Academy Adopts New Rules for Documentary Features and Short Films

Oscar Statue Portrait 2011
Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images

Oscar Statues on display at the Time Warner Center in New York February 25, 2010 during the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences "Meet the Oscars, New York " exhibition presented by Kodak. The exhibit will be open to the public until March 7, 2010 the day of the 82nd Academy Awards.

In an effort to respond to long-standing criticisms of its feature documentary selection process, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has issued a new set of rules affecting the eligibility of docs that will compete for the 85th Academy Awards in 2013.

The new documentary rules, approved by the Academy’s board of governors last month and announced Thursday, will open up the first round of voting in the documentary category to the full 157 members of the documentary branch.

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Under the current system, a shortlist of eligible films had first been determined by a vote of smaller committees drawn from the documentary branch.

Another major change in the doc area: Features that hope to qualify must play seven-day qualifying runs in both New York and Los Angeles, which is the case under the current rules, but they also must be reviewed by either The New York Times or The Los Angeles Times.

Under the current system, some docs have screened below the radar in locations such as Encino or Long Island in hopes of qualifying without attracting media attention — either because they were headed to a broadcast setting like HBO or because their actual theatrical release was scheduled for a later date to take advantage of the publicity that comes with nominations.

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The review requirement also is designed to limit the number of qualifying docs to films with real theatrical life as opposed to the much larger number of films that are primarily designed to play online or on TV and might make only token appearances in theaters.

The documentary branch’s selection practices, while they have been amended several times in recent years, drew new criticism this year when such relatively high-profile docs as Steve JamesThe Interrupters, Werner Herzog’s Into the Abyss, Errol MorrisTabloid and Asif Kapadia’s Senna failed to make the shortlist of 15 documentaries, from which the five best-picture nominees will be drawn.

But while the new system might resolve some of those issues, it also is likely to draw fresh criticism — especially from those filmmakers behind smaller docs who can't secure a distributor or a theatrical booking that attracts the attention of either The New York Times or The Los Angeles Times.

The new rules, however, will allow more Academy members to take part in the initial voting, which could result in movies with broader appeal making the cut.

To facilitate the change in the first round of voting, filmmakers will be required to submit 200 DVDs, an increase over the 30 DVDs that currently are required. In the final round of voting, Academy members must see all the nominated films, but under the new rules they will be allowed to view them digitally or on DVD, which should make it easier for more members to participate, since previously the films had to be seen either in commercial theaters or at Academy screenings.

The Academy also has revised the rules in its animated short film and live action short film categories, so that Academy members may view those films on screeners as well. Films that are shown during their theatrical run in a nonstandard format, such as Imax, will have to be submitted to the Academy in a standard theatrical aspect ratio and in a format currently accepted for Academy exhibition to remain eligible.