The committee is necessary because it's unreasonable to expect everyone in the documentary branch to watch all 70 eligible films. The problem is, how does the committee choose which 15 are worthy of consideration? Is it strictly a judgment call? Personal preference? Do they place special emphasis, consciously or subconsciously, on "important," issue-related docs?
Every year there's at least one outrageous omission from the shortlist. The most infamous example is Hoop Dreams. Grizzly Man and Crumb didn't make it, either. This year's shortlist overlooks such notable, worthy docs as The King of Kong, In the Shadow of the Moon, The Devil Came on Horseback, and Kurt Cobain About a Son. I'm not saying any of them needs to win the Oscar, but come on. Shouldn't they at least be eligible to be nominated?
About a Son director AJ Schnack (pictured) has had enough, too. He railed against the shortlist process when this year's 15 selections were announced in November, and now he's spearheaded the creation of a brand-new award for documentaries. He got Toronto International Film Festival programmer Thom Powers and distributor IndiePix involved, and folks from several other film festivals are on the committee, too.
This new award uses different criteria to determine eligibility. This year's Oscar requirements are here; the slightly modified requirements for next year are here; Schnack & Co's much more inclusive rules are mentioned here. (Schnack took his own film out of the running.)
And yes, there's a shortlist, with only five films overlapping the Academy's shortlist. This narrowing-down process is necessary with so many films eligible, but I still have this question: Is Schnack & Co's list any better than Oscar's, or is it just different? It still boils down to a committee's own opinions and preferences. For example, The King of Kong, a huge audience favorite and certainly an excellent documentary, isn't on either shortlist.
In addition to an overall best picture award, there will also be awards for direction, editing, cinematography, and other categories. The official name of the awards, as well as the nominees, will be announced during the Sundance Film Festival. The prizes will be given at the IFC Center in New York on March 18.