March 1, 2008

Did the Documentary Feature Oscar Winner Bypass the Academy’s Intent?

Earlier this week, NewsBusters’ Tim Graham noted the downbeat mood in many of the nominated movies at Sunday’s Oscars, as originally written up by a Washington Post staff writer. NB’s Matt Sheffield addressed the Feature Documentary award winner, “Taxi to the Dark Side,” and the dearth of libertarian or conservative representation in the list of that category’s nominees.

Commenter “voodoodaddy” at Sheffield’s post asked:

Taxi to the Dark Side?
Never heard of it. Did not even know it existed.
They wonder why no one watches the Oscars.

Voodoodaddy is far from alone, and his comment begs a bigger question: Why, as I believe is the case, would a company make a film knowing full well that almost no one will see it?

That’s certainly not a question anyone in Old Media is asking. Two of the five nominees in the Feature Documentary category (“War/Dance” – $57,640; Operation Homecoming” – either $4,516 or $6,795) did barely noticeable business in 2007.

Winner “Taxi” shows no 2007 business.

How can that be?

The Academy’s Torene Svitil has assured me in e-mail correspondence, for which I am grateful, that “Taxi,” despite my failure to find any kind of corroborating evidence in Internet searches, met the requirements for nomination in the category per Rule 12, namely:

  • A “Seven-Day Qualifying Exhibition” in LA County or Manhattan between 9/1/06 and 8/31/07.
  • A “Multi-State Theater Rollout” in 10 or more states, and with at least 14 exhibitions, taking place by November 15, 2007.

Fair enough. But a point Svitil made about promotion in one of those e-mails raised a red flag:

We do not require filmmakers to run picture ads. We only require that the film is advertised in the theater grid.

The theater grid is simply the list of movies currently showing in the theater’s newspaper advertisement.

Svitil’s response indicates to me that a theater can show a film with no intent to promote it. But I believe that a reading of Rule 12 makes it clear that the Academy’s intent was to limit Documentary Feature nominees to films that more than a smattering of people would pay real money to see, or that theaters would at least try to convince people to see. Based on the information available, it appears that “Taxi” did not draw anything resembling an acceptable audience. I further believe that theaters carrying the film may not have even tried to draw an audience. If I’m right, is this because the producers knew that any promotional efforts expended would in any event be futile?

Then, going back to the question I asked earlier, why make the documentary at all?

You’ll still make it if you believe that it will impress film festival audiences (not relevant to Rule 12′s “Qualifying Exhibition” or “Rollout” compliance requirements) and, in turn, the Hollywood elite. There’s clearly nothing wrong with that. But the question is whether such a film, given the intent of Rule 12, should be eligible for an Academy Award and the free publicity it gives to a Documentary Feature and its cause.

It’s one thing, in the name of a strong belief in a cause, to make a movie you know will lose money. It’s quite another, in the name of promoting that cause, to produce a movie that you are nearly certain almost no one in the public will bother to see, but will nonetheless impress the award-givers. Call it the moviemaking equivalent of “teaching to the test.”

I believe that the makers of “Taxi,” in their zeal to tell their “Widespread U.S. Torture” story, went around the intent of Rule 12 to make a political point they couldn’t have made to more than a very few people inside or outside of the fever swamp without Academy assistance. If that’s true, I further believe that because of the movie’s agenda, many Academy members, to the extent they even cared about the intent of Rule 12, may not have minded that they were being played. Thus, “Taxi,” which couldn’t hope to succeed in the marketplace, “succeeded” nonetheless, while Old Media, searching for any reason to continue its serial Bush-bashing, gleefully lapped it up.

Meanwhile, Oscar Night TV audiences continue to dwindle, as more viewers conclude that the Academy Awards is a celebration of, as the Steely Dan song says (warning: profane word at link), “show biz kids making movies of themselves,” with the theatergoing audience as an afterthought, if that.

Cross-posted at NewsBusters.org.

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