The Oscars Could Better Honor Foreign, Documentary, and Animated Features

By  · Published on November 1st, 2016

Let’s prove the movies aren’t dead by recognizing more of them.

Fire at Sea (Kino Lorber)

This week is a big one for documentary fans. Today we found out the nominees for the 2016 IDA Documentary Awards, then tomorrow comes announcement of the Cinema Eye Honors nominations, and Thursday is the inaugural Critics’ Choice Documentary Awards ceremony. Many merely view these as precursors to the Academy Awards, helpful determiners of what to predict will be Oscar nominees in January. It’s true the Academy’s five picks will receive more attention, but there are a lot more than five great nonfiction films from this year, and they need recognition.

We can just look to the doc-honoring events mentioned for that spotlight. For instance, the CCDA, winners of which are determined by voting members of the Broadcast Film Critics Association (of which I’m a member) and the Broadcast Television Journalists Association, has already celebrated more than 40 nonfiction film titles through its nominees. Nineteen of them are spread over two separate categories for the best feature of the year, divided by theatrical and television releases. It may look like a case of “awards for everybody!” but that’s 19 out of more than 150 qualified docs.

As more and more quality docs are released, should the Academy increase the number of nominees in their doc feature category? Their list of qualified films is at 145 this year, but compare that to the Best Picture race, which does allow up to 10 nominees and the number eligible for consideration is usually in the low 300s. Never mind that less than half could be thought of as worthy contenders – some of them are docs, too, and the Academy never nominates those for Best Picture. Of the doc-specific list, I’d say maybe a third are viable candidates for any sort of discussion of the best of the year.

If the doc category increased the number of nominees, how about the foreign language and animated categories? These three are the bastard children of the Oscars considering their niche types of movies are rarely thought of for Best Picture yet they’re also feature films, worth as much attention as English-language live-action dramatic releases. The number of contenders for the foreign award this year is 85 (not including four submissions not accepted), while the number of qualified animated features is a relatively small number, maybe 20 at most from this year’s productions.

The animated feature category has the fewest eligible possibilities, yet it’s actually one of the most heated of the year due to what they include. Even before the upcoming Moana, Disney already has the very strong sure things Zootopia and Finding Dory. Two other essential nominees are Kubo and the Two Strings and The Red Turtle. Kung Fu Panda 3 is also worthy of recognition, but it’s mostly forgotten, having been released so early in the year. Meanwhile, the acclaimed R-rated hit Sausage Party has a very serious campaign behind it right now. And Netflix is pushing The Little Prince.

Of the foreign lot, there are a handful of festival favorites that could easily be nominated (Toni Erdmann, Elle, the doc Fire at Sea), but most of us haven’t seen the majority of submissions. That’s a good reason for the Oscars to highlight more than just five, as support and recommendation for significant cinema from around the world that otherwise goes ignored. If many of us had our way, the foreign category would be opened up beyond single selections picked by the films’ countries, yet that would give us hundreds more in contention. Then it would surely necessitate 10 nominees.

As it is now, should we just acknowledge the 85 submissions as already some kind of special honor? The films are recognized in their marketing materials as being Oscar submissions, before and after the nominees are announced, and apparently this isn’t against the rules. However, next month the 85 will be pared down to a shortlist of nine titles, and the four that are not nominated are not permitted to advertise themselves as being on the shortlist, which basically is a mark of being a semi-finalist or runner-up. Still, the shortlist is announced, and that is a kind of honor to be named.

The animated and doc categories also have shortlists. As do their short subject counterparts (see the 10 short docs on the shortlist, five of which can be streamed online now). And it’s the same deal for all of them. They aren’t supposed to market themselves as shortlisted for an Oscar, though every year you can find films that do, possibly because of ignorance about the rule or maybe because the Academy needs to be more specific about what constitutes marketing and publicity (most offenders make mention only on their websites). Again, it’s also out in the open for us to see and take note.

Since the Academy does make these shortlists public, they might as well let the films sell themselves as being so recognized and honored. For a lot of them, the press they get through the shortlists being reported is already more attention than they could get just through their own outreach via posters, trailers, website, social media, etc. Allowing the status to be an official distinction doesn’t nor wouldn’t take away from the greater prestige of an actual nomination let alone the main honor of winning the Oscar itself. It doesn’t even have to come with any sort of certified documentation.

Another thing the Academy could do to better honor these three categories of feature films is to move them closer to the end of the night, aligning them at least a little more with the supposed more-important Best Picture category. The Golden Globes give near-equal standing to their comedy and musical category as drama, and these Oscar categories similarly deserve to actually be named Best Picture – Animated, Best Picture – Documentary, and Best Picture – Foreign Language. That’s what they truly are, after all.

What to Know for 2017’s Foreign Language Oscars

Either way, there’s fortunately always a matter of recognizing, for our own consideration, as many titles as we wish and with as much of a significant push as we like. If there are more than five exceptional docs, animated features, or foreign films, we share and celebrate amongst one another. The Oscars do and don’t matter. There’s no denying they make an impact, but they also aren’t the only place for films to find recognition. Now that we’re in the final stretch of 2016, keep an eye out for awards, lists and singular bits of praise daily. Chances are you’ll spot a lot of goodies to add to your radar.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.