Doc Talk: Do New Academy Rules Mean Toronto is Now the Best Festival for Documentary Oscar Hopefuls?

Doc Talk: Do New Academy Rules Mean Toronto is Now the Best Festival for Documentary Oscar Hopefuls?

Sep 07, 2011

The Toronto International Film Festival has a reputation for launching serious Oscar contenders, at least in the narrative Best Picture category. But what about the documentary section? Might we be introduced to the next Oscar-winning doc at this year’s festival, which officially kicks off tomorrow night with, as it so happens, a nonfiction opener?

Even if TIFF starters weren’t typically Oscar poison in recent years, that doc, Davis Guggenheim’s U2 concert film, From the Sky Down, normally wouldn’t be on the road to Oscar alongside Moneyball or whatever’s this year’s out-of-nowhere King’s Speech and Hurt Locker equivalent. Due to the way the Academy used to qualify films for the Best Documentary Feature award, it was difficult for nonfiction works premiering at Toronto to go straight on to compete at the Kodak Theatre the following February.

Difficult, but not impossible. Two years ago, Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith’s The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers made its debut at TIFF and then just barely made the deadline for qualifying runs in New York and Los Angeles. This was months prior to its being picked up by eventual distributor First Run Features, and the self-releasing strategy pulled off, as it was nominated for the Academy Award a mere five months after it was unveiled to the world. A certain rarity for the form under old Oscar rules.

The same year (2010), the film did actually compete against another Toronto veteran. Yet that documentary, Robert Kenner’s Food, Inc., had premiered way back at the 2008 festival and took seventeen months to reach the Academy’s final ballot. Imagine a fiction film achieving that kind of sustainability.

Of course, it happened often with docs. Werner Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World officially premiered (after a Telluride tease) at TIFF in 2007 and then wasn’t an Oscar nominee until 2009. Darwin’s Nightmare screened in Toronto in 2004 following its Venice world premiere and was nominated in 2006. The Story of the Weeping Camel screened at Toronto in 2003 following its bow at Munich and was nominated in 2005.

If an Oscar-worthy doc already debuted elsewhere, they’d have a better shot at more immediate recognition. For instance, this year’s Oscar winner, Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job, was at Toronto months prior, yet it had premiered even earlier at Cannes. Plus, it had a distributor in Sony Pictures Classics from the start, so it easily made the qualifications on time.

So what is different about this year? Whereas in the past the Academy’s deadline for qualifying runs was September 30, now it’s December 31, just like it is for narrative features. Filmmakers only need submit application paperwork by next week and present a finished product by mid-October. And have plans for an opening before the end of the year.

This means a documentary has a fairly good chance of debuting in Toronto, being acquired and quickly turned around for Oscar consideration. We already know that HBO is planning a theatrical release of Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory by the end of the year. And given that film’s notoriety in its aiding (along with the two prior Paradise Lost films) the release of three potentially innocent prisoners, this doc sequel is already being predicted as a sure frontrunner.

Guggenheim’s U2 movie likely still won’t be an Oscar nominee even if it’s release in the next few months, but more because it’s a concert film than any other reason. As for other selections in the phenomenal-looking 2011 Real to Reel program, which is filled with new titles by some of the world’s best documentarians, it might be anyone’s game.

Jonathan Demme’s Hurricane Katrina film I’m Carolyn Parker: The Good, the Mad and the Beautiful and Herzog’s latest, the anti-capital-punishment doc Into the Abyss sound pretty Oscar friendly. The latter was just picked up by IFC’s Sundance Selects banner and could very well be put out in time to qualify. Oscar winner Jessica Yu’s Last Call at the Oasis, a film about the global water crisis featuring Erin Brockovitch, should have no problem being picked up and so might be another contender.

Of course, the new rules do kind of hurt last year’s TIFF docs, Herzog’s own Cave of Forgotten Dreams included. Also Errol Morris’s Tabloid is probably out of the running now, not that it’s strong enough anyway. But TIFF10 vet Armadillo, a film quite comparable to yet far better than this year’s Restrepo, likely isn’t going to pull an Afghanistan War doc repeat.

Films that premiered at Sundance last January may be facing extra adversaries, as well. In recent years Park City was the best place to debut a doc that might have Oscar potential. This year’s nominees, outside of Inside Job, were all introduced at the Sundance the year prior. Seven of the prior twenty nominees came out of Sundance, and even more significant, five of the prior six winners did. Some of this year’s docs to beat were Sundance premieres, including The Interrupters, How to Die in Oregon, Project Nim and Senna. But not all have as big a chance anymore.

I’ll know more after I see the 2011 TIFF docs, either up in Toronto over the next ten days or afterwards at the New York Film Festival. And I’m excited by the fact that it’s turning into another huge year for quality documentary film, scores of which would make terrific Academy Award picks. I kind of pity the documentary voting branch for having the difficult task to go through even more qualifiers than normal this year (due to the rule change, there is a 14-month window) and try to choose just five nominees. Good luck, guys!


New Releases

Speaking of too much quality documentary film, the next two weeks will see at least 12 new nonfiction releases open in theaters in the U.S., including the Ryan Reynolds-narrated The Whale, which appears to be sneaking ahead of schedule this week for initial openings in Seattle and Tacoma this Friday, probably because of their vicinity to where the doc’s killer whale subject called home, near Vancouver Island.

But I haven’t seen it so don’t take the mention as a recommendation. Instead, definitely seek out one of my favorites out of Sundance this year, though one I don’t expect will be an Oscar frontrunner: The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975. While I’m telling you what to do, also don’t accept this doc as any kind of exhaustive or authoritative chronicle of the American black power movement. Compiled from old Swedish media footage and directed by a white foreigner, it’s primarily to be appreciated for its multi-leveled perspectives on the era and movement than anything else.

I also recommend fellow Sundance selections We Were Here, a tear-jerking history of the AIDS crisis in San Franciso in the early 1980s as recounted through emotional testimonials of a handful of survivors, and Where Soldiers Come From, a very self-aware and candid look at a group of friends who join the National Guard and then serve together in Afghanistan. Compared to docs like Restrepo and Armadillo there’s not a lot of action, but the slower, seemingly less significant story is more a psychological burn and ends up under your skin by the end. One soldier’s mother aptly likens the film she’s in to The Deer Hunter, which I’d cross with both 2006’s Iraq War doc The Ground Truth and the recent Oscar-nominated doc short Poster Girl.

As for home entertainment, you also can check out The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 on VOD beginning September 14. I also suggest that lovers of magic, competition docs involving kids (such as Spellbound) and generally enjoyable family friendly movies to pre-order or queue up Make Believe, which is by makers of The King of Kong and hits DVD September 20.


Join me again in two weeks (9/21) for another Doc Talk column, and until then you can follow me on Twitter (@thefilmcynic). You’ll especially want to do that during TIFF and NYFF and look out for my reviews and roundups of festival docs throughout the next couple weeks.

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