Rule Eleven: What It Takes to Qualify Your Documentary for an Academy Award

Searching for Sugar ManFor better or worse, winning an Oscar is as good as it gets within the Film Industry. Haven’t we all imagined our thank you speech where we acknowledge our moms or give the metaphorical middle finger to our enemies? However, getting nominated for an Academy Award requires more than just making a good film -- and for a documentary, you have to start thinking about this early or risk disqualification, as filmmaker Hunter Weeks explains in the FilmCourage interview below.

Hunter Weeks, director of a feature documentary about the oldest people in the world, knew he wanted to try to qualify his doc Walter for an Oscar. But beware, the Academy doesn't believe in self-distribution or social media campaigns: the Academy wants films that have already been vetted by the Industry, and to them this means having a commercial run and reviews by the biggest critics, for starters. For a grassroots documentary, Weeks points out, you'll have to jump through some expensive hoops, but it CAN be done:

Weeks mentions that you can expect to spend at least $25,000 on your commercial theatrical run, from booking the space to hiring the publicist. That’s a lot of money to spend on one aspect of a low-budget documentary! But, as Weeks points out, at least you are getting yourself a commercial run and -- most likely -- a critical review (let’s hope it’s good):

These are minimum requirements -- You’ve got to be in the big city with all the other films that come out every week, and there’s about 20+ that come out each week. And you’ve got to have reviews in New York and on the West Coast in proper newpapers like The New York Times. Which becomes fairly easy to do if you have a commercial release in New York, because as of right now, it’s the New York Times policy to review films that play for over a week there.

Think you might want your film to go this route? Dive in to the Academy's Rule Eleven: Special Rules for the Documentary Awards, and take a gander at a few of the requirements you’ll have to complete:

  • Your film must have a 7-day commercial run in BOTH Manhattan and Los Angeles County (where the film screens twice a day between noon and 10pm.)
  • You need to advertize for the film in The New York Times, Time Out New York or The Village Voice AND Los Angeles Times or LA Weekly.
  • The film must have a review in The New York Times and/or Los Angeles Times.
  • Your film may not have had first public exhibition on TV, Cable, or the Internet.
  • You need to send 250 DVDs to the Academy, with no art on them whatsoever.

And that's the short list! What do you think about the rules on qualifying for an Oscar? Should they make exceptions for independent films, or is this system the best way to ensure material of the highest caliber?


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Your Comment


Hi Oakley,

We just wanted to thank you for this great write-up. We hope a few filmmakers find this information helpful.

October 18, 2013 at 3:34PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


It makes sense to me that they would want to ensure at least some standards considering the $$$ that is thrown around by the big studios... They have to protect their industry and $25k in advertising doesn't seem unattainable. That said, if quality and "story" (ie. Stillmotion caliber work) were to be number one, it would be a much more competitive market.

Someday I would love to make something big enough to be nominated for an award of that level :)
Minneapolis Video Producer
Provid Films

October 19, 2013 at 5:28AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM

You voted '-1'.

This rather proves that the Academy Awards don't really prioritize quality of the work, I see it as a fancy club where little ones have no access ;D. This is a step towards tradition rather than coming forward new ways of filmmaking. But on the other hand, maybe this is why everyone wants the Oscar so much! Anyway thanks for the article, very interesting information.

October 19, 2013 at 5:54AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Anyway thanks for the article, very interesting information.

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March 18, 2016 at 8:52AM