“Writing with Fire,” a documentary about a low-caste Dalit women-run Indian news media, became the first Indian feature documentary nominated for the Oscar in 2022 despite having a very low marketing budget.
Another small-team Danish documentary, “Flee,” received nominations for Best Documentary Feature Film, Best Animated Feature Film, and Best International Feature Film. At that time, many people started to think that independent directors, who aimed to expose significant social issues and were sharp and profound, had somehow managed to break free from the PR rivalry and become the stars of the industry.
“The Academy is getting younger and more international; it’s a broader, more diverse, more open organization,” stated an Academy consultant who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Everything appeared to be heading in the right way.
This year, the documentary “20 Days In Mariupol,” which centres on the first-hand accounts of the war captured by journalists, received Academy attention for its New York theater release following its Sundance global premiere. In contrast to the streaming platform’s generous Oscar budgets, the film’s entire marketing team had very little money; “All Static & Noise” another low-budget documentary about the plight of Uighurs in China, has also unexpectedly made its way onto the Oscar shortlist due to the buzz generated by its Washington premiere. It all seems quite encouraging. It’s surprising that the majority of publishers saw this as a “low probability event.”
Another fact is that in order to pack into the Oscar, major distributors have turned the screening venue into a luxury event held in a large hotel in New York, and each cost tens of thousands of dollars. They have also heavily invested in hiring a top Oscar publicity consultant team, which includes setting up billboards to draw in Oscar voters. Many in the industry have raised concerns regarding the unfairness of the competition for the Best Documentary Oscar, claiming that it is simply a contest between rich people with deep pockets.
Conversely, as the market for documentaries declines and the number of buyers at major film festivals around the globe drastically declines, streaming services like Netflix seem to be losing interest in films that take home significant festival awards. The Sundance Film Festival is the top film festival in the United States, where distributors have long been able to choose high-quality documentaries, even the seeds of the next year’s Academy Awards. “Fire of Love” and “All That Breathes” were two of the Sundance nominees from the previous year that received Oscar nominations. It appears that documentaries that are nominated to the Sundance Film Festival usually rarely worry about future sales. However, the majority of films in the 2023 Sundance Film Festival have yet to get buyers.
At this Cannes Film Festival, “The Mother of All Lies” took home the Best Director and Best Documentary Film awards. Salma Abdalla, director of global sales for Autlook, stated that the film is currently not available to be successfully distributed to a wide audience. The money needed to publicize the Oscars is still lacking.
Wendy Lidell, a vice president at Kino Lorber, bluntly called the unfairness of the Oscar competition for the top documentary “crazy.” “It’s true that high publicity costs are increasingly becoming a barrier to entry for good films, especially for documentaries that focus on storytelling or are made by young filmmakers, which is a very serious problem,” he stated.
“If you don’t have a team behind you, it must be very difficult to win an award just for the documentary itself.” Tom Bernard, co-president of SONY Pictures Classics (SPC) stated that “Because you don’t have the financial resources to compete with a media giant like Disney, who will buy the rights to a documentary for between $5 million and $7 million and then go out of their way to win best documentary feature, The whole Oscar table is tilted in favor of the person with the money.”
Some people still think that the film’s quality is most important which will make an impression on them, despite the fact that marketing expenses are getting more and more expensive. Others are also moving their investment strategies, searching for ways to break the game. Some are looking for changes in how the Academy Awards award documentaries. According to Bernard, the jury members should select the five nominations and the shortlist of documentaries; they do not need to be documentary section to make this decision. He wants the award to work like the Best Foreign Language Film category, inviting members from different departments to vote for both finalists and nominees.
Kellen Quinn, the producer of “A Still Small Voice,” which won Best Documentary Director at Sundance, regarding the growing promotional expenses associated with Oscars: “We don’t have to win an Oscar. We really want to create a connection between the film and the audience through different kinds of publicity, and that’s an important motivation for our promotion.”