Oscars: Doc Branch Revamps Eligibility Requirements for Contenders in COVID-19 Era (Exclusive)

Oscar Statuettes
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The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is bailing out documentary features that had their Oscar eligibility plans impacted by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, The Hollywood Reporter has learned.

This week, the Academy quietly updated the documentary rules for the 93rd Oscars, which are posted on its website, to reflect that "until further notice and for the 93rd Awards year only" doc features can qualify for Oscar consideration even if they did not "complete both a seven-day theatrical release in Los Angeles County and a seven-day theatrical release in the City of New York during the eligibility period," which was the standard for the 92nd Oscars.

In seasons past, merely being accepted into a film fest or two was not enough to get in the door — one had to win a specific award at certain film fests to gain automatic entry. But this season, if a doc was merely announced — or "programmed" — as a selection by more than one "qualifying" film festival, it is good to go. (The "more than one" requirement was undoubtedly included to winnow down the field to a manageable size.)

The list of qualifying film festivals is comprised of the Berlin International Film Festival, CPH:DOX, Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival, San Francisco International Film Festival, South by Southwest, Sundance Film Festival, Tribeca Film Festival and True/False Film Festival — several of which notably announced a lineup, but have been unable to take place because of the pandemic.

This season, the number of film fest awards that will result in automatic qualification has also been increased, and are spread across 36 different film festivals.

Moreover, docs that launched "through commercial streaming, VOD service or other broadcast" without having a festival showing or theatrical qualifying run can still be eligible if the film "had a previously planned theatrical release" and if the doc is then made available on the Academy's streaming service within 60 days of its streaming/VOD or broadcast. (Unlike with narrative films, the Academy cannot refer to a theatrical release calendar to verify a company or filmmaker's original intent, since release plans for docs are usually not stated far in advance, so it appears this will be a matter of taking one's word.)

And, when theaters reopen, the Academy will, for the time being, no longer require a weeklong release in both L.A. County and New York City, but will rather require a weeklong release in just one of five different cities: Los Angeles, New York, the Bay Area, Chicago and Atlanta.

In other words, there could be an explosion in the number of docs in the running. (One hundred fifty-nine documentary features qualified for the 92nd Oscars.)