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Useful Notes / Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature

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The Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature was first given out at the 1943 ceremony for films released in 1942.  That first award was actually for both feature documentaries and documentary shorts, and featured four winners and 24 nominees.  Starting with the next ceremony, for films released in 1943, a distinction was drawn between documentary features and documentary short films.

Films are nominated based on Academy eligibility rules for documentaries, which are noticeably different from those for most other Oscars.

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  • The main means of qualifying is roughly similar to that for most other awards—namely, the films must run for at least one week in theaters in both Los Angeles County and New York City, and cannot have previously aired on television or the Internet. The "and New York City" is important—general Academy rules require only the LA County run. But Wait, There's More!...
    • The films must have been the subject of a review by a writer for at least one of four designated media outlets—The New York Times, Time Out New York, the Los Angeles Times, and LA Weekly.
    • During the qualifying run, the film must be shown at least three times daily, with one of the showings starting between 6 pm and 10 pm local time.
    • The film must be shown no later than 2 years after its completion.
  • Another way of qualifying is the film festival route. A documentary that wins one of an Academy-designated set of major film festival awards is eligible regardless of any prior TV or internet airing.
  • If a film that meets the Academy's requirements to be classified as a "documentary" is an official submission for the Academy Award for Best International Feature Film,note  it's also eligible for Best Documentary.
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  • Finally, a film that wins a gold, silver, or bronze award in the Documentary category of the immediately previous Student Academy Awards is eligible.

This has led to some controversies. A documentary called Young Americans won the award for Best Documentary Feature of 1968 before it was discovered to have actually first played in 1967; the Oscar was revoked. Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, the highest grossing documentary film of all time and winner of the Palme d'Or at Cannes, was ruled ineligible after Moore allowed it to be run on television before its theatrical run. Many other omissions have caused Award Snub controversies. 1994 film Hoop Dreams, hailed as an instant classic and regarded as a possible Best Picture candidate that year, was not even nominated for Documentary Feature, causing the nomination process to be revised. Further revisions of the process in 2013 mandated a release in Manhattan for candidate films, in addition to the Los Angeles County release required under general Academy rules. Another recent revision came in 2017, after the nearly eight-hour O.J.: Made in America (screened in three parts for its qualifying run, and later in five parts for TV) won the award; the Academy ruled that multi-part productions would be ineligible for future awards in this category. For 2018, the Manhattan qualifying run was replaced by one in any of the five boroughs, and Time Out New York and LA Weekly were added to the list of accepted review outlets.

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Although documentaries are eligible for the Best Picture award, no documentary has ever been nominated, unless one counts Chang being nominated for the alternate "Unique and Artistic Production" award at the first Oscar ceremony in 1929.


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