Academy Rules Creating Documentary Dissonance

Written by Shelley Gabert on . Posted in Documentary


An Academy Award, known as "Oscar"By tightening the rules of eligibility for Best Documentary, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has managed to rile many of those who make them. Film Stew gives us the full picture on why documentary filmakers are angry about Academy rules.


When the French film Murder on a Sunday Morning (a.k.a. Un Coupable Idéal) won the 2001 Oscar for Best Documentary, all hell broke loose at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The overall membership bristled at the fact that a documentary originally aired on HBO's "American Undercover" series could find its way to an honor designated for theatrical non-fiction features. So much so that the whole debacle inspired new rules of eligibility.

"The reality is that the theaters which run documentaries are usually smaller operations and they don't use the super high-end DV formats stipulated by the Academy. "

At a recent International Documentary Association (IDA) workshop event, Academy Governor Freida Lee Mock tried to provide a concise overview of these much more stringent rules. What's proving to be the most difficult change in the rules is the Multi-City Theatrical Roll-Out, which has been upgraded from a four-city run to an eight-city run (eight cities in four different states). Technical specifications are another major issue, with documentaries needing to conform to 16mm, 35mm or 70mm film, and 24 or 48-frame progressive scan digital format.


"They have to essentially pay $30,000 for a 35-millimeter print that just sits on a shelf if the film doesn't get nominated."

"It's really the tail wagging the dog," said a longtime member of the Documentary Branch, who preferred to remain anonymous, in conversation with FilmStew. "Because everyone knows that documentary films generally make their money in television. It should be about getting the best films possible, not whether they're television documentaries or they run on television three months later."