No screening series in Los Angeles this year is poised to have as direct an impact on the Oscar race as DocuWeeks. Produced by the International Documentary Association (IDA) and running July 30 through August 19 at the ArcLight, the event will feature local premieres of 17 feature films and five shorts, many previously feted by prestigious festivals (see sidebar for our Critics' Picks). By participating in DocuWeeks, each film will instantly satisfy the rigorous regulations put forth by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to qualify for nomination in the Documentary categories at the 2011 Oscars.
This bureaucratic clearance doesn't come cheap: The films selected by IDA for the lineup pay to play. IDA charges up to $20,000 per film, depending on the running time and format; in an additional pricey convolution, they mandate that selected films be converted to a film print or Digital Cinema Package (DCP), adding thousands of dollars for most filmmakers. Despite the costs, there's more than enough demand for IDA's service to keep up with supply: This year's 17 features represent less than 15 percent of the films submitted. It's hardly news that Oscar glory can be purchased — this is business as usual for studios, particularly when it comes to steamrolling the playing field to make room for "unlikely" contenders, such as Slumdog Millionaire. But only in the documentary categories are AMPAS' qualifying rules so limiting to the filmmakers they intend to reward that a third party has stepped in to offer aid in satisfying those rules, for a price.
AMPAS' current laws stipulate that a doc has to complete a seven-day commercial run, with at least two shows a day, on at least one screen in both Los Angeles and New York by August 31, 2010, before any kind of television broadcast or Internet dissemination. Easy enough for films released by studios or Oscar-savvy art-house distributors but less feasible for the average film festival–feted documentary. DocuWeeks essentially gives its dozen-and-a-half films a leg up in competing for a seat alongside docs with deep-pocketed backers.
According to IDA Executive Director Michael Lumpkin, its fee "is competitive with" the price of an independent theater rental; for the money, filmmakers get the theater booking, print advertising and a publicist. And when it comes to visibility in the Oscar race, says Lumpkin, "I think filmmakers also get an advantage, being in DocuWeeks. People take notice." Those people presumably include Oscar Documentary branch voters, who have awarded six feature-length IDA selections with nominations since 2005.
Is that advantage worth the cost? Not according to one director of an award-winning doc opening this year, who chose not to submit the film to DocuWeeks, even though it won't qualify for a nomination otherwise. Speaking on condition of anonymity (few would knowingly risk alienating the IDA, which offers myriad resources to doc filmmakers throughout the year), the filmmaker called the IDA program "a Band-Aid solution to the real problem: outdated Academy qualification rules that discriminate against truly independent films."
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Such alleged discrimination is probably unintentional. The ostensible point of AMPAS' restrictions is to favor films that have had some kind of meaningful theatrical release, advertised to and attended by "regular" moviegoers. It's a noble goal, but the rules themselves can be (and often are) cursorily satisfied with barely publicized, sparsely attended runs in out-of-the-way theaters. In practice, a film that played two matinees a day to an empty house at a remote multiplex like the Fallbrook is eligible for an Oscar, while a film that has won multiple prizes at film festivals around the world is not. "It's easier for a rich guy to qualify his vanity film for the Oscars than it is for a filmmaker to qualify a low-budget film that goes on to become a genuine commercial and critical success," says the anonymous director.
Director Robin Hessman, whose film My Perestroika is part of the DocuWeeks lineup, puts it this way: "I think any time there are requirements that cost an additional expenditure of money, it's going to put independent filmmakers at a disadvantage." For Hessman, who has a theatrical run planned for early 2011, long after the academy's August 31 deadline, DocuWeeks offers the best solution for navigating a daunting process. "With this film, I have poured myself so completely and thoroughly into it for so many years that to not even toss the proverbial hat in the ring for the Oscar would have felt like letting the film down," she says. "IDA has the resources, experience and infrastructure to devote to this effort. I feel fortunate to be part of their program, and to have the anxiety taken out of the equation."
Despite the costs and obstacles, "documentary filmmakers really love chasing the Academy Award," says AJ Schnack, a filmmaker and the documentary scene's highest-profile blogger (and, in the interest of disclosure, a friend), whose film Kurt Cobain: About a Son qualified in 2007 via DocuWeeks but failed to net a Best Documentary nomination. His next feature, the Denver DNC verité Convention, was Oscar disqualified by its concurrent availability in theaters and on VOD. Schnack suggests that we blame not the players but the game.
"The process set up by the Academy is a challenging one at best," Schnack says. "DocuWeeks is probably the best option within a fairly broken system."