Will new Oscar rules mean more love for Chicago documentaries?

January 24, 2012

Like many movie hounds I both love to watch and love to complain about the annual Oscars. But the rules governing how and why a film qualifies "for your consideration" are still kind of foreign territory to me (ironically, especially when it comes to actual foreign films). 

Oscar rules have been shaken up in recent years. For example: Until this morning's announcement, no one was sure how many "best picture" nominees there'd be. Nor, as far as I can tell, does anyone know why the number of films selected should be as big a reveal as which films were selected. (don't get me started on their quality.) 

But the biggest brouhaha is over very recent changes to documentary selection. In brief, as of the 2013 awards, non-fiction films will now require not just a theatrical release, but also a review in either the New York Times or L.A. Times to qualify.

Some doc fans view this development with suspicion. Does this give too much clout to a top-flight but small group of newspaper film critics and their editors? Others argue the new rules are a vast improvement on the previous system. The man charged with the changes - documentarian Michael Moore of Fahrenheit 9/11 and Roger and Me fame - hopes they'll at least prevent a "Hoop Dreams [from] happening again." 

That would no doubt be welcome news for Steve James, who didn't make it to Oscar prime time with Hoop Dreams in 1995 and whose critical hit The Interrupters was overlooked by the Academy this year. Not surprisingly, James' take on the new system for documentary selection is as subtle as his film's view of Chicago violence.

You'll hear more from him on this morning's Eight Forty-Eight - I'm curious to know whether he thinks the changes mean real transparency for what sounds like a terribly convoluted process.  

The harder question to answer may be this: Why can't Hollywood, the epicenter of movie production world-wide and the host of an annual awards ceremony that largely celebrates that fact, figure out how to put on an awards show that is actually good? Then again, maybe running rough shod over the usual space-time conventions of prime time television (over 3 hours long - really?) and putting your talent through the mill is real Hollywood style? 

So, if you want to dish about the Oscars - including which films did and did not get the nod - join me and a group of local film critics at the Gene Siskel Film Center today at noon. Leave the gown/tuxedo at home; bring lunch (cannoli welcome). 

Hear Eight Forty-Eight's Tony Sarabia's conversation with Steve James here: