Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature
|Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature|
|Presented by||Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS)|
|Currently held by||
Bryan Fogel |
The Academy Award for Documentary Feature is an award for documentary films. In 1941, the first awards for feature-length documentaries were bestowed as Special Awards to Kukan and Target for Tonight. They have since been bestowed competitively each year, with the exception of 1946.
Winners and nominees
Following the Academy's practice, films are listed below by the award year (that is, the year they were released under the Academy's rules for eligibility). In practice, due to the limited nature of documentary distribution, a film may be released in different years in different venues, sometimes years after production is complete.
- In 1942, documentary features and short subjects competed together for Best Documentary. Four special awards were bestowed among the 25 nominees.
- A preliminary list of eight films were announced as nominees, but the Documentary Award Committee subsequently narrowed the field to five titles included on the final ballot. The films that did not advance were: For God and Country (United States Army Pictorial Service), Silent Village (British Ministry of Information), and We've Come a Long, Long Way (Negro Marches On, Inc.).
- Terminus was originally announced as a nominee, but the nomination was rescinded after it was discovered the film had been released prior to the eligibility period.
- Young Americans, produced by Robert Cohn and Alex Grasshoff, won this award on April 14, 1969. On May 7, 1969, the win and nomination were rescinded after it was discovered the film had been released prior to the eligibility period. First runner-up Journey into Self was named the winner the following day.
- A tie in voting resulted in two winners.
For this Academy Award category, the following superlatives emerge:
- Most awards: Walt Disney – 3 awards (resulting from 7 nominations)
- Most nominations: Charles Guggenheim – 10 nominations (resulting in 3 awards)
Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, at the time the highest-grossing documentary film in movie history, was ruled ineligible because Moore had opted to have it played on television prior to the 2004 election. Previously, the 1982 winner Just Another Missing Kid had already been broadcast in Canada and won that country's ACTRA award for excellence in television at the time of its nomination.
The controversy over Hoop Dreams' exclusion was enough to have the Academy Awards begin the process to change its documentary voting system. Roger Ebert, who had declared it to be the best 1994 movie of any kind, looked into its failure to receive a nomination: "We learned, through very reliable sources, that the members of the committee had a system. They carried little flashlights. When one gave up on a film, he waved a light on the screen. When a majority of flashlights had voted, the film was switched off. "Hoop Dreams" was stopped after 15 minutes."
The Academy's executive director, Bruce Davis, took the unprecedented step of asking accounting firm Price Waterhouse to turn over the complete results of that year's voting, in which members of the committee had rated each of the 63 eligible documentaries on a scale of six to ten. "What I found," said Davis, "is that a small group of members gave zeros (actually low scores) to every single film except the five they wanted to see nominated. And they gave tens to those five, which completely skewed the voting. There was one film that received more scores of ten than any other, but it wasn't nominated. It also got zeros (low scores) from those few voters, and that was enough to push it to sixth place."
In 2000, Arthur Cohn, the producer of the winning One Day in September boasted, "I won this without showing it in a single theater!" Cohn had hit upon the tactic of showing his Oscar entries at invitation-only screenings, and to as few other people as possible. Oscar bylaws at the time required voters to have seen all five nominated documentaries; by limiting his audience, Cohn shrank the voting pool and improved his odds. Following protests by many documentarians, the nominating system was subsequently changed.
Hoop Dreams director Steve James said "With so few people looking at any given film, it only takes one to dislike a film and its chances for making the short list are diminished greatly. So they’ve got to do something, I think, to make the process more sane for deciding the shortlist." Among other rule changes taking effect in 2013, the Academy began requiring a documentary to have been reviewed by either The New York Times or Los Angeles Times, and be commercially released for at least one week in both of those cities. Advocating for the rule change, Michael Moore said, "When people get the award for best documentary and they go on stage and thank the Academy, it's not really the Academy, is it? It's 5% of the Academy."
The awards process has also been criticized for emphasizing a documentary's subject matter over its style or quality. In 2009, Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman wrote about the documentary branch members' penchant for choosing "movies that the selection committee deemed good because they’re good for you... a kind of self-defeating aesthetic of granola documentary correctness."
In 2014, following the announcement of the shortlist of eligible feature documentary nominees, Sony Pictures Classics co-president Tom Bernard publicly criticized Academy documentary voters after they excluded SPC's Red Army from the shortlist. "It's a sign of some really old people in the documentary area of the Academy. There's a lot of people who are really up in their years. It's shocking to me that that film (Red Army) didn't get in,” Bernard said. Additionally, in his reporting of the Oscar documentary shortlist exclusions that year, The Hollywood Reporter’s Scott Feinberg reacted to Red Army’s omission: “...no matter which 15 titles the doc branch selected, plenty of other great ones would be left on the outside. That is the case, most egregiously, with Gabe Polsky's Red Army (Sony Classics), a masterful look at the role of sports in society and Russian-American relations" (Icarus, another documentary related to sports and Russian-American relations, would later win the Oscar).
In 2017, following the win of the eight-hour O.J.: Made in America in this category, the Academy announced that multi-part and limited series would be ineligible for the award in the future, even if they are not broadcast after their Oscar-qualifying release (as was O.J.: Made in America).
Although documentaries are eligible for the Academy Award for Best Picture, none has yet earned a nomination. Documentaries are ineligible for the other awards such as Best Original Screenplay and Best Director due to their realistic elements.
Cinematography award in 1930
The documentary film With Byrd at the South Pole: The Story of Little America (1930), won an oscar for Best Cinematography, at the 3rd Academy Awards, the first documentary to win any kind of Oscar.
- BAFTA Award for Best Documentary
- Academy Award for Best Documentary (Short Subject)
- Independent Spirit Award for Best Documentary Feature
- Critics' Choice Movie Award for Best Documentary Feature
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