More than a week after this year’s Oscar nominees were unveiled, the documentary world is still reeling from this year’s selections and trying to figure out what they might mean for the struggling sector. Notably, all filmmakers were international and the majority lacked distribution by major streamers; presumed favorites backed by Netflix, Apple TV+ and Max all failed to score a slot on the final Oscar ballot.
Doc branch voters no longer seem impressed by the major streamers’ ability to spend millions during campaign season, documentary film leaders tell Variety, and in the view of several notables, could harbor resentment towards those who have benefited from big spending by streamers.
This year’s feature nominees are: Mstyslav Chernov’s “20 Days in Mariupol” (PBS), Kaouther Ben Hania’s “Four Daughters” (Kino Lorber), Nisha Pahuja’s “To Kill a Tiger” (National Film Board of Canada, NFB), Maite Alberdi’s “The Eternal Memory” (MTV Documentary Films) and Moses Bwayo’s “Bobi Wine: The People’s President” (Disney-backed National Geographic).
Leading up to the Jan. 23 nomination announcement, “American Symphony,” Matthew Heineman’s Netflix documentary about musician Jon Batiste and wife, Davis Guggenheim’s “Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie” for Apple TV+ and Michèle Stephenson and Joe Brewster’s “Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project,” a Max documentary narrated by Taraji P. Henson, were considered frontrunners. The streamers behind each of those docs spent millions on various campaign items including FYC ads, hosting intimate screening events in New York and Los Angeles for doc branch voters, billboards, e-blasts from prestigious nonfiction organizations, top Oscar consultants hired to help elevate a doc’s chances as well as flying filmmakers all over the world to promote their respective work.
“I think that there is a backlash against streamers, and quite frankly, the larger publicity firms who are brought on for $15,000 a month and get bumps if the film they are working on gets on the shortlist or is nominated,” says Geralyn White Dreyfous, co-founder of doc fund Impact Partners. “Doc branch member know if they are getting invites to these expensive events, and receiving hundreds of mailings, which all cost money, that these docus have a ton of money behind them.”
But Cinetic Media’s Jason Ishikawa says that those expensive campaigners are needed.
“We all know what it’s like to have to scrape together that $20,000 to mount an awards campaign that will never see the light of day,” says Ishikawa. “No one will get that money back. If a distributor wants to spend ten times that, what’s the problem? I don’t mean that they should be rewarded because they’re doing that, but I get a sense that people want docs to just not be promoted. They think some egalitarian fantasy is going to allow these films to rise above on their own and that’s just not true. These films need a push. (Ishikawa was behind the multi-million dollar Sundance 2024 sale of the Christopher Reeve documentary “Super/Man” to Warner Bros. Discovery.)
Of course, streamers paying for expensive Oscar campaigns is nothing new. Searchlight Pictures and Hulu spent a reported $12 million to buy the 2022 best feature Oscar doc winner “Summer of Soul” out of Sundance in 2021. Disney then went on to spend millions on an Oscar campaign for the film. Last year’s winner, Navalny” had major backing from CNN Films, HBO Max, and Warner Bros. Pictures.
One theory as to why American filmmakers with either a big budget documentuary (Davis Guggenheim’s “Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie”) and/or a doc that was acquired for millions out of festivals like Telluride (Matthew Heineman’s “American Symphony”) didn’t get nominated is due to the dismal docu marketplace in the U.S. over the last two years. The majority of documentarians have had to grapple with shrinking budgets for commissioned docuseries and one-offs and a dramatic decline in distribution deals for indie docs. The reality is, all but a handful of doc filmmakers are living paycheck to paycheck.
“There is this resentment towards certain kinds of success,” says Ishikawa. “It’s a little confounding. I just feel like so many people in this industry, (Cinetic) included, have been working so hard to move this mindset out of this ghettoization of nonfiction and it just feels like that work is being undermined.”
An Academy Award-winning documentary producer who did not want to be named concurs with Ishikawa. “It is deeply concerning to me that the doc branch did not nominate a single film by an American filmmaker. I also think it’s a giant mistake that our branch did not nominate some of the most successful and most beloved films of the year. So many of us have worked so hard to make great films that break out of the little ghetto documentaries used to be kept in for so long. While I love many of these films, as a group they put us right back in that ghetto. That’s a terrible development for those of us who want to make great films that also reach a broad audience.”
The five docus that did receive an Oscar nom this year all have a social-issue component to them, which, based on sales out of Sundance, could already be affecting the documentary marketplace. While celebrity titles like “Super/Man: The Christopher Reeve Story” and “Will & Harper” were acquired out of the festival for hefty paydays, Netflix, which didn’t land an Oscar for either “American Symphony” or “Stamped From the Beginning” from high-profile filmmaker Roger Ross Williams, bought three very indie docs without bold-face names: “Daughters,” “Ibelin,” and “Skywalkers: A Love Story.”
“I can’t imagine that (the nominations) aren’t affecting companies like Netflix and Apple,” says Submarine Entertainment sales agent Josh Braun, who repped “Daughters.” “How does this year affect their evaluation when they are trying to figure out finding films (to buy) that they love but also have awards potential?”
Another possible factor: There has been a dramatic increase in international branch members in the last several years. After becoming a member of the AMPAS’ board of governors in 2016, Williams spearheaded the expansion of the documentary branch to represent 52 countries, which led it to becoming the most geo-diverse of the Academy’s 17 branches. In his six years on the board of governors, the previous Oscar winner worked with IDFA and other groups to increase the nonfiction branch from some 300 filmmakers to more than 630, including 168 based outside the U.S. While international voters make up just 30 percent of the doc branch, many in the nonfiction community believe the international voters have tremendous sway.
“When I saw that ‘American Symphony,’ ‘Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie,’ ‘Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project’ and Roger’s film ‘Stamped From the Beginning’ didn’t get nominated, that said to me that the many members on the branch who are from the foreign countries don’t give a fuck about these American films,” says veteran filmmaker Sam Pollard (“MLK/FBI”).
But Motto Pictures’s Julie Goldman, who produced the Oscar nominated film “The Eternal Memory,” thinks it had more to do with a preconceived notion of how voting was going to pan out.
“There is larger percentage of international voters, but the vast majority of voters are still U.S. based,” says Goldman. “I think that people, the general branch, responded to these (five nominated) films and wanted to reward them. I also think what happened was people were thinking, “Oh, that film is definitely going to get a nomination so I’m going to vote for the other films that I liked on the list that have less of a chance. I didn’t think that would happen writ large.”
The documentary shortlist is narrowed down to five by branch members rank-choice voting for films. Everyone gets a ballot and ranks their top choices for best doc. The ranked choice voting system guarantees that as long as a movie is the top choice of about 10% of voters, it will be nominated.
While no one is debating that this year’s five nominated docus aren’t deserving of their Academy Award nominations, many in the nonfiction community feel that the voting system could be more fair if it operated like the international film branch, which allows Academy members to opt in and vote for the shortlist and eventual nominees.
“I worry that that would basically mean that in the overall voting it would become this popularity contest of films that people have heard about,” says Goldman.
Another idea branch members have expressed is adding an international feature documentary category alongside a U.S. feature documentary category.
“That is never going to happen,” counters Goldman. “We are holding on by our fingernails for the doc short category.”