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Notes from the Reel World: The Executive Director's Column, Winter 2013

By Michael Lumpkin

Dear IDA Community,

As the awards season ramps up, recent controversies over the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' criteria for its feature documentary Oscar have highlighted the importance of a theatrical run — if a filmmaker hopes to qualify a film for an Oscar. The Academy was founded to promote and celebrate films that show in theaters, so it's only natural that a film must receive a theatrical release before it can be considered for an Academy Award.

But even though it's always rewarding to receive recognition for your work, most documentary makers don't make films to win awards. They make them to move the widest possible audience with powerful stories, and to change hearts and minds. History has shown that a theatrical run may not be the best way to reach these important goals — especially if the audience doesn't show up. A look at the numbers gives a clear indication of what filmmakers are up against.

Between 1995 and 2012, documentaries accounted for 12 percent of the films released in theaters in the US. Yet over the same period, documentaries earned just slightly more than one percent of ticket sales—meaning that except for a few blockbusters, most of the seats at these screenings were empty.

Things look even more discouraging when you consider that a significant percentage of those viewers were attending high-grossing, big-budget, large-screen format IMAX films. In 2011, just 14 percent of documentaries showing in theaters were large-screen productions, yet collectively, these films took in 48 percent of nonfiction ticket sales.

Which seems to prove something most of us already know: Today, most people are seeing documentaries outside of theaters. Fortunately, all the great films showing up on our laptops, TVs and iPads also prove that a doc doesn't have to debut on a big screen to be worth watching.

That's why IDA doesn't limit its own annual documentary awards to theatrical films. Any documentary completed during the qualification period — in any format — may be considered for an award. It is our hope that our awards will help filmmakers gain the recognition that will help their movies to be seen.

Not that the IDA is ready to give up on theaters all together. There's nothing like the communal experience of watching a film in a theater with other viewers. The growing film festival circuit is proof that docs, competing side-by-side with fiction films for audiences, can get butts in seats and the attention of press. "Event" programming in movie theaters, especially the success of live opera playing in hundreds of movie theaters across the country, also shows that special-interest content can find its audience in a theatrical setting. If opera can figure this out, so can docs.

That's why, in addition to honoring all documentary films with our awards, we at IDA are always looking for new ways to help documentaries thrive on the big screen. In the meantime, congratulations to all the nominees and winners of this year's IDA Awards—no matter where or how their films were seen.


Michael Lumpkin
Executive Director