Our thoughts on the new Oscar Documentary rules

Well done to the Academy.

The Academy is changing the rules to make it harder for documentary films to be nominated - to the consternation of the documentary filmmaking community. Here at Dogwoof, it may be going against popular opinion, but we think this is a good thing. The irony is that the people who were complaining when the nominations were announced for the Oscars® that the best films were not nominated -  Senna;  The Interrupters; Tabloid; Fire in Babylon, are doing the same this month when BAFTA announced their documentary long list, (yes the documentaries are back at BAFTA after a too long absence).

Despite Errol Morris presenting the David Lean lecture to celebrate the reinstatement of the BAFTA documentary category, two months later, Tabloid, one of his best films, is snubbed and does not even make the long list.  Life in a Day and others are proving the more popular vote winners...so things need to change. It is as simple as that.

I think one of the big reasons is that Voters are asked to see as many films as possible within a category.  Documentary first rounds are judged by the relevant Chapters, experts in Documentary.   But the reality is that they are swamped with over 200 films to watch - there is no filter on the first round. Anything that played one day in Manchester or in Los Angeles on the screening week is a valid entry.  This does not result in wisdom of the crowds and results in a mess, a dumbed-down overwhelmed mass of low quality and high quality docs. The Voters can only possibly catch all these films on DVD screeners, not in screenings, thus favouring the Studio films that can support a wide DVD Awards campaign.  The Voters are therefore bashed into submission by the number of Docs, after all who can watch 300 Documentaries in 2 weeks apart from a film critic?

And so what happens is the Voters play safe and cherry-pick films to watch - the ones they have heard about.  So instead of watching say, the top 50 documentaries of the year, as rated by the New York Times, they are watching the studio documentaries like Senna and Project Nim;  the winners at Sundance and Tribeca, playing it safe and adding in a few eclectic random picks.  The Votes reflect that.  This means that the "best" films, the critically praised films, like The Oath, or The Arbor, miss out.  Apart from the odd statistical anomaly, (Journalists Under Fire, good but top 10, really? ) there are no surprises in the lists. The BAFTA list is a safe list. And that is a missed opportunity, as 2011 was a great year for Documentary.

So viva la change! It may be elitist, but if you cannot get a New York Times critic to watch your film, then maybe you don’t deserve to come to the party. And after all, it isn't the end of the world,  Dogwoof got no documentary nominations this year in the big parties, whereas we are sweeping the board at Cinema Eye, Spirit awards and the like... and we still think that Errol Morris, Steve James, Werner Herzog are the greatest directors around.  Even if Oscar doesn't love them

love from Dogwoof

For another view check out Roger Eberts take here

P.S. Be good to hear what alternative selection systems could work better for Documentary nominations for BAFTA and Oscars.  And we'll propose / champion the best suggestions.  

Two initial suggestions
- Adopt the Academy Awards Foreign Language process. So each Country gets to nominate ONE film for the Documentary category and these are then entered as the long list.  And produce from that a Shortlist of 15 films, round one, then 5 films for final voting.   USA and UK would have an interesting time getting down to One nominee, though you could put forward the Spirits award winner for example. and the BAFTA winner.  This way at least the rest of the world would get a look in.  Nostalgia for the Light anyone?
- Alternatively we could have a Eurovision Song contest style vote, with each country awarding Nil Points to UK, and 15 points to the entry from Sweden (Into Eternity?) At least we would have a lot of fun finding the winner., and each Documentary would have it's 15 minutes of fame.

Ideas on a postcard please, tweet to @dogwoof or email info@dogwoof.com