How Documentaries Finally Got Serious About Oscar Season

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More and more contenders are showing up late in the game.

Filmmaker Ava DuVernay with Newt Gingrich during the making of ‘13th’ (Netflix)

Just a few months ago, none of us had heard of Ava DuVernay’s 13th. Now it’s considered the frontrunner for the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. The film, which recently opened the New York Film Festival before hitting Netflix (and some theaters) last Friday, is already proving to be a real awards contender. The inaugural Critics’ Choice Documentary Awards announced its nominees yesterday and named 13th in five categories, two of them being for best documentary feature (one is for theatrical releases, the other for TV/streaming releases). DuVernay also is up for a directing award.

It’s never been rare for docs to be unknown long before their release. Their productions aren’t followed closely online like other movies. But 13th was even more secretively produced than most. The film literally came out of nowhere to top the field, leaving all the previous doc hopefuls, many of them as usual out of Sundance, to fall to the side. Nonfiction films didn’t used to be big players in fall release. Now they’re joining their narrative counterparts as heavy hitters during Oscar season. Other newcomers with potential include Before the Flood and I Am Not Your Negro.

The main reason that docs have just recently become hot commodities for fall release is the Academy extended the deadline for qualifying theatrical runs five years ago. Before 2011, a documentary had to play by the end of September, while now it has until the end of December. Rarely would a doc debut at a fall festival and then wind up nominated for the Oscar, with The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers being one example. Most of the time, a doc that debuted at, say, the Toronto International Film Festival, would need another year to go by before eligible.

After the rule change, we saw at least one nominee come out of the previous fall’s festival circuit every year. Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory in 2011, The Gatekeepers in 2012, Citizenfour, which also showed up out of nowhere for a NYFF premiere, in 2014, and Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom in 2015. We can also include The Square in 2013, though that was a unique sort of re-premiere after the film initially debuted in another form earlier in the year at Sundance. Citizenfour is the biggest upset of them all since like 13th it was a totally secret film and even went on to win the Academy Award.

In the past few years, docs still weren’t a big deal during Oscar season, as even The Look of Silence waited 16 months between its Toronto 2014 premiere and its Oscar nod in 2016. And Toronto 2015-programmed music docs Miss Sharon Jones! and The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble – the latter one of the biggest box office successes of the year – could be named when Oscar nominations are announced in January. And of this year’s fall festival premieres, Steve James’s ABACUS: Small Enough to Jail is among those holding off until the next awards cycle.

Many docs crowding into Oscar season this year are primarily heading to the small screen, with 13th, Amanda Knox, Audrie and Daisy, and Werner Herzog’s Into the Inferno among those contenders premiering on Netflix, Fisher Stevens and Leonardo DiCaprio’s Before the Flood broadcasting on the National Geographic Channel, and Ron Howard’s The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years debuting on Hulu in addition to theaters, where it’s actually making a lot of money. Others include Newtown, which appeared first at Sundance, and Fire at the Sea, which premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival, where it won the top prize.

The benefit to all these Oscar hopefuls arriving later in the year is the same for docs as it is for narrative features. People are talking about them now, spreading buzz as they’re fresh and influencing other voters to seek them out. Films that came out of Sundance seem like their excitement died down long ago. Save for certain mainstays like Weiner and Tickled. And a lot of acclaimed docs released during the summer got lost in the shuffle of blockbuster season and those rumors that all of cinema was dead and everything sucked and everyone should stay home and watch TV.

Of course, too many docs can now get lost in the fall shuffle, too. It helps especially during this time to have a high profile or big names involved or a hot subject or, least of all, be a stand out film. DuVernay and DiCaprio and Herzog can easily receive attention for their docs now, while something like Amanda Knox is doing very well due to the notoriety of Amanda Knox’s case and the popularity of true crime in general, and I Am Not Your Negro and Eight Days a Week respectively have the fan bases of author James Baldwin, whose unfinished final manuscript is the basis for Negro, and the Beatles.

13th Review: Ava DuVernay’s Powerful and Timely New Film

Where does it all leave us with our Oscar predictions at this point? We’re in a better spot now than we were mid-year, for sure, since back then we weren’t even aware of half the strongest possibilities. As someone who has seen most of the eligible docs and someone voting for the Critics’ Choice Documentary Awards, I believe that indeed Weiner could be in the final five, as could fellow Sundance winner Life, Animated. The other three should be Cameraperson, which also premiered at Sundance, 13th, of course, and for the obligatory music doc either The Music of Strangers or Eight Days a Week.

Christopher began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called 'Read,' back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials.