become hot topic

'Waltz With Bashir' won't be eligible because of change

NEW YORK -- A controversy is brewing over a change to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' feature documentary rules that has distributors and film festivals crying foul.

Because of the change -- which required a one-week qualifying run in New York by Aug. 31 -- one of the year's most buzzed-about docs, the Israeli animated film "Waltz With Bashir," won't be eligible for the documentary Oscar. A host of execs and festival veterans are calling on the Academy to revise the rule.

"I can't understand why the Academy is making it even more difficult for documentaries by saying you need some kind of shadow release," New York Film Festival topper Richard Pena said. "I don't see how this policy helps the greater good of cinema."

The Academy's goal -- as it has tinkered with its rules for documentary eligibility -- has been to encourage theatrical exhibition of docs with awards hopes.

Under the previous rules, that meant a docu had to be screened for one week in either Los Angeles or New York, while also logging 14 three-day bookings in at least 10 states.

For the upcoming 81st Annual Academy Awards, the rule was simplified: This year, contending docs are simply required to screen for one week in both Los Angeles County and Manhattan by Aug. 31.

But while a distributor could avoid New York under the old rules, under the new rule an early New York screening is required, and that has created the problem because distributors don't want to expose films to the New York media until they begin their formal rollouts.

The Aug. 31 deadline that the Academy imposes only exacerbates the problem for distributors trying to groom films for fall release tracks.

There's an added complication: If a film opens in New York for a qualifying run during the first half of the year, then the prestigious New York Film Festival, which insists on screening New York premieres, won't program it.

"It's always been disastrous to make films qualify in August," said Toronto International Film Festival documentary chair Thom Powers, one of the industryites calling for change. "The New York aspect makes it worse."

Michael Apted, executive committee chair of the Academy's documentary branch, explained that the New York requirement was part of an effort to simplify the qualifying process by reducing the number of cities involved. He said there was little that could be done about the early deadline given the volume of films being submitted -- about 90 this year -- to the branch's small staff.

"We're under a lot of pressure from the film festivals to make a change in the rules," he said. "But the most important thing for me is that we watch every film properly."

Right now, fest executives and filmmakers are lobbying Academy members ahead of a meeting of the documentary committee set for the end of October. Powers has enlisted 75 filmmakers to sign a petition supporting a compromise: Under his plan, screeners would be submitted by the end of August, but the actual qualifying runs could take place later than that.

Any further change in the rules, though, won't take affect this year. That will be too late for "Bashir," which has become Exhibit A in the current contretemps.

To qualify the movie for Academy consideration, distributor Sony Pictures Classics would have had to open it in New York months ahead of its planned Dec. 25 release. Major reviewers would have descended on the film, as they did when the ThinkFilm/HBO Docs unsuccessful tried to sneak "Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired" into Manhattan in March. And SPC wouldn't have had any hopes that the film would be selected by the New York Film Festival.

Opting for the fest, the distributor decided against qualifying the Israeli-language political toon in the docu category, thereby losing out on the possibility that it might have become the first film ever to qualify in the best foreign-language, animated and documentary categories.

While refraining from criticizing the Academy, SPC co-topper Tom Bernard said that early New York qualifying runs are problematic because of the media's aggressiveness in covering them. "If critics weren't now running out to see movies during their qualifying run, I think the New York Film Festival would have looked the other way with 'Bashir,' " Bernard said. "The whole process needs to change."

Critics point out a further irony: While a theatrical title like "Bashir" won't be eligible, at least one film that does not have distribution, Stacy Peralta's gang flick "Made in America," can be considered because the filmmakers paid for a qualifying run.

The problems come on top of other issues for docs. The rules further stipulate that a documentary can't be televised or appear on the Internet until 60 days after its qualifying run -- a rule that's rough on docs because many are funded by television. This year, one of 2008's highest-grossing docs, Fox Searchlight's "Young@Heart," won't be eligible because of a British TV airing.

Those arguing for changes to the docu rules say too many people are hurt by the status quo. "It's a big burden to festivals. It's a huge burden for filmmakers," Powers said. And Apted? "We'll look at everything at the meeting," he said.