Oscar Documentary Feature Submissions Will Break Record

Clayton Davis
·8 min read

Nominations for this year’s Academy Awards are still more than two months away, and without in-person events and screenings, distributors and awards strategists are doing their best to keep their rosters in the conversation. This marks the second year that AMPAS utilizes its Academy Screening Room (ASR), a digital platform for voting members to screen the films for awards consideration. This also marks the final year that studios and strategists will send DVDs to voters. As the entertainment industry remains crippled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, all organizations, including AMPAS, continue to navigate the difficult time, working remotely and trying to operate transparently, in a time where “I don’t know” is the norm for any plans in the world.

On Dec. 22, the Academy uploaded a robust 93 documentaries for its branch members, bringing the total number of eligible features to 215, a record-breaking number that already surpasses the 2017 record of 170. Last year, 159 were eligible for the Oscars. By the end of this week, approximately 25 more docs are expected to be uploaded to the ASR, bringing the new total to approximately 240 documentaries in contention for this year’s ceremony. To compare, in 2019, 344 total features were eligible for best picture. It’s likely we’ll see that number surpassed as well, even with theaters still mostly closed.

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This past June, the Academy began assigning documentary branch members “required viewing lists,” films they must watch in order to vote for the preliminary voting, which begins on Feb. 1. The required viewing list assigns 15% of the eligibility pool to branch members ensuring each film is seen and given proper consideration. The list is ongoing and updated for members, with new films being assigned each month, which allows enough time for viewing. Based on what we should expect in submissions, a minimum of about 36 of the 240 films will be seen by each voter, prior to submitting their ballots. The viewing rests on an honor system.

After preliminary voting concludes on Feb. 5, on Feb. 9, the Academy will announce the shortlists in several categories, which will be voted on for Oscar nominations from March 5-9. The shortlists and number of films include documentary feature (15), documentary short subject (10), international feature (10), makeup and hairstyling (10), original score (15), original song (15), animated short film (10), live action short film (10) and visual effects (10).

The documentary feature branch has existed since 1946 and currently has about 600 members. The snub of Steve James’ masterful “Hoop Dreams” in 1994 led to the creation and rule changes for voting. To date, there have only been six documentaries nominated outside of its category, and original song, which has had seven nominations with only Melissa Etheridge’s “I Need to Wake Up” winning for “An Inconvenient Truth,” which also won doc feature.

The six documentaries are:

  • 1927’s “Chang” – best unique and artistic picture, which is no longer active (lost)

  • 1930’s “With Byrd at the South Pole” – Joseph T. Rucker and Willard Van der Veer for best cinematography (winner)

  • 1970’s “Woodstock” – Thelma Schoonmaker for film editing (lost), Dan Wallin and L.A. Johnson for best sound (lost), Bob Maurice for best documentary feature (won)

  • 1994’s “Hoop Dreams” – Frederick Marx, Steve James, William Haugse for film editing and was not nominated for documentary feature (lost)

  • 2008’s “Waltz with Bashir” – best international feature representing Israel but was not nominated for documentary feature (lost)

  • 2019’s “Honeyland” – Ljubomir Stefanov, Tamara Kotevska and Atanas Georgiev for best documentary feature (lost) and best international feature representing North Macedonia (lost)

While 240 films in the undervalued genre are worth celebrating, fellow awards pundits and journalists have long spoken that one of the key issues with Academy voters is getting them to watch as many of the year’s films as possible.

In June 2009, the late and then President of the Academy Sid Ganis announced the doubling of the best picture nominees to 10, with Ganis speculating that the lineup could include an animated, documentary and foreign film. Since that time, “Up” and “Toy Story 3” have been included with international features like “Amour” and last year’s best picture winner “Parasite” fulfilling Ganis’ prediction. However, documentaries have yet to make their way to the top category. When AMPAS switched to the “sliding scale” system to receive a best picture nomination, only eight or nine nominees have emerged each year, with no animated film returning to the lineup since that time. The Academy had a guaranteed 10 picture nominees between 1931 and 1943 and will return to this format at the 2022 ceremony.

It’s worth noting that the road for international features to gain momentum and buzz has been challenging. Many awards strategists and filmmakers have expressed frustration about the rules for submissions and campaign rules, which were changed due to the pandemic. In April, AMPAS announced for the first time that all eligible Academy members were invited to participate in the preliminary round of voting for those who opted-in.

Per campaign rules and regulations, mailings and virtual screening invitations, including Q&As, are allowed for any category except international features. If a film is not yet on the ASR, studios can send a link to Academy voters with a maximum 24 hour viewing period. They can also send out emails notifying them that the film is now on the Academy platform. International films are also not allowed to do this. For an international film to overcome all of these restrictions, they would also have to submit their film for best picture, and other category considerations, given that they are eligible.

In prior years, voting members had to see an international feature in a movie theater, whether it’s set up for voting consideration or seen at a film festival like Cannes, Telluride, etc. This also used an honor system when voting, although there have been quite a few changes regarding this category’s rules in the last couple of years. When the Board of Governors assemble for their annual post-mortem, we should expect further discussion and changes.

There is no fee for submitting to the ASR for an international feature; however, for films submitting for best picture, there is a fee of $12,500. Per the Academy guidelines, this covers the cost of an invisible watermark and an extensive quality control review by its technical team. Forensic watermarking is available for an additional $5,000. There are also no costs for submitting in animated feature, documentary feature, documentary short subject, original song and short film categories.

As you can imagine, for films from smaller, less affluent countries, $12,500 is incredibly difficult to raise and would be half of a modest budget for an entire awards season. This favors major studios and streaming platforms that want to get their films noticed, even if they intend not to have them nominated in other categories.

On Dec. 14, the Academy released a campaign rule addendum for the nomination phase of voting:

  • “Film companies may only send “Watch Now” notices to all Academy members that a film competing in the International Feature Film category is available to view on the Academy Screening Room.”

The notice does not go out to just the voters who opted into the international feature category and is sent to the entire 10,000-person membership. It must include specific language that states, “only members who have opted-in to participate in the International Feature Film category will have access to view this film.” Before the addendum, and still, in practice, AMPAS sends periodic emails telling its members “new films are now available.”

Earlier this week, there were 71 international features on the ASR, with the rest of the eligible films expected to be uploaded by Friday. Members who opted-in are expected to receive their required viewing list by that date as well. The Academy has continued to encourage members to watch as many films as possible before receiving the lists. It is not yet known how many films each member will be assigned.

The Academy is expected to announce the official number of country submissions later this month, before preliminary voting.

Dec. 1 marked the submission deadline for six categories: animated feature, animated short film, documentary short subject, international feature and live action short film. The Academy has a team that vets and ensures that all entries meet the standards and eligibility requirements. In a time of a pandemic, with a lengthy application attachment, you could imagine multiple terabytes, maybe even petabytes of video and audio data were uploaded for consideration to be viewed.

The submissions for best picture (and other general categories) close on Jan. 15, along with specific requirements for original score and original song.

No announcements regarding Oscar ceremony, still scheduled for April 25, are expected this month. Earlier this week, the Grammys postponed their Jan. 31 ceremony to March 14, the same day as the Screen Actors Guild awards.

Visit THE AWARDS HUB to see the full list of contenders by category.

2021 Academy Awards Predictions

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