The Rules, They Always Be Changin’ — Academy Shakes Up Two Major Categories


OJ Made in AmericaABC

It’s been a while since the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences did anything that got me in a lather, so it was only a matter of time before they came up with another boneheaded rule change that would send me into high dudgeon.

At the end of last week, AMPAS announced two major rules adjustments to a pair of fairly important categories, both of which have the feel of pettiness and venality, rather than good sense. The first was the elimination of multipart documentaries from the Feature Doc competition, an alteration that would have disqualified the most recent winner, O.J.: Made in America, because it was 467 minutes long and was split into five parts.

Right off the bat, this means that Netflix cannot put its stupendous doc Five Came Back up for an Oscar, because even though it’s only a little more than three hours, it’s been parsed into three installments, meaning the Academy wants nothing to do with it. This is clearly a move to differentiate film from television, but it feels much more like a cut off your nose to spite your face situation, simply because, while documentaries are important and have been known to make a difference, they’re not usually very flashy or star-driven. This one, of course, is, what with Steven Spielberg, Guillermo del Toro, Lawrence Kasdan, Francis Ford Coppola, and Paul Greengrass all taking part, but that’s now out of the Academy’s hands, because it decided that something like this is better fare for, say, the Emmys, than it is for Oscar night.

There is a loophole in the new rule, that being a film could still be considered if it played the festival circuit and was screened as a single showing during said run. In such a circumstance, the documentary branch’s executive committee could consider the project to be eligible.

If this move seems baffling to you, you’re not alone. I am not entirely sure why it was made, unless it was a petulant decision meant to remove works like Made in America. Ezra Edelman’s work was simply the best of the year, and deserved that Oscar, even if it was four times longer than any of its competition. Some might view that as an advantage, but making a seven hour and 47 minute movie is a risky proposition, to say the least. Yeah, on the one hand, it gives you the chance to delve into a subject with something close to unprecedented depth and candor, but on the other, well … y’know …

It’s almost eight frikkin’ hours long.

OJ Made in America 2ABC

Either way, it doesn’t reflect well on the documentary branch of the Academy, which comes off looking pretty small. It reminds me of the time, a quarter century ago, when the Steve James doc Hoop Dreams wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar because during the caucusing process then used to decide the nominees, someone whined, “If it gets nominated, it will definitely win!” which was a non-starter for some of the shortsighted fogies making the decisions back then. The resulting uproar led to changes in how that branch determined its nominees, which was, in fact, a good result that feels like the opposite of this one.

Yeah, I hear the arguments that a project like Made in America more resembles a mini-series than a single narrative feature, but I reject those arguments wholesale. This is about intent, and Edelman’s intent, as he claimed from the proverbial get-go, was that it be perceived and judged as a single narrative feature, albeit an admittedly lengthy one. That complaint notwithstanding, this decision simply feels reactive, like it was done to prevent a project this bold and risky from winning ever again, and there’s really no defending it.

Which leads me to the other change that was made, that being the opening up of nomination voting for Best Animated Feature to the entire membership, rather than just the animation branch. The reasoning behind this one, it seems, is in response to how much of a big business animated features have become. With more and more involvement by members of other branches, the thinking goes, those members should have a say in which movies get nominated.

On the surface, this probably doesn’t feel like much of an issue, but then, that’s why a crank like me has to weigh in, because there is most definitely something nefarious going on just under that surface.

By opening up the nomination vote to the entire academy, you’re essentially screwing a company like GKids, an indie distributor of animated fare that doesn’t have the reach, nor the mainstream appeal, of your Disneys, your Pixars, your Blue Skys, your Illuminations, and so on. This is not a trifling issue to just be dismissed pell mell or willy nilly, either, as it’s important to point out that the distributor has had nine of its films earn Best Animated Feature nods since 2009.

MoanaWalt Disney

That’s a pretty outstanding run, by just about any realistic or reasonable definition, but it could very well end immediately now that the more select group of craftspeople who had been so enamored of the company’s work is no longer responsible for making the final five selections. With the wider voting now in play, the odds are that only the bigger, more popular, studio released projects will be recognized, and that’s just about as cynical as you can get.

One other smaller, but significant, change was that, from now on, in the Music Branch Original Score category, in the case of a score that has three or more “equally contributing composers,” they may be considered as a group but will be given only one statuette. I know the price of gold is pretty high these days, but that still seems awfully penurious, don’t you think? I suppose if such a team ever wins the top prize, they can rock-paper-scissors for who gets to keep it.

AMPAS hasn’t really been living through its brightest and shiniest moment lately, what with the controversy that ended an otherwise solid Oscar telecast and the less than graceful way the whole thing was handled. All these changes do is continue to cast the organization in a less flattering light, which makes you wonder what’s really behind whatever passes for thinking that’s going on over there these days. If I were forced to choose the best way to describe it, “tone deaf” would be the two words that came to mind.

Normally, I tend to think of people as petty, not necessarily organizations. Nice of AMPAS to poke a hole in that one for me.

Neil Turitz 2 is a filmmaker and journalist who has spent close to two decades working in and writing about Hollywood. Feel free to send him a tweet at @neilturitz. He’ll more than likely respond.


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