What the Doc Is Going On With the Academy’s New Rule Changes?

This year's documentary category left out Steve James' masterful The Interrupters. Will new rules prevent such a thing from happening in the future?

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Kartemquin Films

The Interrupters

It happens so often that its pretty much a tradition. A great movie gets completely ignored by those who choose the nominees for the Best Documentary Oscar.

The most obvious case is Hoop Dreams, the tale of two Chicago high school basketball players that happens to be one of the best American documentaries ever made. Other offensive, if slightly less notable oversights, include Fahrenheit 9/11, The Thin Blue Line and Grizzly Man. (The eventual Oscar winners, in those four cases above — Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision, Born into Brothels: Calcutta’s Red Light Kids, Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie and the colon-free March of the Penguins.)

This year, the Academy’s documentary committee has once again made a fool of itself by leaving two Werner Herzog films (Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Into the Abyss), Errol Morris’ Tabloid and, most egregiously, Steve James and Alex Kotlowitz’s The Interrupters off its 15-film shortlist. A film about former Chicago gang members who return to their communities and try to literally “interrupt” instances of violence through mediation and conversation, The Interrupters does not take as its subject cute animals or easily sentimentalized history. No, it dives deep into the bad parts of one of America’s great cities, grounding itself in very real questions of class and race and education and human nature. It’s a visceral, often troubling film, and one that needs to be seen. Yet the Academy didn’t think so, though. Which leads me to wonder, why do they hate Steve James so much?

(READ: Richard Corliss’ review of The Interrupters)

Part of the problem might be in the way that the Best Documentary nominees are chosen, a method that is set to change due to newly announced rules that will take effect for the 2013 Oscars. Follow closely.

Presently, a group of volunteers from the Academy’s 157-member documentary branch is broken up into several committees that then pick the films that end up on an initial shortlist of 15 films. From those 15, the entire documentary branch membership votes in five final nominees. After that, voting for the year’s best documentary is open to all Academy members…capable of proving they had seen all five nominees in a movie theater.

(Believe it or not, this is a step up from the way it used to be. At the time of the infamous Hoop Dreams snub, according to Steve Pond‘s Oscar history The Big Show, there wasn’t even a documentary branch to speak of. Instead, the committee responsible for choosing nominees was made up of volunteers from any of the other Academy branches who were able to make two screenings every week for three months. That is to say, anyone that had free time to kill. That is to say, old people. At the screenings, after fifteen minutes, attendees were made to vote using flashlights. If enough lights went on, that was the end of the movie.)

(MORE: See Hoop Dreams on the All-TIME 25 Best Sports Movies)

In both cases, complicated scoring systems gave small committees an inordinate amount of power to ramrod in their absolute favorites. Under the new rules, all 157 members will vote on the 15-movie shortlist and five nominee pool, followed by a vote in which all 5,783 Academy members will choose the best of the category. Additionally, rules forcing voters to see the films in theaters have been scrapped in favor of screeners — which anyone will tell you is the way a great many Academy members view any movie, documentary or no. What a logical set of new rules, right?


Except, for one additional, and odd, little wrinkle. In addition to the long-standing requirement that a film must screen theatrically in NY and LA for a one-week minimum, they must now also be reviewed in either the New York Times or Los Angeles Times. Though both papers have policies in which they review every film that screens theatrically for at least one week, it’s obviously odd for an organization to effectively cede part of the qualification process for its highest honors to an outside party.

This is all part of an effort to whittle down the number of eligible documentaries (124 this year, up from 101 last year) and effectively cut out movies that screen primarily on cable stations like HBO (see Martin Scorsese’s four-hour George Harrison documentary, or tomorrow’s Paradise Lost 3, which is on this year’s shortlist). As one Academy exec said, it’s about making sure that “worthy theatrical films” are the ones getting lauded. Of course, using the word “theatrical” when it comes to documentaries is absolutely meaningless, since the bulk of them gain nothing from being seen in a movie theater. Indeed, the way that many viewers watch them now — streaming at home through Netflix or On Demand — is often more complementary. No, what we’re really talking about here is the ability to find a distributor, scrape up an advertising budget and ensure coverage in a major newspaper. There are a great many worthy films that will fall short of that standard.

Never the films of Steve James, though. Despite his lack of Oscar success, he is a nonfiction filmmaker who will continue to make movies because he is insatiably curious about the world (specifically about America) and capable of getting people to talk to him where others would immediately fail. So why does the Academy hate Steve James? It doesn’t. Though the tiny number of people who were previously responsible for passing judgment on documentaries apparently did. Luckily for him and us, the laws have changed.

See: The Interrupters‘ Ameena Matthews on TIME’s Top 10 Performances of 2011

LIST: The All-TIME 100 Movies