The year 2015 is soon coming to its end and in film terms this means entering not only a season of holidays but Awards. Last Tuesday the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science announced its shortlist for this year’s Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. 15 documentaries, out of 124 submitted, will now advance in the run for the 5 nominees released on January 14th.
The doc year has been great and diverse as can be seen from the shortlisted documentaries, covering powerful stories about subjects ranging from revolution, drug war, artistic career and racism from various filmmakers including Michael Moore, Joshua Oppenheimer and Alex Gibney.
15 films including Joshua Oppenheimer's 'The Look of Silence' were shortlisted for an Oscar. Many of the films are currently available online via on demand and streaming services.
But what is exactly required from an Academy award candidate? The list of requirements and rules is long and strict and it all comes down to distribution. Where has the film been seen? When? And where first?
According to the Academy the first and foremost important rule is theatrical release:
An eligible documentary film is defined as theatrically released nonfiction motion picture dealing creatively with cultural, artistic, historical, social, scientific, economic or other subjects. It may be photographed in actual occurrence, or may employ partial reenactment, stock footage, stills, animation, stop-motion or other techniques, as long as the emphasis is on fact and not on fiction.
The films must complete both a seven day theatrical release in Los Angeles and in the Borough of Manhattan during their eligibility period from 1st of January to 31st of December 2015.
The screenings must occur at least four times a day with at least one of the screenings beginning daily between 6 pm and 10pm, in other words primetime. And tickets must be sold for money, not given for free in some open door screening showing the film back to back to make it eligible.
Being a young doc lover entering my small local cinema, the first question that comes to my mind is, would any documentaries ever get this much coverage in my city? Yeah Amy was shown but not in primetime for 7 days straight and the other didn’t even make it! But I guess it’s bigger and better for doc exhibition in the cities like LA and NY.
And along with the approaching awards season, the guessing game has started, many placing their bets on Amy by Asif Kapadia to win.
But the requirement of theatrical release does stress the importance of windows. Windows generally refer to a discrete time frame in which a film could exploit its specific audience. The system was founded in 1980’s when big studio executives employed windows to release their products for different markets: a festival window, theatrical window, video window, pay-TV window and finally the free TV window.
But since the days of the 80’s the windows have increasingly shortened and with the arrival of digital downloading and piracy many have begun to question the relevance of the artificial boundaries known as windows.
One way to tackle this problem has been to simultaneously release the film on demand and theatrically. But in terms of Oscar eligibility one must be careful here! A film can have other means of distribution, such as online, broadcast or cable TV, but not before their theatrical release in the US. An on demand release is accepted as a simultaneous release but again the emphasis is on theatrical premiere.
And this is where many filmmakers make mistakes! Patric Hurley the distribution manager from Dogwoof noted over some post festival drinks that a semi private premiere at the local community centre could easily destroy a films promising distribution plan as everyone loves to premiere. A film that has already had a non-theatrical premiere cannot be sold and surely cannot compete for Oscars.
That is where a carefully planned distribution strategy comes in place. This blog will look at the aspects of those plans in the world of documentary and indie distribution and try to find out what needs to be done and how, to get a film out there.