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Rules of the Game: Entering the Academy Awards

By Chuck Workman

Golden Academy Awards glisten as they await to be bestowed.

Every year, when the Oscar nominations for Best Documentary are announced, the groans begin. How could they have nominated that? How could they leave out that one, the one the critics loved so much? lately the groans have been getting louder, and are being heard by the Academy itself. That doesn't mean that the Academy, or the members of the Documentary Committee, agree with all the complaints. But, for all its supposed faults, a case could be made that the Academy often ends up taking the longer, harder look.

Admittedly, the Academy has never been known for honing the cutting edge of the documentary. The accepted wisdom, partly true, is that the winners over the past few years, (and almost all the nominees), have been fine and solid films about important subjects—the homeless, the handicapped, the Holocaust—that don't make any stylistic waves, that are touching and engaging in a generally accessible way, and that inevitably appear on HBO or PBS. An important and emerging figure like Marlon Riggs, whose highly­ styled films and videos deal mainly with black and gay subject matter, told me he wasn't considering submitting his newest film, the controversial Tongues Untied, to the Academy; on the basis of the style and subject matter of his tough, unrelenting work, he didn't see the chance of getting one. I think he's wrong. Bruce Weber's Let's Get Lost was also tough, unrelenting, and exhilarating in its innovation, and it was nominated in 1988. But after speaking with Riggs, and meeting other equally aggressive filmmakers at this year's Flaherty seminar, I began to think that if more people knew about the mechanics of the nominating process, and the way the Academy worked with respect to documentaries, more serious artists might take advantage of the help an Oscar nomination would bring to their career, and as a result, the documentary—and Oscar—would be the better for it.

Although the Academy likes its privacy, it has never tried to keep secret the way the awards process works. Documentaries are nominated by a Committee open to the membership and appointed by the ruling Board of Governors of the Academy. (Other branches-actors, writers, editors, etc.—vote the nominations through their full membership.) The Committee is a fairly representative cross-section of Academy membership, which means a lot of members from the Actor's Branch, but also directors, editors, writers, and producers, (although, until recently, not nearly enough documentary professionals). The full Academy of 8500 get to vote on the winner, but only if they've seen all the nominees—usually at special Academy screenings set up for this.

There are currently about 50 members of the Documentary Committee who decide on the nominations. Unlike most film festivals and competitions there are no pre-screenings by volunteers. Everyone on the Committee sees every film, votes, and the highest vote-getters are nominated. Despite what you've heard, there's no influence peddling (other than the normal and harmless coffee-break gossip inherent in any group process).Actually, the idea that a distributor or producer could have any undue influence is amusing to many of the members of the committee, and quite insulting to others who don't welcome the idea of anyone tampering with something they take seriously. Members vote in secret and the votes are counted by Price Waterhouse. The members of the Committee don't know the nominations themselves until they're announced.

It isn't perfect. Many of the Members who can give this much time to the process are not nearly as active in the industry as they might have been earlier in their careers. They're older, and this might be one reason for the more traditional choices. Many of them believe, as too many critics do, that the subject of a documentary somehow determines its quality.

Certainly the Documentary Committee missed out in the opinion of many in not nominating The Thin Blue Line, Dear America, 28-Up and Shoah and several others over the years. Frederick Wiseman, the recipient of this year's IDA Career Achievement Award, has never been nominated. Several of docu­mentary's major names—among them Albert Maysles, Chris Marker, Les Blank, and Richard Leacock—either have never been nominated or haven't been nominated for years.

But the Documentary Committee is composed of informed professionals, on the whole politically savvy and quite committed to social reform. The problem that arises is simply in the different opinions about what a well-made documentary is,.especially when your favorite documentary, or—even worse—the one you made yourself, isn't nominated. But in every category the Academy Awards have always reflected the taste of Academy members for obviously "important" and "meaningful" work.

Recent changes in Documentary rules seem to indicate that the Academy is trying to catch up with the documentary of the 90's and beyond. More documentary filmmakers are now qualified to join the Academy, and they should be able to make their influence felt. Even the numerical system used _in weighting the Committee members' votes has been changed in a way that liberalizes the voting process. The Academy is also continuing to recognize the importance of outreach in the documentary community at large. (Until recently, Academy "outreach" in the documentary field consisted of listing a phone number and sending out a nomination application. Now with recent IDA programs, and especially through the efforts of Executive Director Bruce Davis and Special Programs head Douglas Edwards, there are more screenings, discussions, and public forums.) Conflict of interest has, of course, always been a concern of the Academy as a whole. While the legal problems are complicated, Committee members are certainly being encouraged to take a leave from the Committee if they have a film in consideration; they are not allowed to vote for or attend the screening or discussion of their own films.

Interested filmmakers should simply submit their film for nomination as they would for any award. As a member of several juries and panels, I can tell you that your film will be judged as fairly and as honestly by the Academy as by any other awards committee.

Chuck Workman's short film Precious Images won an Academy Award in 1987. His new documentary about Andy Warhol, Superstar, will be in theaters in 1991. He is a former president of the International Documentary Association.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has special criteria concerning the eligibility of documentary films. To ensure entry for the 1990 awards year, the following conditions must be satisfied:

  1. Films must have participated in a "recognized" film festival (within two years of completion date) between November 1, 1989 and October 31, 1990. In the case of a non-competitive film festival, the film must have been accepted for exhibition and screened. In the case of a competitive film festival, a film entered in competition must have won a Best In Category award.
  2. Or, any documentary is also eligible which is publicly exhibited (within two years of completion date) for paid admission in a commercial motion picture theater in Los Angeles County for a consecutive run of not less than a week between November 1, 1989 and October 31, 1990.
  3. Or, documentary films will also be eligible for award consideration (within two years of completion date) if they have been recognized by the Council on International Non-theatrical Events (CINE) in the form of a Golden Eagle Award.

For further information regarding Academy rules and regulations, contact the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences at (213) 278-8990.