When former Academy president Tom Sherak announced that the Oscars would move to a ten-film format, he stated the reasoning was to include “other types of films,” such as “animated films, blockbusters, and documentaries.” The former was immediately awarded a nod when Up got nominated. The following year Toy Story 3 rightfully was nominated. Avatar, perhaps not entirely due to the ten picture format, was nominated in the first year of expansion as well.
Where then has the promise of docs getting nominated gone? On the surface, this isn’t the fault of the Academy. They can’t decide how voters will vote and how major studios will promote pictures. Additionally, most solid non-fiction films have a higher profitability when distributed on small screen formats, thus, HBO or Showtime have little interest in vying for an Oscar if it means bowing a project to theater audiences for triple the cost of exhibition.
Many great Docs have hit theaters though, including, the previously snubbed Steve James’, The Interrupters and two classic by Werner Herzog. Errol Morris, a world-renowned name, gave us the scintillating Tabloid. Smaller films like Nostaligia of Light, Position Amongst the Stars, and Undefeated (which won the doc Oscar) were matched by few, if any, fiction films in their year of release. There’s also many, many more where these came from.
What does it say about a system that almost entirely ignores the most important art renaissance of the culture it’s in? To say that the emergence of non-fiction, on both television, and in theaters, is merely a “thing that has happened” is to miss how important this movement actually is. Everything from guerrilla shooting techniques, to the handheld energy a huge film like The Hunger Games is trying to purport has been affected by our cultural consciousness of the non-ficiton form. Yes, there’s a lot of crap out there. In fact, the majority of Americans you talk to think that Reality TV is all crap. I’d argue this is far from the truth.
Nothing on television has the power to affect with the same resonance as something like A&E’s Hoarders. A&E’s other engrossing, Heavy, brings the most complex problem faced by our entire nation into our living rooms in a brutally honest fashion. A case can be made for other compelling non-fiction shows like The Deadliest Catch, No Reservations, Lockup, Intervention, Day in the Life, 30 Days, even Kitchen Nightmares, and so on. Richard Linklater’s upcoming Hulu project, Up to Speed, about forgotten monuments promises to be another addition to this list.
More important than the shows themselves, the style they use has become common place in far more socially acceptable fiction shows. The Office, Arrested Development, 30 Rock, Battleground, and Community, all owe more to reality programming than to most other fiction comedies that have come before. The ease of use that brought reality to producers, in an effort to save money, is the same used by independent producers who use smaller cameras to create “found footage” films like Chronicle or Cloverfield. To a far less high concept degree non-fiction has also been that which adds energy and resonance to recent low-budget pieces like Blue Valentine, Weekend, Like Crazy, and Half Nelson.
If non-fiction films have given us some of the most powerful, critically-lauded experiences in recent memory and the reality aesthetic has gained commercial acceptance, why is it so improbable that a documentary will ever get nominated for best picture? Perhaps it’s just a barrier that needs to slowly decay. Perhaps at some point we, as a culture, need to regard non-fiction programming not only as smut that mashes our brains into easy-viewing, melted butter. Is The Avengers really so much deeper than Toddlers and Tiaras? I mean that, at least in terms of its culture indications and underpinnings. Think about it. Perhaps we need to start to see the potential that long-form non-fiction storytelling could have if allowed to evolve into a mature art form.
So often in our culture, even the intelligent world of high reference point critics and bloggers, resist something until it smacks of reactionary necessity. The big picture is that we need to see documentaries as films just like we see scripted entertainment as films. As Herzog stated “there is no difference.” Unfortunately, no matter how much movement documentaries have gotten, they may never receive the respect that their high production value counterparts have.
Let’s forget social ideals for a second. God knows, we’re knee deep in the money pit. The biggest problem that documentaries face is that everything revolves around money and this will only continue to get worse. Reality TV exists in its current form because producers could create fast and cheap programming that didn’t necessitate spending even six figures on cantankerous talent. Documentaries are challenging to get made because they don’t share the kind of profit margin that scripted films have the allusion of obtaining. Not literally, but in the eyes of investors. It seems logical to spend $50k on a project that could make $700k if marketed with some effort. But then the key word becomes: effort. It’s far easier to cast Ron Livingston, an affordable but known talent, in a $100k budgeted movie and plaster his face all over Sundance for the sake of brand recognition. That little doc that Sundance will undoubtedly take credit for if more than 25 people actually see it, might not even have money in the budget to fly its makers to the festival for promotion. It’s a miracle when any film actually gets made. For a doc to get into theaters and be in the position to actually win an Oscar for Best Picture? I’m not sure there’s a word for the kind of Earth shaking that would take.
As long as distributors don’t see documentaries as moneymaking ventures, they will never be taken as seriously by popular culture and they surely will never breakthrough as serious Oscar contenders. After all, success in America comes first and foremost from how much a commodity or person (assuming there’s a difference) can be worth.
I also wonder whether Oscar voters are even seeing that many documentaries, even within the documentary branch. Last year was perhaps the most dynamic in film history for non-fiction. Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams was the most captivating and revealing adventure film I’ve seen in a long while. Into The Abyss probed the psychology of murder and the state of American justice in a more honest, unflinching way than anything on the subject before it. Jon Foy’s Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles was the most terrifying mystery film that hit theaters (albeit only for a split second) in the entire calendar year. The Interrupters carried with it the cutting sadness of a culture fit with a governmental ignorance that encourages allowing the “animals” to kill themselves. No film last year bit deeper into the poverty of our nation. None of those films were even shortlisted for the Oscar. I’d like to give the Academy the benefit of the doubt on this, seeing as the films that did make that shortlist were also astonishing across the board:
- “Battle for Brooklyn” (RUMUR Inc.)
- “Bill Cunningham New York” (First Thought Films)
- “Buck” (Cedar Creek Productions)
- “Hell and Back Again” (Roast Beef Productions Limited)
- “If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front” (Marshall Curry Productions, LLC)
- “Jane’s Journey” (NEOS Film GmbH & Co. KG)
- “The Loving Story” (Augusta Films)
- “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory” (@radical.media)
- “Pina” (Neue Road Movies GmbH)
- “Project Nim” (Red Box Films)
- “Semper Fi: Always Faithful” (Tied to the Tracks Films, Inc.)
- “Sing Your Song” (S2BN Belafonte Production, LLC)
- “Undefeated” (Spitfire Pictures)
- “Under Fire: Journalists in Combat” (JUF Pictures, Inc.)
- “We Were Here” (Weissman Projects, LLC)
Nobody has ever argued that the Academy Award for Best Picture equates to the truly best film in a given year. In reality, the best you hope is that the award will bring light to otherwise ignored, interesting pictures. However, without any real exposure for non-fiction films, one can’t seriously believe that all types of films are being given serious consideration. The unfortunate truth is that the film that wins the Academy Award will be the one that gets closest to our reactionary, Twitter, Facebook, Now-Gen brains. To do this, will be to be as derivative and well-funded as possible.
This year’s docs have already offered up some of the most powerful stories. We got one of the more powerful commentaries on contemporary America with The Queen of Versailles, a unique character portrait in Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry and two nuanced rock films, Marley and Searching for Sugar Man. This is to say nothing of Invisible War and Bully. Maybe best of all, Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a captivating portrait of quirky, renowned figure. None of these films will get wide exposure, none will make more than even $5 million, and, surely, none have a boxer’s chance at being considered for Best Picture. Nonetheless, they each push their respective genres and subject matters into more dynamic light than any similar fiction films. I defy you to find a better character study from last year than Bill Cunningham New York. Hopefully, at some point organizations like the Academy will catch up with what critics and viewers already know.