The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences -- or just, you know, the Academy, as most of us call it -- has announced changes to the eligibility requirements for documentaries. Basically, it's much easier to qualify now than it was before.
The rule used to be that a documentary had to play in a theater in Los Angeles County or Manhattan for seven consecutive days, with at least two showings a day -- plus, it also had to play for at least three days in 14 additional theaters in 10 additional states. Now they've cut it back to just a seven-day run in L.A. and (not or) Manhattan.
The thing is, this is already the rule for regular, non-documentary movies. To be eligible, a film just has to play for seven days in L.A. County. Why did it used to be harder for docs? I have no idea, and I can't seem to track down any reasons on our friend the Internet. My best guess is that it was to prevent made-for-TV documentaries from gaining eligibility by getting a cursory week-long run in L.A., waiting the required 60 days, then airing on TV where they were intended to show in the first place. The multi-state roll-out meant that you had to be kinda serious about getting your doc qualified, which would discourage HBO or PBS or whoever from doing it as an afterthought.
Whatever the reason was, the Academy has thought better of it and made the rules much simpler. In the press release, documentary committee chair Michael Apted said, "We believe the new rules will successfully eliminate from consideration documentaries made principally for television, the Internet or anywhere else." That lends credence to my theory about why it used to be harder, although it doesn't explain what has changed to make the Academy think that it's safe to relax the rules now.
This won't affect the current awards season, by the way, but will start with next year's (i.e., the Oscars given out in 2009). And it's still a rule that a film cannot be shown on TV or the Internet within 60 days of the first day of its Oscar-qualifying theatrical run.