A Different Ballgame: Streamers Shake Up the Oscar Documentary Race

Less than a decade ago the campaign to win an Academy Award for feature documentary did not include billboards on Sunset Boulevard, six-figure one-page ads in the New York Times and incessant screenings at New York’s Crosby Hotel or Los Angeles’ Four Seasons followed by free food and cocktails for Academy documentary branch members. Nowadays it’s customary.

While the docu Oscar race has never been a completely level playing field, all the money and attention being thrown at documentaries these days has made garnering a little gold man for nonfiction a big business. And although there are policies in place within the Academy to counter and compensate for films without big backers, there is no denying that the influx of streaming services and their growing appetite for doc fare has made it that much more difficult to be the indie underdog come Oscar season.

Streaming services officially entered awards season in 2013 when Netflix earned 14 Emmy nominations. Allowing a streaming service to garner a spot in the awards race meant giving it legitimacy within the creative talent community as well as an opportunity to become a serious competitor in the original content market, which in turn would help lead to more subscribers. Shortly after infiltrating the Emmys, Netflix set its sights on the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. After it acquired “The Square,” a doc about the 2011 Egyptian revolution, Netflix qualified the film for Oscar consideration in 2013. In 2014, the doc received the coveted documentary feature nomination — Netflix’s first Oscar nod. What was left of an egalitarian doc awards race playing field officially became a thing of the past.

As the head of HBO Documentaries for 38 years, Sheila Nevins was influential in elevating the documentary form and earning Oscars for nonfiction films she executive produced. During Nevins’ HBO tenure, her projects accumulated 28 Oscars. But Nevins, currently the head of MTV Documentary Films, admits that in recent years the race for the little gold man has “become a different ballgame.”

“The docu was always an underdog as a form,” says Nevins. “Now it’s becoming an overdog. There can still be docs about underdog subjects, but they tend to have overdog financers.”

In addition to Netflix, those financiers include Amazon, Apple TV Plus, Disney-owned National Geographic and Hulu.

In August, MTV Documentary Films acquired worldwide rights to “Ascension,” Jessica Kingdon’s observational portrait of the economic growth of China. So far, the doc has won for documentary feature at Tribeca Film Festival, where it premiered, and the Hamptons Film Festival. Though Nevins qualified “Ascension” for Oscar consideration, she’s not sure the film can survive the Academy race.

“There are people out there playing with Monopoly money,” Nevins says. “I’m playing with hard cash. ‘Ascension’ can enter a race as an underdog and get some visibility, but can it win? Probably not. Can it get visibility in a very competitive, highly monetary race? Maybe. But if your horse has three legs, you can’t win a race.”

In addition to “Ascension,” Tribeca 2021 premiered Oscar front-runners including Morgan Neville’s “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain” (CNN Films/HBO Max), John Maggio’s “A Choice of Weapons: Inspired by Gordon Parks” (HBO) and Andreas Koefoed’s “The Lost Leonardo” (Sony Pictures Classics).

The influx of streaming services isn’t the only reason why there has been an exponential rise in documentaries’ campaign budgets. Another cause was the 2012 Academy rule change that allowed for all members of the doc branch to weigh in on the shortlist. Until 2011, small volunteer branch committees were in charge of viewing the year’s eligible entries in order to form a shortlist. With often more than 150 docus eligible for consideration each year (last year there were a record-breaking 238 eligible films), ensuring a doc doesn’t get overlooked is a real challenge that money is often used to combat.

Discovery Plus’ Lisa Holme is behind three Oscar contenders this year: Evgeny Afineevsky’s “Francesco,” Rachel Fleit’s “Introducing, Selma Blair” and Pedro Kos’ “Rebel Hearts.” Holme, who serves as Discovery’s Group senior VP of content and commercial strategy, says since the streaming service is devoted solely to nonfiction content, each director is getting plenty of the network’s “attention and energy.”

“We’re not distracted by scripted campaigns that are going on at the same time,” she says.

While Holme wouldn’t divulge how much Discovery Plus is throwing at each doc’s awards run, she does admit that if the large sums of money being spent on a film’s FYC campaign doesn’t lead to an Academy Award for Discovery, that cash could lead to something arguably just as valuable — subscriber acquisitions.

“The benefit that streamers have in mounting awards campaigns is that the benefits of a film getting attention goes so much beyond that one film,” Holme says. “So, we’re able to invest more in it versus if you’re a distributor that is only doing a theatrical release — then you might be looking at that film’s P&L in a vacuum, and it becomes harder to make the economics of investing as much in that film make sense.”

Discovery Plus acquired “Rebel Hearts” out of the Sundance Film Festival in January. Sundance is known for launching high-profile documentaries that go on to have Oscar runs and wins, but this year without in-person audiences and the press that accompany those live screenings, docs including Jessica Beshir’s “Faya Dayi,” Kristina Lindström and Kristian Petri’s “The Most Beautiful Boy in the World,” Camilla Nielsson’s “President” and Jamila Wignot’s “Ailey” had slower and quieter than usual rollouts.

“The virtual experience of a film festival is obviously so much different than the in-person experience,” says Rick Perez, executive director of the Intl. Documentary Assn. “To experience a film with both an audience and in this collective festival environment — there’s an emotional component that carries through to both the film and the experience and that can carry throughout the year. But when people are streaming these films from their homes without that collective experience, it’s not resonating in the same way.”

Of course, there are the exceptions including Nanfu Wang’s “In the Same Breath,” Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s “Flee” and Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s “Summer of Soul” — three documentaries that premiered at Sundance 2021 to wide acclaim and plenty of media interest. Neon picked up “Flee” for a reported $1 million while Searchlight Pictures and Hulu garnered “Summer of Soul” for a record-breaking $12 million. (HBO commissioned “In the Same Breath.”)

While “In the Same Breath” and “Summer of Soul” were invited to a slew of regional fests before their respective summer releases, “Flee” has been invited to every major awards season film festival including Telluride, Toronto and New York. (Neon will release the film theatrically on Dec. 3.) Cinetic Media’s Jason Ishikawa was behind the sale of “Summer of Soul” as well as other docs in the awards race, including Matthew Heineman’s “The First Wave,” Peter Nick’s “Homeroom,” Lucy Walker’s “Bring Your Own Brigade” and “Faya Dayi.”

“Faya Dayi’s” rollout wasn’t as noisy as “Summer of Soul’s,” but the film, shot in rural Ethiopia, has gained traction, earning a Gotham Award nom and a spot on the IDA shortlist. Ishikawa says the doc, directed by a first time feature filmmaker, is “occupying a different space” than high-prolife films in the running, which might prove to be an advantage.

“As it relates to the Oscars, the documentary voting branch has expanded internationally pretty significantly over the past few years,” Ishikawa says. “And this is a group of people who really identify as being outsiders and operating as an underdog in a lot of ways. So, I think that experience of championing filmmakers that they feel are new, exciting voices, much like Sundance, is sort of their ethos.”

While fall festivals such as Telluride and Toronto often produce Oscar front-runners, this year’s selection seemed to produce more than ever. They included three National Geographic docus — Liz Garbus’ “Becoming Cousteau,” John Hoffman and Janet Tobias’ “Fauci,” and E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin’s “The Rescue” — as well as Netflix’s “Procession,” Showtime’s “Attica,” CNN Films/HBO Max’s “Citizen Ashe” and Apple TV Plus’ “The Velvet Underground.”

“The fall festivals are a pretty aggressive launching pad for distributors because they don’t have this huge window to let the films roll out organically,” Ishikawa says. “They kind of have to artificially move the marketplace in their favor very quickly.”

CNN Films’ “Julia” screened at Telluride as well as TIFF and it will be released Nov. 12 in theaters by Sony Pictures Classics. Like Nevins, Tom Bernard, co-president and co-founder of SPC, is no stranger to the Oscar race. But despite being up against Netflix and Disney dollars, he isn’t worried about getting priced out.

“There’s lots of money out there, but when talking about the Oscar race, you compete by getting people to see your film,” he says. “And when I say people, I mean those people who are going to decide who’s going to be the final five and that’s the documentary branch. I don’t believe you can influence somebody [in that branch] by buying a zillion ads. They are a group that is very savvy and sensitive to being overly influenced.”

They are also members of a group that has witnessed the commercialization of the documentary form via a growing corporate presence in the nonfiction landscape in recent years. Whether they choose to celebrate those who have benefitted from that shift remains to be seen.

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