Academy Awards

Oscar’s Documentary Myopia: Popular Films Don’t Get Nominated

Want to win an Oscar? Don’t make a documentary about a major celebrity, a fashion-y gay guy, or almost anything else about pop culture. Jacob Bernstein on why the Academy snubbed Bill Cunningham New York, Senna, and other crowd-pleasers.

02.02.12 12:39 PM ET

The $1.5 million that Bill Cunningham New York did at the box office in 2011 may not make a lot of noise in an industry dominated by movies like Avatar and The Dark Knight, but it’s practically a blockbuster for a documentary.

The movie about the life of The New York Times’ legendary street photographer has a Rotten Tomatoes score of 98 out of 100 and had big-name critics like Kenneth Turan and Lisa Schwarzbaum swimming in a sea of superlatives.

In January, it got a Directors Guild Nomination for Best Documentary, leading many to believe it was on target for an Academy Award.

But last week, the film was absent from the list of Oscar nominees, as was Senna, the critical superhit about the life and death of a Formula One race-car driver. (That film also was a sizable commercial success, with a worldwide take of more than $8 million, and counting.)

Fans of each may have been shocked, but in the entertainment industry, the mood was more like resigned disappointment. Indeed, time after time, over and over again, the bizarre wing of the academy known as the documentary branch has skipped over one audience-pleasing movie after another, in favor of heavier, more obscure fare.

Says one disgruntled documentary filmmaker: “Anything that’s pop culture or upscale is automatically disqualified. If it’s a rich guy or Hollywood you get an automatic veto. Hearts and Minds is the platonic ideal. Everything is wars, lost limbs, and killing dolphins.” (This last jibe would seem to be directed at The Cove, the story of a group of environmental activists who go to Japan to expose the killing of these animals by untoward fishermen. It won the Oscar two years ago.)

Few would argue, of course, with honoring movies like these. Kirby Dick, a member of the Documentary Wing (and the director of several very pop-cultury docs like This Film Is Not Yet Rated and Outrage) says: “The academy tends to feel that the films they nominate will get attention, and they think about the impact that nomination might have on society, if there’s a particular issue the film is focusing on. I don’t think that’s so different than other prizes that get handed out. That’s legitimate.”

And he’s right.

Nevertheless, it’s hard not to feel bad for all the movies that get excluded simply because there is not enough pain and suffering in them to warrant their receiving awards. Says Fenton Bailey, director of Inside Deep Throat (a terrific film about the making of the world’s most famous porn movie): “There’s an ingrained snobbery. It’s pop culture phobia and the enduring power of the highbrow at the expense of the lowbrow. There’s an expectation that a documentary have a certain gravitas and if it doesn’t, it’s not a proper documentary and it gets overlooked.”

For example, the academy doesn’t particularly like documentaries about gay men, unless those gay men die, either by assassination (as in The Times of Harvey Milk, which won the Oscar in 1985) or AIDS (Stories from the Quilt, which won the Oscar in 1990.) (Incidentally, both of those movies were directed by the same guy, Rob Epstein, who’s now the chair of the Documentary branch of the academy. He declined comment for this story.)

In the case of Paris is Burning, the 1991 documentary about black gay men in the New York drag scene, the subjects just spent too much time prancing down the runway, and got excluded.

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Another truism: The academy doesn’t particularly like movies about rich people or celebrities, which might explain why Valentino: The Last Emperor got snubbed, as did Graydon Carter’s love letter to old Hollywood, The Kid Stays in the Picture; and Gimme Shelter, the Maysles Brothers documentary about the Rolling Stones; and Don’t Look Back, the amazing film about Bob Dylan.

How about those films about rich, celebrities whose fan bases are comprised largely of gay men? As in A Piece of Work (Ricki Stern and Anne Sunberg’s portrait of Joan Rivers) and Truth or Dare (Alek Keshishian’s doc about Madonna)?

Well, you guessed it. Sayonara to them too. No Oscar nominations.

Concurs another frequently annoyed member of the voting bloc: “The problem isn’t just that they exclude gay-topic movies or pop-culture movies, it’s that they exclude the best movies of the year, the ones where there’s been a consensus between the public and the critics that these were the best films of the year. With Bill Cunningham, the problem isn’t just that it touches on gay issues or that it’s about popular culture. It’s that it’s popular.”

This, many in Hollywood suspect, was the problem with Hoop Dreams, a 1994 documentary about a group of African-American basketball players. After it broke records at the box office and failed to get a nomination, a scandal ensued when it was reported that members of the Academy considering the film voted via flashlight to turn it off after just 15 minutes.

At the time, the Academy did not have a documentary branch, instead relying on a volunteer committee of voters who had the time and inclination (read: they were mostly old people) to watch 65 films over the course of three months. Apparently, they opted instead for shortcuts.

According to Michael Moore, the system clearly had to change. He tells me: “People started noticing that no Errol Morris film had ever been nominated, no Maysles film had ever been nominated, no Frederick Wiseman film had ever been nominated. This would be like Scorsese, Coppola, and Spielberg not getting nominated. These are the three godfathers of this art forum!”

Soon after, a dedicated bloc of documentary filmmakers was formed to handle the nomination process for the category, but the membership was so small (even now, 15 years later, it numbers just 157 people) and the rules for voting so byzantine you practically needed a degree in Oscar science to understand them.

And not much changed, though lighter, pop culture-driven films triumphed on rare occasions. The three most recent examples are Pina (a documentary about the famous modern dance choreographer, Pina Bausch, that got nominated this year); Exit through the Gift Shop (a 2010 nominee about the insane demand for street art); and Man on Wire (the 2009 Oscar winner, about a trapeze artist who strung a tightrope between the top floors of the Twin Towers and walked across it).

Thankfully, some fixes are due to arrive next year. First, Moore helped get the rules changed, so that the process will be entirely democratic, going forward. (In years past, committees of voters voted on individual movies, ranking the films in descending order. If a film received just two low votes, generally from super-lefty, do-gooders or ultra-traditional, grey-haired voters, they’d get disqualified.)

Also, for the first time, screeners finally will be permitted in the general election so that voters no longer have to go see all of the films at a theater over the course of a couple of days.

There was some controversy about a new rule requiring films to be reviewed either in the New York Times or the Los Angeles Times, but it subsequently turned out that the branch was mainly using these press clippings as photo IDs to determine that a movie had had a “qualifying run” in theaters and was therefore eligible for contention. If no review appears in either paper, Moore says, recipients absolutely can use other documentation.

“With many of of these films [that got snubbed] if they were fiction it would be the equivalent of The Artist not being nominated. People would be stunned. The best thing I can say is that the fix I proposed is going to correct the situation. If you're feeling there has been a narrow crop of films, it's because the system for selecting those films has been narrow. It's been just a few people: a few people picking and a few people voting on them. And you always get the best decision when the most people are involved. These changes will fix this problem. I'm pretty certain."

Perhaps, but Bill Cunningham and Senna won’t be eligible.