NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Each year on this program, we focus on the films nominated for Best Feature Documentary at the Academy Awards. Tune in next week to hear interviews with the makers of this year's Oscar nominees.
But I have to confess that the process to select those top five has always been a little murky. Some argued that the rules allowed a lot of films made for TV to qualify for the top movie award and that the more popular documentaries often got left out.
One of the more vocal critics, Oscar winner and Academy board member Michael Moore, helped to write a new set of rules, and they've proved to be controversial, too. He and one of his critics will join us in just a minute.
Filmmakers, how will Oscar's new rules on feature documentaries change your business? 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, can we really believe what look like some solid economic indicators? But first, filmmaker and author Michael Moore joins us from our bureau in New York. And Michael, nice to have you back on the program.
MICHAEL MOORE: Thank you, Neal, good afternoon.
CONAN: And what were the problems with the old rules?
MOORE: The problems with the old rules is that the nominees were being chosen by small committees, and one or two people could block the nomination of a film. And in a branch that has 160 members, we came to believe that this just wasn't right, that the documentary branch, just like all the other branches, should pick the five nominees.
I mean, the editors, all the editors in their branch, picked best - the five nominees for Best Editor. The directors do the same, the actors, the writers. All the other branches except our branch has had this, like, special panel, committee, blue-ribbon thing. And if - literally if one person didn't like something, they could actually put a stop to even discussing nominating this film.
And so this has resulted in, over the years, films like "Hoop Dreams" not even being nominated, great documentary filmmakers like Frederick Wiseman, Albert Maysles, never even being nominated for an Oscar, Errol Morris never being nominated until this past decade.
And I think over the years, people have just wondered: How is it that America's, you know, greatest documentary filmmakers have never even been nominated for this? It would be odd. It would be like as if, you know, for fiction films, if Spielberg or Scorsese had never been nominated. It would just - people would think this is kind of weird.
And so I got elected to the board of governors of the Academy a couple years ago, and I came in and I said listen, I have an idea here. I think the solution to this problem is democracy. We need to have everyone voting. We need to have everyone's eyes on this. All 160 members of our branch should vote and pick the five nominees, and then all 6,000 members of the Academy should have - should be voting for what they think is the best documentary.
Every other category the entire Academy votes for, again, best editing, best writing, best makeup, whatever. But when it comes to documentaries, only sometimes as few as 100 people, sometimes maybe 400, who have these three or four nights available to them in February, who can come and judge the films in a screening room in either Los Angeles or New York - and you have to be there on those nights - they're the only ones that get to vote.
So basically, you know, you don't have all 6,000 members having a chance to have their say.
CONAN: But the one benefit of the current system is that those who are voting have at least seen the movies.
MOORE: Well, we believe, and we've set up certain structures within this new rule to make sure that - I mean, we think with 160 people watching, every movie will be seen at least once, and we will be polling our branch members to see, in fact, what they are watching. And if there are films that we find that no one has watched, then we will ask for volunteers for people to watch these films, to make sure that every film gets watched.
But look, I mean, anytime you introduce a democracy, where you make it accessible and transparent, sometimes it gets a little messy, and sometimes it's not perfect, but that's always far better - it's always better to have, you know, more input than less input.
CONAN: But some people say these rules in fact will reduce the number of films that are eligible from roughly 100 a year to maybe 60 a year. In particular, there is concern about one of the rules that you proposed that to qualify, to be considered for the Oscar, a film has to be reviewed by the New York Times or the Los Angeles Times.
MOORE: Well, the problem here is is that we've had a number of documentaries over the years which were really TV documentaries trying to get an Oscar nomination by what they call four-walling: They buy a screen in some obscure place so that nobody actually comes to see the movie, it runs for seven days, and then that qualifies them.
And we felt - we've been told, I mean, the Academy, the entire Academy only wants movies in there that have played in movie theaters. And so the New York Times has a policy that they review every single film that opens in New York. And because you have to show your film for a week in New York, that means there's going to be a review from the New York Times.
They review everything. It doesn't matter whether it's fiction or nonfiction, a big film, a small film. Every single film gets a review. And if for some chance the critic is sick that day, or the printing press fails to print that page or whatever, we have a very liberal appeals process within these new rules where you can come to us and say hey, they forgot to review my film, and we'll say OK, no problem, you're in, you're eligible.
If you had your week in a movie theater, in a real movie theater in New York City, then you qualify. And that's the way it is for all the other Oscar films. You either have to have a week in New York or L.A., and that means that the film was actually distributed in movie theaters this past year.
CONAN: Well, let's have another voice in the conversation. Joining us here in Studio 3A is Nina Gilden Seavey, founding director of SILVERDOCS, director of the documentary program at George Washington University and a filmmaker herself. Nice to have you with us.
NINA GILDEN SEAVEY: Thank you for having me.
CONAN: And what's wrong with these new proposals?
SEAVEY: Well, I would love democratization, and Michael, I think that, you know, we've always looked up to you to be, you know, sort of a leader in sort of the (unintelligible)...
CONAN: Now I can't say it. Go ahead.
SEAVEY: In the inclusive process. But I will tell you that I think what you've come upon here is really a way to exclude at least half of the films that have already tried to qualify for the Oscar. And in fact, it is already difficult to qualify for the Oscar.
And the films that you are talking about that go to TV, you know, most documentary films go to TV. That is where most of the documentary films get their funding from. Just because they've gotten funding from them does not mean that they were - that somehow they're more lowly. They play very well in the cinematic experience. There is no reason why these films should not be considered by the Academy.
MOORE: I agree.
SEAVEY: Now, I will - for example...
MOORE: If they played in a movie theater, I agree.
SEAVEY: But as it turns out, and you and both know that the IDA has always sponsored DocuWeeks. Well, DocuWeeks is what you would consider a four-wall experience. I have been a party to that experience. And every year, the DocuWeeks filmmakers try to get the New York Times to cover what they consider a festival, when in fact the Academy considers it a real, live, cinematic and theatrical experience and has been accepting that experience for quite some time.
So already we have a disjuncture between the New York Times and the - and their editorial policy and the opportunity for filmmakers to get their films seen in a real theater. These were not, you know, in somebody's basement. It was not in an alternative space. These were real, live movie theaters, and already the New York Times have refused to cover those particular films.
So we already have a disjuncture between what is the editorial policy of the New York Times and an experience which allowed filmmakers at no small cost to themselves and to their distributors and to their producers and to their financiers, many of whom, you're right, were television, but when you look at the economics of making documentary films, a filmmaker has to resort - and I know you probably don't - but many filmmakers have to resort to some television money.
That puts the filmmaker in what is, you know, frequently a Faustian bargain with, you know, the television broadcaster, and they are going to want to take it to television. So you've got a number of problems here, but many of which that will exclude many worthy documentary films from being seen both in a theater and also being considered by the Oscar.
MOORE: Actually, I think just the opposite is going to happen. I think that by requiring the, say, the TV entity who's funded the film to give the film a real theatrical release, more documentary filmmakers are going to find themselves with movies in movie theaters.
You know, listen, there's nothing wrong with television, and there's nothing wrong with a television documentary, but television has an award system, it's called the Emmys. I have one. I think it's very respectful and respectable and wonderful to have an all that, but this business of having to - you know, nobody's going to be shut out if they've had a real, theatrical run in New York or L.A. That's just not going to happen.
SEAVEY: Well, that - I mean, what are you going to do? I mean, the independent documentary filmmaker who is not represented by a mini major, say a Weinstein Company or a Sony Pictures Classics or one of the other...
CONAN: Or HBO.
SEAVEY: Or Magnolia or some of the other really good, you know, sort of distributors who can put some muscle behind a lot of these films. That's not what we're talking about. We're talking about those films that are incredibly worthy, that are beautifully cinematic, that might not have a huge box-office potential but should be seen theaters, that people do go to see them, they may not have a large theatrical life, but what they do have is they have the right to be seen on that screen, they have the right to be reviewed by the New York Times...
MOORE: And if they do - if they're seen on that screen, then they're eligible.
SEAVEY: But in a - DocuWeeks, under this new paradigm, actually cannot - it does not exist.
MOORE: Let's just explain - this is - we're into inside baseball now. Let's explain to the audience...
SEAVEY: It's all about - the devil is in the details.
MOORE: Let's explain to the audience what DocuWeeks is. You talk about the disenfranchisement of the little guy, DocuWeeks is a system where you, the independent filmmaker, who probably doesn't have a lot of money, have to pay the IDA and the theater anywhere from $14,000 to over $20,000 to have your film shown there for those few days.
This isn't like a - you know, when you're - don't call it a festival. A festival is like Toronto or New York Film Festival...
SEAVEY: Or SILVERDOCS.
MOORE: Where they - yes, where they select your film, and you don't pay them. They actually pay you to come there to the festival. DocuWeeks is - I mean, I just think back to my first film. I'm living in Flint, Michigan, I'm on unemployment, and I'd just made, you know, finished "Roger and Me" in the edit room. And if would have had to come to New York and spend $20,000, hand a theater $20,000 so I could show my movie, so I could qualify, I mean, I wouldn't have been able to do that.
Only the people that have money or have a rich uncle are able to do that, and we want that to end. We want - we love TV networks like The History Channel, which has distributed Werner Herzog's films, his wonderful films. The film he has out now, "Into the Abyss," that is completely funded by the History Channel, but The History Channel says...
CONAN: Michael, we have a short break coming up.
MOORE: Let's show this in the movie theaters first.
CONAN: Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. We're talking today about documentary features and who's eligible for the Academy Awards and give us some insight into the business and the life of documentary filmmakers. Our guests are Michael Moore, who proposed the new rules, the most contentious of which states that documentaries need to be reviewed by the New York Times or the Los Angeles Times to qualify. Moore hopes to make the process more transparent and democratic.
Nina Gilden Seavey from SILVERDOCS, who is here with us in Studio 3A, worries the new rules will limit the field and favor filmmakers with larger financial backers. Documentarians, how will the new rules feature - on feature documentaries change your business? 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. And let's go to Jeremy(ph), and Jeremy's on the line with us from Denver.
CONAN: Hi, Jeremy, go ahead, please.
JEREMY: Thank you so much. I'm a big fan of Mr. Moore's work, and I appreciate the things he's doing to keep documentary filmmaking a real art. I made a film, a feature doc, that's just being distributed right now by myself. I made a trip around the country on a golf cart asking people what's your art.
And it's a $20,000 budget. We spent our life savings and just wanted to tell a story about America and sort of where we're headed.
CONAN: And where is this film going to be seen?
JEREMY: Well, that's a good question. We've played at the Denver Film Festival and sold out two nights. And then we started four-walling because we didn't have any money to go to any other festivals. And I'm just wondering: What happens if you're not on the coasts?
MOORE: Right, that's an excellent question. Let me just say that...
SEAVEY: No, Michael, it's my turn to talk. Here I think is an excellent example of why these Academy rules are a problem. Here is a film that almost no distributor is going to take any kind of risk on; the amount of money that it would recoup at the box office would be very, very small. And so maybe this film is absolutely brilliant.
If it had been - if it were selected by one of the - you know, by DocuWeeks or one of the other, you know, sort of, you know, HBO or whatever, and they could put it into New York for that week, it would not be reviewed by the New York Times. But, you know, that $20,000 you think is that much, but, you know, with production costs being what they are today, it is a portion of the budget, and people pay that fee.
But so here is a film that would probably not, you know, (unintelligible) much box office at all. Nobody - no distributor would be willing to take the risk on it because of the - it would not be able to recoup, and it would not be eligible for the Oscar. So I would say that it is just this kind of maybe gem in the rough that will not be seen by your - you know, the 60 films that are now going to be eligible because they are supported by the mini-majors that are exactly why we should not have this new system.
CONAN: Michael, quickly?
MOORE: I think, Neal, the real discussion we should be having, and I think this caller points out what the problem is, is that we need a better distribution system for documentaries.
SEAVEY: That's a different question. That's not the question - that is not what we're talking about.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CONAN: You said earlier that it was your turn. I think it's Michael's turn now. But - so Michael Moore, go ahead.
MOORE: The word is enfranchisement.
SEAVEY: Enfranchisement, thank you. I'm from Missouri. Sometimes we have a hard time speaking.
CONAN: All right, let's move on, please.
MOORE: Yes, the point is is that I would love it if more Americans got to see - I see so many documentaries every year. People send me their documentaries. I run a film festival in Michigan. I watch hundreds of documentaries every year. And there is some great, great stuff out there.
And I just sit there, and I go oh my God, you know, what can I do to figure out how to get these things distributed. That's really the real discussion, and that's the discussion that we're going to have after this, at the Academy, is we need documentaries in movie theaters.
Now, what are we going to do to help make that happen? And that should be our real goal. This stuff with the rules, it's - all I'm trying to do is - I mean, I agree with the caller. I don't think it should just be the two coasts. That's just my personal opinion. The Academy doesn't agree with that. I think you should be able - if you were in the Denver Film Festival, you were in another film festival, that should qualify you, but that's my personal opinion.
I'm mainly concerned with the fact that when we say that these are the five nominees of the documentary branch, everybody in the documentary branch has been able to vote on it. And as I pointed out in the beginning, if you don't think there's something wrong with the system that has cut out Frederick Wiseman, the Maysles brothers, Errol Morris until recently, "Hoop Dreams," there's clearly something wrong here, and that's because it's been a close-knit thing where it's not been accessible to the entire branch and the entire Academy to vote for.
And these new rules are going to fix that, and I don't think we're going to have these problems in the future.
CONAN: Jeremy, let me ask you: What is - obviously an Academy Award nomination would be swell. I assume the award you're actually looking for is funding for your next film.
JEREMY: That's actually not true. This is our baby, and we've put our savings into it because we think it's an important story to tell and to get out to the people who want to hear it. So no, it's not about funding. It's not even necessarily about an Academy Award. It's about getting it to the people that want to see it, and those people might not just be in L.A. or New York City.
MOORE: That's right, and that is, Neal, the real issue. And Jeremy, you know, first of all, the film sounds great, going across the country on a golf cart. You already had me with that. So if you want to send a copy of it to me, I will certainly see what I can do to get it in the hands of people who might be interested in distributing it.
JEREMY: Just as long as you keep fighting for the people who don't have - who don't have those dollars, I think that's more than generous.
SEAVEY: But that's, Michael, that's what I want you to do, as well. And I think that what's...
MOORE: That's what I have done. That's the whole point of this...
SEAVEY: And that is who you are, but I think that what you're going to find...
MOORE: Is to not cut people out, and there have been people blocking these nominations for years, and now that's going to stop. That's going to end, and everybody's going to have a fair and equal chance. If you had your theater, if you've been in the theater for one week in the last year, you're eligible, and it's going to be a much more open, transparent and accessible system than what we've had in the past.
And the New York Times review, again, is just one of the benchmarks that you're supposed to send in just to prove that you were in a theater. That's all. It's not - you're not going to get Xed out. The New York Times has no say in this. It's just one of those pieces of paper we'd like you to send just to show that yes, I was in a movie theater last year.
SEAVEY: Michael, what I don't understand is if you're going to cut the number of qualifying films down...
MOORE: I hope we don't cut it...
SEAVEY: But no, you, yourself, have said...
MOORE: I want to see more documentaries.
SEAVEY: No, you, yourself, have said that this is probably going to cut the number of films down to about half of what it currently is. You can't be inclusive and exclusive at the same time. That literally defies the laws of physics.
CONAN: We've heard your point, Nina Gilden Seavey. What about Michael's point that these popular films, these renowned filmmakers, have been excluded?
SEAVEY: I agree. It's - but the question is whether...
MOORE: And how'd that happen? How'd that happen?
SEAVEY: The way that it happened is that the taste of the Academy has frequently been different than the taste of the general public. And so when you take a look at the kinds of films maybe Frederick Wiseman or D.A. Pennebaker or Albert Maysles, none of whom, as you say, have ever been nominated, certainly not have won, what you see is a disparity between what people go to, you know, and see in the movie theater and the way that the Academy has traditionally voted.
So the question is not, you know, why - and look, this is in some ways this has all been brought about because "Hoop Dreams" did not get nominated, and again Steve James was again, you know, kind of cut out of the process with "The Interrupters." So that has kind of sparked this new sort of query. The question is how the voting could have been fixed in order to keep as much inclusivity as possible and still not allow the New York Times and any other newspaper to decide who's going to qualify and who doesn't.
MOORE: They don't. They don't decide. It's just one of the things that we want you to send in.
CONAN: We've been over this point.
MOORE: Yeah, I don't know why - but you can't keep saying something that isn't true. So that - listen, this is - we're going to see more documentaries eligible, and we're going to see more documentaries in movie theaters, and TV networks are going to want those in the theater, like History Channel has done. A&E has done it. Discovery has done it. And there's just a couple of channels that haven't done it, and they need to do it.
And that's going to - we're going to make documentary filmmakers a lot happier because their work is going to be seen by more people in these theaters.
CONAN: Jeremy, good luck.
JEREMY: Thank you so much.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller in on the conversation. Let's go to Chris(ph), another caller from Denver.
CHRIS: Hi, yeah, I'm kind of tweaking my initial question a little bit based on recent discussion that you all have had. I think that part of the problem is that our distribution has changed. You know, it used to be that we would only see documentaries on PBS, and obviously PBS has systems in place to fund that documentary filmmaking.
Now, we obviously have the cable outlets, which you all have discussed some, and increasingly we have consumers consuming film, including documentary film, on demand through a variety of different sources. So I think that you all are making some inroads in the process of evaluating documentaries that are Oscar worthy.
But I'm not quite sure that you're done yet because I think we need to think about the consumption end, and it sounds like from both of you, you're interested in having consumers, you know, see and be exposed to more documentaries.
As a filmmaker, you know, I would put earning an Oscar or an Oscar nomination above earning an Emmy, and I hate to, you know, hurt any Emmy Academy people out there, hurt their feelings, but, you know, we have more opportunities for funding and for distribution on television now, which makes the benchmark of, you know, having that theatrical release very, very difficult - from a filmmaker's perspective - to be able to have. And we've got historical data that supports this. You mentioned a number of filmmakers that haven't been nominated. It makes it very difficult for the films to be seen and embraced and considered for, you know, an award.
SEAVEY: And that is exactly the problem, is that, frequently, that's where documentary filmmaking - filmmakers get their money.
CONAN: But is this...
SEAVEY: It may not be in whole. It may just be in part. But once you have bought into, you know, a partnership with a broadcaster, they may place certain kind of requirements, as HBO has done, and sometimes "POV" have done...
CONAN: On PBS.
SEAVEY: ...on PBS, and that that has - that then hampers the ability of a filmmaker to have control over his or her own product. And so what this young woman is saying is exactly the problem.
CHRIS: But the difference is, you know, historically, it used to be that the best documentaries, the highest-caliber documentaries were things that were distributed via PBS. Now, filmmakers, you know, they've got better equipment. There are more sources for funding. You don't necessarily have to go that route.
So we've got some high - very high-caliber documentaries that are being independently produced and that are being independently distributed, or not getting distribution at all. Plus we have new distribution outlets for them. And so I'm not sure that the rules are, you know, right now, really prepared for where we are now and where we're going to be just a couple of years in the future.
CONAN: And that is on the rules that you proposed, Michael Moore, focus so much on the theatrical experience.
MOORE: Well, the Oscars are for movies that are in theaters. Right? I mean, that's - the National Book Awards are for books that were published. I don't know - I don't know how to answer that.
SEAVEY: It has to be the cinematic experience.
MOORE: Unless you think the Oscars - if you think the Oscars should just be for any movie, no matter whether it's on the Internet or your iPhone or television, that's a discussion to have. But I think - I can't speak for the greater Academy. I think the Academy believes that it exists to support and promote the theatrical experience of people going to the movies in movie theaters.
SEAVEY: But the question is: How do you get it into the movie theater if you are not allowed to have - if you're not allowed to work through some of these more alternative systems, or through four-walling, as you say? But listen, they can...
CONAN: But if you make a deal with a broadcaster, aren't you making a deal to be a broadcast movie?
SEAVEY: No, because most documentaries - I mean, that's...
CONAN: You may not want to, but if you sign a deal, aren't you making that agreement?
SEAVEY: Well, I mean, yes. But there is - I mean, how many various ways are there to get a documentary funded? Most people are struggling. Michael is not.
CONAN: But if you make the deal - I know. I understand. But...
SEAVEY: So the question is, is that - and I went back before I came over here, and I took a look at some of the box office receipts for some of the really well-known Oscar-nominated films. So take a look at even - OK, "Man on" - last year, "Inside Job" did $4 million, which was a lot, obviously. And, Michael, of course, you hit, you know, you've hit it out of the ballpark.
"Man on Wire," three million. "The Cove," 850,000. Then you start to go way down. "Taxi to the Dark Side," 275,000. "One Day in September," 156,000. "To Hell and Back Again," which is up for this year's Oscar, $37,000. Look, what you're talking about, the economics are very difficult for theatrical distributors to take these films. They need television money.
CONAN: We're talking about the Oscar and feature documentaries. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
You just heard Nina Gilden Seavey, who's the founding director of Silverdocs and a director of documentary programs at George Washington University. Also with us, Michael Moore, the film director and author and member of the Academy Board of Governors. Let's see if we can get another caller in. This is Brian, Brian with us from Detroit.
BRIAN: Hi. I'm just - it's an honor to be on the phone. And, Michael, I got to say that I'm - you know, "Roger & Me" was a big inspiration for me. I just won the Social Justice Award in Santa Barbara for a documentary I did on the BP oil spill, and I had $1,500 total for the first trip. And when I started, I only had 200 bucks, and I literally drove down there and filmed it out of the backseat of my car.
And, you know, and I think it's really important when you're trying to challenge these big institutions like BP and all this other stuff with - if you're making a brave film, you're going to be doing those things, you know, to diversify, first and foremost, the people that are going to be voting in - on these films, whether they're going to be accepted.
And then the second thing is if you're being funded by, you know, a TV organization, then, you know, they're - those people do have a say in how the film's done. And I think that, you know, by being able to be in festivals and possibly get momentum behind you, I just feel like diversification of the people that vote on it is really important, and the theater allows you to do that.
And, you know, it's like, for my film, you know, I don't have the resources that even a TV organization had. I mean, I literally lived with the people of the Gulf and filmed this thing. And we had a huge response, but, you know, how can I compete against people who were down there and had $100,000 to shoot? And I just learned, like, you know, taking the money out of the equation - especially for documentaries that are trying to be brave - and challenge these things is important.
MOORE: And sometimes when you take that money, like, from, say, PBS, and you're doing a film about an oil company's evil ways, you're taking - it's hard to get that money from a network that depends, often, on those oil companies sponsoring their programs.
So, you know, Neal, if you and I owned a TV network, and let's say Nina or somebody came to us with a documentary idea and we liked it and we gave her the money for it, but then she said to us, yeah, but, you know, I don't really - you know - I mean, TV's OK, but I really think that this, you know, this should have, you know, a theatrical release and - I mean, it's kind of a slap in the face to the TV network to say that.
I mean, that - the TV networks have been great about funding documentaries. And to act like TV is bad, I mean, TV is always going to reach more people than the movie theatres. So I would not put down the whole - the TV experience. I just think there are - there's an award system for television. There's an award system for the movies. And my goal is to get more people into the movie theaters and more documentaries into these movie theaters. That is priority one.
CONAN: I'm afraid we're going to have to leave it there. Michael Moore, thanks, as always, for your time.
MOORE: Thank you so much, Neal.
CONAN: Michael Moore joined us from our bureau in New York. And Nina Gilden Seavey was with us here in Studio 3A. Thank you.
SEAVEY: Thanks for having me.
CONAN: Coming up, is it time to get optimistic about the U.S. economy? Tell us how things have changed for you in the last few months: 800-989-8255. Or send us an email: firstname.lastname@example.org. We'll be back after a short break. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.