Oscar Statue

I sometimes wonder not only if the Academy of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences realizes it’s imposing 1930’s sensibilities on a 2012 world, but if in a sense it is pushing a Norma Desmondesque notion that, “I am big — It’s the pictures that got small.”

When it comes to documentaries, they did get small, and I think that’s wonderful. Small, numerous and meaningful – the antithesis of the studio system that created the Oscars as a self-congratulatory big-business exercise.

That silent-movie attitude about the way the Academy decides what’s good is appalling.

According to reporting Sunday by The New York Times, the Academy has decided, in its infinite wisdom, that it would only consider documentaries reviewed in one of the Two Timeses, The New York Times or the Los Angeles Times, as if those two newspapers are the ultimate arbiters of what’s good.

On one coast is a bankrupt newspaper whose owner may not survive. On the other is a city where acclaim is recognized as coming from a panoply of critics, such as the double Davids, Denby and Edelstein. In between is a vast middle of people with names like Chris Vognar, Lisa Kennedy and Roger Ebert, who might as well stop reviewing nonfiction.

The fact that The New York Times posted what I read as a somewhat chagrined article indicates it has taken a “What, me?” approach. Suddenly, A.O. Scott is the go-to guy. Scott politely called the rule change “flattering,” but his tone may have also been one of sadness.

If power becomes concentrated, and publicists rule the game, will documentarians, who are all essentially independent filmmakers, have the money to play?

Read: The 10 Most Powerful People in the Documentary World

Look at the numbers. According to the Times article, the Academy considered 124 movies in 2011. That’s it? 2.4 docs a week? What were they watching otherwise? “Desperate Housewives?”

I’d love it if the arbiters were documentary lovers who wanted to see many more than that on a weekly basis. Armchair Joe watches many more hours of football each week, and then he goes to work in the morning.

In its Saul Steinberg view of America, the Academy only thinks a documentary film is real if it plays in New York or Los Angeles – not Park City, not Austin, not Columbia, Missouri. Certainly not Toronto, or Sheffield, or Edinburgh.

There are stunning and meaningful documentaries being produced at an unprecedented rate, which is the most happy outcome of the digital age — amazing work by “outsiders” who lack the speed dial of the L.A. players but who know how to tell a damned good story. They use cheap camcorders and HDSLRs and other DIY tactics to tell sublime and gripping tales. And there have never been so many channels to distribute them, but the Academy has yet to fully support them. It continues to shun screeners for documentary consideration. Though there are hints this might be relaxed, according to its official rules, “the Academy remains firmly committed to the principal that motion pictures competing for Academy Awards should be seen and heard in a theatrical setting.”

You’d have to go back a few decades to see sense in this. Since it wasn’t practical to ship reels to Academy members, documentary producers made sure their films played in NYC or LA for a week so voters could pop in and see them. (Academy voters in those days only lived in New York or LA, but don’t get me going on that.)

The stated policy that The New York Times reviews every film released on a commercial screen for a week in New York or Los Angeles, and reviews some new releases screened by nonprofit groups like the Museum of Modern Art, presumes they always will. Unlikely. Shrinking news holes defy that, and make me wonder why two newspapers suddenly have such cachet.

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Edward J. Delaney is a journalist, author, filmmaker and editor of DocumentaryTech, an online project that explores documentary filmmaking techniques and technology.