Oscars: Why the Documentary Race Can Be a 15-Month Slog

Why the Documentary Race Can Be a 15-Month Slog - Graphic - H 2019
Courtesy of Neon; Netflix (2); TIFF

For narrative features, a debut at a fall festival often is considered the best path to Academy Awards glory. But when it comes to docs, most succeed with much earlier starts.

Think the road to Oscar glory runs solely through the fall festivals? Not when it comes to docs it doesn't.

Of the 15 nonfiction films shortlisted in December for the best documentary feature Academy Award, only Feras Fayyad's Syrian survival story The Cave had its world premiere in fall 2019. The other 14 bowed before Cannes even kicked off in May.

Sundance in January served as the launchpad for a whopping nine of them, while SXSW in March and Tribeca in April premiered one apiece (For Sama and The Apollo, respectively). The other three had their bows in fall 2018, spending nearly 15 months building word-of-mouth.

And therein lies the oft-ignored secret to the doc shortlist: It's a slog, built on intra-filmmaker recommendations and the steady stacking of festival laurels and pull quotes.

On paper — analyzing 10 years of nominees — the most successful strategy runs something like this: First, land a world premiere spot at Sundance (easier said than done, given that some 2,600-odd docs submit). For an extra boost, win an award, guaranteeing selection at several highly regarded second-tier spring festivals: say, Hot Docs, True/False, Full Frame or Sheffield Doc/Fest.

Next, nab a jury or audience prize or two at those fests and build word-of-mouth. Have a major distributor on board by this point and use the summer to launch a limited U.S. theatrical release for Oscar eligibility.

Come fall, try to land a spot on one of the more prestigious documentary roundtables, such as the SCAD Savannah Film Festival's Docs to Watch panel or the increasingly important DOC NYC Shortlist. (Eleven of the films on DOC NYC's November list of 15 appear on the Academy shortlist as well.)

These are the nine films that took the Sundance route this year: $9 million box office breakout Apollo 11; Gotham Award winner American Factory; IDA and PGA nominee Advocate; double Sundance winner Knock Down the House; triple Sundance winner Honeyland (also on the Academy's international feature film shortlist); Sheffield Doc/Fest winner Midnight Family; Sundance and Full Frame winner One Child Nation; and Netflix timely political docs The Great Hack and The Edge of Democracy.

Film gurus love to tell you that a Sundance rejection isn't the end of the world. And it isn't. But the numbers don't lie: It's an uphill battle for Oscar if you don't start in Park City.

An alternative strategy to starting at Sundance? Launch in the fall at a major festival such as Telluride, Toronto, Venice or the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, resist the urge to qualify for Oscar right away and spend a full calendar year building buzz. The scenic route paid off this year for John Chester's The Biggest Little Farm (Toronto premiere in September 2018), Victor Kossakovsky's Aquarela (Venice 2018) and Alex Holmes' Maiden (TIFF 2018).

Sony Pictures Classics handled the U.S. releases for the latter two, opening Maiden theatrically in June and sending Academy documentary branch members copies in July, allowing them a good half-year to screen it.

"It's been a long road," says SPC co-founder Tom Bernard. "To me, the most important thing with the Oscars is just to get people to watch the film. I don't believe that you're going to convince an Academy member with a big ad or robocalls. It's all about, 'I have to see it.' That's how Maiden got to where it is — we got enough people to see the film."

The 15-month route also was taken by recent nominees such as Talal Derki's Of Fathers and Sons, Steve James' Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, Fayyad's Last Men in Aleppo and John Maloof and Charlie Siskel's Finding Vivian Maier.

Of course, there are exceptions to the rule — most notably Laura Poitras' 2014 Oscar winner Citizenfour (which debuted at the New York Film Festival) and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin's 2018 winner Free Solo (Telluride).

Both launched with such immediacy and to such cacophonous acclaim that they were able to secure shortlisting, nomination and victory in just a few months, dominating the conversation with shock-and-awe campaigns. It's a strategy that Nat Geo — fresh from its Free Solo triumph — is seeking to repeat with Fayyad's Toronto audience winner The Cave. It's risky, but the film is stunning.

Be warned: Plenty of docs fail with the faster strategy. The strong Aretha Franklin film Amazing Grace tried in 2018, blowing its epic 46-years-in-the-making story with an ill-advised one-month Oscar campaign after its November premiere.

Doc branch members just didn't have enough time to see it. Ditto Lauren Greenfield's The Kingmaker, Alex Gibney's Citizen K and Alla Kovgan's Cunningham, which all premiered in fall 2019, qualified and missed the shortlist.

Take your time, documentarians. Be the tortoise, not the hare.

This story first appeared in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.