Will the revamped Oscar rules pertaining to eligibility requirements for documentaries level the playing field for fledgling filmmakers submitting their work for Academy Award consideration in the coming years ahead?
Is famed documentarian Michael Moore a despicable ogre out to raise the "bar" so the lofty dream to snag the coveted trophy is just beyond their reach?
And, why is the Oscar nominating process dominated by a majority of old (rich) white men (to the exclusion of women and minorities?).
Those were a handful of the issues raised at a panel discussion hosted by IDA (Independent Documentary Association) Board President Marjan Safinia on Monday night at the Cinefamily Theatre on Fairfax Avenue in Hollywood proper as the Oscar celebrations loom large on the horizon.
The illustrious guest list also included Steve Pond (a columnist for "The Wrap"), Dana Harris (an editor-in-chief @ Indiewire), James Moll (an Executive Committee member of the Documentary Branch of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences), and Dustin Smith (a VP for acquisitions at "Roadside Attractions").
Tattler readers may recall that I published a post on the upcoming rule changes which have understandably caused an uproar in the documentary film community in recent weeks.
Some filmmakers in attendance at the event - who found Moore's recent interviews on news tabloid shows a little cavalier - pointed an accusing finger.
For example, one highly-vocal individual below the footlights actually pooh-poohed Moore's notion that a gentleman (who called in on a local talk-show to quiz the filmmaker personally on air) interested in crafting a short documentary on his hobby - "golfing" - would have a better chance shooting for the gold now in spite of the "hoops" he'd have to go through under the new set of criteria.
"He (Moore) was misinformed," one irate filmmaker lamented to all within earshot in disgust.
A bone of contention?
The Academy is proposing that to be eligible - a filmmaker must not only have a "legitimate" screening in a recognized theatrical venue outside of the "festival" circuit - but also secure a critical review in either the New York Times back east or in the Los Angeles Times on the West Coast.
A tall order to fill, you betcha!
"Just ask Kenneth Turan or Betsy Sharkey (both are film critics)," one upstart angrily retorted to all within earshot.
"Quite a few of the newspaper reporters have been laid off. The reviewers won't have the time to write critiques for one-hundred-and-twenty-or so potential nominees each year come Oscar time."
In addition, others expressed their fears that a published "review" by a sophisticated "worldly-wise" (potentially cynical) film critic might ring the death knell, too.
"If the review is negative, there's no way the doc will get a nod from Academy members," one huffed in frustration.
James Moll (a voting branch member at the Academy) heartily disagreed.
"The rules only stipulate that there be a review. Whether the critique is a good one or a bad one is neither here-nor-there," he assured the filmmakers who were sitting on the edge of their seats by now stewing.
The Academy, in my estimation - and based on the information I have been privy to - is simply seeking to implement a set of criteria that guarantees a bona-fide theatrical release that holds up to legitimate industry standards.
In retrospect, all the speakers fessed up that - true - there has been quite a glut of documentaries submitted in recent years.
And, no argument here, the larger percentage of the projects have been crafted for television.
Moll was quick to denounce what amount to underhanded - under-the-table efforts by a scurilous few - to circumvent the professional process.
Apparently, a slew of filmmakers have screened their precious documentaries in out-of-the-way venues in the past - in Fallbrook, for instance (the fall guy, that night) - in a deceitful attempt to have it "both ways".
"They want to meet the eligibility requirements on the sly - without drawing attention to their project - so that they can premiere it on television later."
In essence, the filmmaker manages to kill two birds with stone, in that event.
For instance, if the filmmaker nabs an Oscar nomination after a somewhat "shady" theatrical release, the prestigious honor will be leveraged to-the-max after-the-fact to promote their project when it is released at a high-profile red-carpet high-event.
"The Oscar was designed to honor the best of film for the year in which the projects were theatrically-released. Exploiting the "Oscar" as a publicity tool was never the intent of the Academy," Moll argued in no uncertain terms.
To ensure the integrity of the system was not compromised, IDA jumped into the fray a few years ago, with the specific aim of providing a venue for struggling filmmakers that met all the criteria Oscar's handlers hammered out so diligently.
The standards for a theatrical release are crystal clear:
*The doc must screen for at least one week at a professional venue
*The venue must publish the date of the screenings in a local daily
*A Festival does not constitute a venue for the purposes of a Theatrical Release
By the way, the mere mention of a Los Angeles Times report that was published this past week on the make-up (and precise number) of vote-casters at various branches of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences triggered an outcry as well.
"Ninety-eight percent of the voting committee members are old white men," one pushy documentary filmmaker scoffed.
"Once the holiday is over tomorrow, people need to call the Academy and ask why that is," lamented Dana Harris.
At this juncture, I slumped down a little uncomfortably in my plush leather seat.
Gosh, I wonder why.
Could it be because I am a member of that elite club?
No wonder the issue of "rules changes" has reared its ugly head.
If you read between-the-lines, obviously, a posse of filmmakers got caught with their hands in the cookie jar.
In my humble opinion?
The Academy is heading in the right direction.
Change is as good as a breath of fresh air!
Stay posted for updates, eh?