WSJ: Screen Scramble For Oscar Docus

Nov. 9, 2007 -- Now that an Oscar rule revision requires wider theatrical runs for entries for full-length Best Documentary, arthouse theaters are booking documentaries that often play to empty theaters, according to the Wall Street Journal. Theaters are paid for screen time so they don’t mind. To weed out TV documentaries, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences mandated effective this year a minimum run at 14 theaters in at least 10 states by Nov. 15 to the original requirement of a seven-day run in either Los Angeles or New York City. Filmmakers without distribution deals are

War/Dance, which is distributed by ThinkFilm, is among documentaries qualifying for Oscar consideration. The film is about three children who leave their Ugandan refugee camp to compete in a music and dance competition.

forced to pay thousands of dollars to place films in theaters, gambling their documentaries will land one of five coveted Oscar nominations. 
    The WSJ article cited one docu distribution consultant quoting a fee of $10,000 to handle a week run in either New York City or Los Angeles, and another $30,000 for the 14 runs elsewhere. Most of the latter goes to paying for playdates to theaters that are in small cities, because filmmakers want to leave big cities untouched for later distribution deals. Next year, eligibility rules again change, this time requiring a just seven-day run in both Los Angeles and New York.

Full text at Wall Street Journal; may require subscription

Note from author Robert Marich. Below is an Academy press release outlining the easing of full length documentary qualifying, effective next year. Also, here's a link for a later news analysis on documentaries.

Documentary Rules Streamlined for 81st Academy Awards®

    Oct. 9 2007 -- Beverly Hills, CA –– The Board of Governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has approved rule changes for the 81st Academy Awards that eliminate the multi-city theatrical rollout requirements for feature and short documentaries. These and other changes were recommended to the Board by the Documentary Branch Executive Committee, chaired by Michael Apted.
    To qualify for the 81st Awards, documentary features must run for a minimum of seven days in both Los Angeles County and the Borough of Manhattan, and documentary short subjects must run for a minimum of seven days in either Los Angeles County or the Borough of Manhattan.
    “By eliminating the multi-city rollout requirements we have significantly simplified the Academy rules while still retaining the core intent to ensure that we honor nonfiction work created for theatrical distribution,” said Apted. “We believe the new rules will successfully eliminate from consideration documentaries made principally for television, the Internet or anywhere else.”
    The seven-day runs must include at least two screenings per day and those screenings must begin between noon and 10 p.m. The picture must be exhibited for paid admission and the film must be advertised and listed during its run in local newspapers and/or magazines.
    For the Oscar® competition currently in progress (the 80th Awards), documentary features were required to be screened in theaters for a minimum of 14 exhibitions in 10 states, and documentary short subjects for single exhibitions in at least four cities. Those rollouts were in addition to seven-day qualifying runs in either Los Angeles County or the Borough of Manhattan.
Another change in the documentary rules will result in financial savings for certain contenders. Those whose films reach the semifinal round of voting will no longer be required to provide two film prints to the Academy for use if they are subsequently selected as nominees. The 81st Awards rules will allow the two copies to be submitted either on film or in digital format.
    “We need the copies early in the process because once the nominations are announced, we have only a couple of days before we start our membership screenings in L.A., the Bay Area, New York and London,” said Academy Executive Director Bruce Davis. “There just wasn’t time to wait for film prints to be struck after the nominations announcement, so shortlisted filmmakers were on the hook for the cost of prints whether their films were nominated or not. We can now present digital formats in all the theaters where we hold membership screenings, so documentarians need not spend the extra money.”
    Because the eligibility year for the documentary categories runs September 1 to August 31, rules for the categories are addressed earlier than those for the categories that follow the calendar year.
    Other changes involve simplifying the details of the documentary rules. The complete rules for both the Documentary Feature length and Documentary Short Subject categories for the 81st Academy Awards can be viewed at