The Oscars Change Rules for Documentaries, Music, and Campaigning

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Worthy nonfiction films can now skip the theater.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is once again shaking up its regulations, with a number of new rules taking effect in time for the 91st Academy Awards next year. According to Variety, several changes have been made in both procedure and eligibility that will specifically affect the documentary feature, original score, and original song categories. IndieWire further clarifies the portion of the changes made to promotional campaigning methods.

Cinema classification is a murky business these days, which makes any changes to award qualification requirements generally unsurprising. Limiting eligible nominees to films that receive theatrical runs shuts so many movies out of the running. However, with the Academy’s new rules, documentary features will be eligible for an Oscar nomination should they win a “qualifying award” at a competitive film festival regardless of whether they get theatrical releases. This is similar to what’s done with the documentary short category already. The Academy will subsequently release a list of festival qualifiers in the spring.

If documentary features don’t win at their respective festivals, however, the theatrical release rule — a minimum one-week run in at least one theater in both New York and Los Angeles — still applies. Documentaries have to be reviewed by a film critic to qualify as well, but the Academy is expanding its list of press outlets beyond the New York Times and Los Angeles Times to accommodate this measure. This could indicate more opportunities for indie and international documentaries that lack theatrical distribution to be in the running. Companies that acquire a ton of docs like Netflix and HBO will also be able to get their foot in the door a little easier too.

Meanwhile, both the Best Original Score and Best Original Song categories are being upended. The Academy wants to employ a two-step preferential ballot system for its music branch next year to narrow down the hopefuls that will become official nominees. Voters have to watch the films and clips of the songs eligible for nomination before creating preferential shortlists of 15 potential nominees. These are further slashed to a final five in the second round of balloting.

At least when it comes to voting in the visual effects branch, the Academy seems to be pushing for a more diverse range of opinion. Voters no longer need to be in Los Angeles to view the reels in the visual effects “bake-off” this year. These presentations will be made accessible via streaming or satellite screenings. Voting will be done online.

The infamous Oscar campaigning process isn’t let off the hook. The grind of Oscar campaigning includes advertisements, interviews, and access to screeners, screenings and Q&As among a plethora of other methods that allow filmmakers, producers, and actors to promote the hell out of their movie. The Academy now requires the use of approved mailing houses that will provide “sanctioned” access to awards materials to members who have opted in to receive them. Studios, distributors, and filmmakers must use this new structure.

Public events will also be cut back, including the number of post-nomination screenings — those have been reduced to just four. But as noted in Malorie Cunningham’s ABC piece on campaigning, face time with filmmakers and producers is actually very important in increasing the likelihood of positive awards buzz. Minimizing access to screenings and events could be an attempt to ostensibly make movie awards about the movies. But people like knowing where their films are coming from regardless, because art and the artist? Those things are hard to separate.

According to Academy voter and publicist Stu Zakim last year:

“Performances that shine, I mean, you can never deny brilliance. But the bottom line is the interaction. Basically, we are like regular people, so having the opportunity like that to question anyone [famous], it’s great.”

The Academy may be trying to level the playing field and limit the amount of interference that voters may run into when choosing their preferences for Oscar nominations. However, these solutions are far from foolproof, especially when filmmakers themselves may be limited in campaigning aspects of the awards season race.

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