By Drew Williams
Technology and tradition collide, and a forward-thinking documentary industry may have to reconsider its Oscar addiction following a recently announced New York Times decision.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences currently requires a review from either the New York Times or Los Angeles Times to qualify a documentary feature film for award consideration. But the New York Times shifted its policy of reviewing every theatrically released film in New York City, Variety reported May 20. It is a move that could particularly target independent documentary films — which stand at an existential crossroads regarding style, distribution, and awards recognition.
The Academy will have its annual meeting this month to discuss any potential rule change, while the Los Angeles Times will have to decide whether to copy its New York counterpart. “I can’t imagine [it] not following suit,” said Nina Gilden Seavey, director of the Documentary Center at George Washington University.
The new film review policy went into effect in February, but did not become public until Variety obtained a courtesy email sent to publicists whose films will not receive a review, said A.O. Scott, the Times’ chief film critic, in an interview with IndieWire. “The number of New York releases has continued to grow each year, driven in part by our policy of reviewing everything,” Scott said, adding that financial considerations made that course untenable.
The Academy’s decision to “have an independent publication be the arbiter for the qualification of a major national award” was a controversial one even before this development, Seavey said.
Which films deserve a newspaper review and which films deserve an Oscar consideration are ostensibly separate arguments in the modern age of media.
And in worthiness for Academy and critic alike, a nonfiction film’s release platform — theatrical, television, video-on-demand, or digital streaming — looms almost as large as its quality.
“If a film is released by a distributor, it will get reviewed. I don’t think anybody is questioning that,” Seavey said. “What it leaves in sort of this no-man’s-land are these films that are either self-distributed or four-walled.”
Four-walling refers to the practice of renting out a theater to release one’s own film, often for the publicity garnered from a Times review — even the worst critique contains a pull quote — or, by extension, an Oscar consideration.
As Scott noted, New York City and the Times increasingly provided a haven for vanity projects, and some in the industry expect that the majority of films newly excluded from the Times will be unlikely to succeed or win awards in the first place.
But four-walling has not been limited to low-budget films looking for exposure. “This is really a stab at HBO in particular, who has been four-walling their films and getting reviews for them,” Seavey said.
Television-network backed films that do well on the festival circuit may open theatrically in New York just for the qualification — a scenario that has produced winners in the past and could produce controversy in the future, said A.J. Schnack founder of the Cinema Eye Honors and director of “Kurt Cobain: About a Son”.
“Citizenfour” — winner of the 2015 Oscar for documentary feature — was not four-walled, peaking at 105 theaters nationwide, but did premiere on HBO the night after its Oscar win. Dividing its domestic box office earnings by the average ticket price in 2015, only roughly 345,000 of HBO’s 28 million subscribers would have had to watch to match the theatrical audience.
The 2008 Oscar winner “Taxi to the Dark Side” made only $274,661 in theaters domestically, before being aired on BBC and HBO. “The film won the Academy Award but … it wasn’t a traditional, and I would argue wasn’t a legitimate, theatrical release,” Seavey said.
Documentary releases that utilize multiple release platforms — often emphasizing digital over theatrical — are less akin to industry predators than cinematic Darwinists, adapting to survive in a competitive field.
“How do most people see documentaries? They see them on TV… they see them on Netflix, they see them on iTunes, they see them streaming,” Seavey said.
The initial release loses financially, but wins a slew of high-profile publications able to deliver the ultimate goal: “Five great things to try to sell the film to Netflix,” Schnack said. New York theaters are often just a pawn in a documentary’s PR press game.
“Documentaries in general — a lot of these films don’t merit the cinematic experience,” Seavey said, adding, “if you look at Citizenfour, I don’t think anyone would argue that it was a cinematographically beautiful film — it just happened to be a thriller.”
Even as films take various shapes and sizes, the Oscars are undeniably about the cinematic experience. And therein lies the disconnect: a documentary industry simultaneously focused on the frontier of distribution technology and the most old-school of celebratory circles.
The feature documentary Oscar “has an amazing heritage and tradition — it’s an award that was won by Walt Disney and Jacques Cousteau,” Schnack said. “It’s seen as one of the highest profile platforms that you can have as a documentary filmmaker.”
The exaggerated value some afford the award can result in tunnel vision, and inadvertently constrain the creativity of documentary films.. “There’s two Oscars given to documentary every year. The idea that somehow that defines the form is slightly terrifying, but in some ways it does,” Seavey said.
Filmmakers driven by Academy Award ambitions walk a tightrope of voter expectations from the moment the concept takes life. “If you look at most Oscar contenders, they tend to be pretty mild films in terms of their controversy,” she said, adding that older members of the Academy predominate the voters who actually watch most of films nominated.
Realistically, the Gotham Awards, Director’s Guild of America, Spirit Awards, International Documentary Association, Emmy Awards and Peabody Awards are equally important avenues of documentary recognition, Seavey said.
The Academy and the Los Angeles Times will likely make their decisions soon. But for the documentary industry, these structural decisions are a staple of its old territory, not the frontier it develops — a frontier of peer recognition, online views and online reviews, and theatrical releases of the home theater variety.
The decisions that matter lie with individual critics: how they use their newfound freedom to bridge physical and cyber, and whether they share Scott’s hope for review change: “As digital platforms and non-theatrical release options occupy more and more of the landscape, we’ll be better able to figure out how to address them.”