Academy to revise Documentary Short rules and expand voting branch

Unsurprisingly, considering the minimal theatrical exposure documentary shorts receive even relative to their live-action and animated counterparts, Best Documentary Short annually seems to be the award about which most Oscar watchers (and even some pundits) seem to be the least aware and/or informed. And the same is true within the Academy itself: among the 6000 voting AMPAS members, only a few hundred vote in this particular category.

That was mostly because of a restrictive rule requiring members to attend official screenings of all the nominees to vote. However, as Steve Pond reports, the Academy is scrapping this requirement — just as it did in the Best Documentary Feature category last year. Voters across the Academy will now receive screeners of the five nominees, and can vote after (hopefully) viewing them at their own leisure. The committee-driven nomination process, however, will remain unchanged.

Screener-based voting would appear to give an edge to the most populist nominee, a theory borne out by the most recent winners for Best Documentary Feature (“Searching for Sugar Man”) and the similarly amended Best Animated Short (Disney’s “Paperman”). Admittedly, “populist” is a relative term when dealing with short-form documentary: the field tends to be pretty evenly matched in terms of mass appeal and exposure.

Meanwhile, the Academy is also changing qualification requirements in the category, with an eye to enabling a more globally diverse slate of contenders: the previous system, which required films to have week-long theatrical runs in Los Angeles and/or New York, tended to skew the category in favor of American films. From now on, the Academy will also add top prize-winners from 24 international festivals, ranging from Sundance to SXSW to Melbourne to Krakow — to the mix, as well as Student Academy Award winners.

Most dramatically of all, though nothing has been confirmed yet, plans are afoot to significantly expand the size of the documentary voting branch — which, with 173 members, is currently the Academy’s second-smallest. Branch governor Rob Epstein — himself a two-time winner of the Best Documentary Feature Oscar — claims that there is “great support” for the expansion within the Academy’s Membership Committee.

He tells Pond: “From our perspective, we”ve had a backlog of veteran filmmakers that we felt we needed to bring into the branch. This is exciting, because it gives us the opportunity to invite younger filmmakers and broaden our membership.”

With these changes coming on the heels of last year’s productive if imperfect overhaul of the doc feature category, it’s encouraging to see this once-stuffy branch making such a concerted effort to reflect the growing range and stature of the medium.