Michael Moore at the Cinema Eye Honors award ceremony. Photo by Simon Luethi.

At Wednesday’s Cinema Eye Honors (CEH) awards, filmmaker Michael Moore, attending as a presenter, took a few minutes to speak to the audience about his push for changes to the Academy’s method of nominating and voting for documentary feature films:

When I got on the board of governors, I said I’m here representing our branch of documentary filmmakers. I’d like to do two things. I’d like to introduce a democracy movement to this branch and end the old system of committees, secret committees, byzantine numbering systems, and just make it open and let everybody vote. After a year and a half of studying it and discussing it, the 20-member executive committee of the documentary branch voted unanimously to finally end this system that I think, personally, has kept so many great filmmakers from even being nominated. We sit here in the room tonight with Frederick Wiseman and Al Maysles. Or Steve James, the most famous case being Hoop Dreams. So this has needed to be fixed for a long time.

Beginning next year, everybody in the branch will pick the five nominees, and then the entire Academy will be able to vote for best documentary. They don’t have to show up on those two nights in the two theaters, when they show all five films. It ends up 200 people pick the Oscar winner. I said to the board of governors, when the presenter comes out on the stage, in my case it was Diane Lane, and says that the Academy has decided the best documentary this year is such and such film, it really isn’t the Academy, is it? It’s less than five percent of the Academy, and that really should change. We should be like the other branches, and we should have more involvement. And we should have more documentary filmmakers in the documentary branch. So the rules got passed, and now it will be opened up.

The other rule that got passed that you read about that was about the New York Times reviews, the Academy has reminded us that this is an award for movies that are released theatrically and not tv documentaries. They have an award system, it’s called the Emmys. It’s a fine award, many of you might have one. So somebody proposed that the New York Times has a policy of reviewing every single film that opens in New York. You wouldn’t be able to sneak a film in for a week, it’s their policy. It’s not up to the reviewers, it’s not up to the critics, it’s their policy. Every film, big or small, fiction or non-fiction, gets a review. So they added that as one of the benchmarks to make sure they’re honoring theatrically released films instead of tv films. But the big news, I think, is that this is now a much more open, transparent, inclusive, accessible process. And the old days of this are gone.

Moore’s remarks came just moments before he handed the CEH’s top award for Outstanding Achievement in Nonfiction Feature Filmmaking to Steve James for his lauded film THE INTERRUPTERS, which was famously ignored for an Oscar nomination this year. James also scored another award for best direction, marking the first time a film had been honored by both awards in the five-year history of CEH. (We’ll have more complete coverage of the awards in the upcoming January 16 edition of the Monday Memo.) James holds the dubious distinction of being the victim of the Academy’s arguably two most famous doc snubs; he was similarly overlooked for his work on the classic HOOP DREAMS (1994).

Much of the initial attention paid to the Oscar doc kerfuffle focused on the new rule requiring that award contenders be reviewed in either the New York Times or the Los Angeles Times. But filmmakers and others over the past few days have also taken a closer look at the changes being made to the nomination and voting rules.

At the Times’ own Carpetbagger blog, Melena Ryzik got fresh reactions to Moore’s speech and the award changes from filmmakers at the CEH afterparty. The blog later noted that the new rules had officially taken effect on January 12, as decreed by the Academy’s Board of Governors.

A few days earlier, the POV blog expressed concerns that the changes would result in a sort of provincialism favoring the opinions held in L.A. and New York City, shutting out films screening in smaller cities and festivals, both in the U.S. and internationally:

There are stunning and meaningful documentaries being produced at an unprecedented rate, which is the most happy outcome of the digital age—amazing work by ‘outsiders’ who lack the speed dial of the L.A. players but who know how to tell a damned good story. They use cheap camcorders and HDSLRs and other DIY tactics to tell sublime and gripping tales. And there have never been so many channels to distribute them, but the Academy has yet to fully support them.

At the Documentary Channel’s Docblog, Christopher Campbell said that opening up voting to the entire Academy could have the effect of allowing populism to run roughshod over the process, and questioned the accepted hegemony of the Academy Awards as the most highly regarded doc award:

Are the new rules bad for truly independent filmmakers in general? Probably, but that’s par with the rest of the Oscars. And regardless of its supposed prestige, which is still only marked by how much attention we all give it, the Academy Awards are not the only nor the most important of film honors for documentary. Those who really enjoy docs should be and for the most part are paying attention to other sources of acclaim and prominence. It’s not the 20th century anymore. We have more media, more outlets, more options.

The International Documentary Association (IDA) on January 10 issued a statement on the changes, seeking to clarify that not all of the films submitted to its DocuWeeks program were guaranteed acceptance to it. The statement also said the changes “will certainly have an impact on IDA’s DocuWeeks program,” and added that they would be “evaluating that impact over the coming weeks and asking for further information and clarification from the Academy as well as the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times editorial staffs.”

The Washington Post‘s Ann Hornaday snagged an interview with Academy Chief Operating Officer Ric Robertson, who said the changes were proposed, in part, to cut down on the number of films submitted to the Academy that were not made with the intent of being released theatrically.

What everyone seems to be able to agree on is that debate over the changes shows no sign of abating. We’ll all just have to wait until the conclusion of the nomination and voting processes for the 2013 awards, when the new rules take effect, to see how everything shakes out.

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