Sunday, February 27, 2011

poster girl

Nomination Dispute on Oscar Doc Short POSTER GIRL Ignites Divisive Fight at the Academy

For most of the world, the press release sent out by the Academy one week ago today seemed simple and direct.  Headed "Oscar Credits Determined for Documentary Short Subjects", the release was only somewhat notable in that it announced the first Oscar nomination for Mitchell Block, a veteran player and somewhat controversial figure in the documentary world, for the short film POSTER GIRL, which was directed by Sara Nesson.
But what seemed simple on the outside masked an fierce dispute within the Academy's Documentary Branch.  Two different committees had ruled that Block had not done enough work on the film to qualify for an Oscar nod, but those decisions were overturned by a four-person review committee that represented the Academy's Board of Governors.  How and why the decision went to the four-person committee is at the crux of the conflict.
Perhaps none of this would be known outside of the Academy if Freida Lee Mock, the Oscar winning filmmaker and former Doc Branch Governor, had not emailed some of the details to Roger Ebert, who last Friday wrote about the dispute and then quickly deleted the blog post, reportedly after hearing from Movie City News' David Poland.  By late Friday afternoon, all that remained was Poland's own post, which was sympathetic to Block and critical of Mock, but which remained somewhat vague as to what actually happened.
While Poland suggested that the situation was a smear job against Block, conversations with a number of Academy members over the weekend reveal a much more complicated - and a far more divisive - battle than has been publicly made known.  And while the heart of the dispute rests with the Academy's real desire to limit inappropriate producer credits, it's set against a backdrop of a series of personal grudges that date back to the late 1980s.
At its essence, the POSTER GIRL fight begins with an Academy-wide effort to confirm that the producer who is nominated is the person who actually does the work of a day-to-day producer, primarily responsible for overseeing the whole filmmaking process.
It's an open secret that producer credits are handed out indiscriminately in film, so over the past few years the Academy has worked, in partnership with the Producers Guild, to strengthen the rule and to make sure nominations aren't given to money men (or women), distributors and the like.
This is true even (and maybe especially) in the documentary branch, where only two people may receive nominations for a film (as compared to three people in the Best Picture category).  In addition to other controversies that mark the last few decades of the branch, there's a history of nominees (and even winners) who were not the true producer of record, and this recent effort is an attempt to rectify that.
In conversations with Academy members, several pointed to Michael Donovan, who shared the Documentary Feature Oscar with Michael Moore on BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE, as one such example.  All agree that Donovan was the financier on the film, with two stating that the true producer on the film was Moore's wife, Kathleen Glynn (others suggested this was not the case).  Another mentioned the double wins in the 1990s by Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center as an example of an Oscar winner who didn't take on the true tasks of a real day-to-day producer.
Nearly all noted an intense, behind-the-scenes discussion last year as to who should be the second nominee on Louie Psihoyos' THE COVE - Paula dePre Pesman, who had overseen the entire production, or Fisher Stevens, who helped shape the film into its final form during post-production.  Many felt that Pesman should be the nominee, but Stevens was ultimately named as such by the Academy (and he eventually won).  One Academy member called this particular decision a "Sophie's choice" caused by AMPAS rules that allow only one award be given to a documentary film's producer.
Several people who have been nominees in the past few years described a thorough vetting process, with one equating it to a cross-examination, although most seemed to take it in stride.  One veteran player in the documentary world told me that the vetting process was even more stringent at the Primetime Emmys.
None the Academy members I spoke to were willing to speak for attribution and many would only confirm details that I'd heard from other sources.
This year, the Producers Guild told the Academy that they couldn't handle doing the vetting on the documentary short films, which turned the process over to an internal committee of documentary branch members, of which Freida Lee Mock was reportedly a member.  It was the first time that an internal documentary branch committee had overseen the vetting process since the Academy stepped up regulation of producer credits a few years ago.
In the case of POSTER GIRL, the filmmakers filled out their paperwork asserting that Sara Nesson and Mitchell Block should be that film's potential nominees.  And while Oscar procedures now allow for anonymous complaints about who should be nominated, all of the Academy members I spoke to said that there were no complaints from anyone connected with POSTER GIRL regarding Block's potential nomination.
But the history of POSTER GIRL paints a more complicated path to its inception, one that was sure to raise eyebrows of the documentary branch.


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