Michael Apted knew he was in for some flak when he went to meet the documentary film-making communities of Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco late last year.

But the chairman of the documentary branch executive committee of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (Ampas) thought the meetings were the best way to deal with criticism of the complex and seemingly ever-changing rules governing the Academy's documentary feature and documentary short Oscar categories.

"I was frankly getting tired of it," says Apted, who is also, of course, an award-winning movie, TV and documentary director and president of the Directors Guild of America. "We were getting so much shit from people, I thought, 'Let's go out and face it.'"

The meetings gave vent to "some anger and venom", concedes Apted, one of three Ampas governors from the documentary branch. They also, however, led to a recent streamlining of the documentary category rules. This ongoing revision reflects the growing complexity - and box-office significance - of documentaries.

Chief among the changes announced in October is the elimination, for the 2008 awards year (which for documentaries runs from September 1, 2007 to August 31, 2008), of the multi-city theatrical rollout requirement.

Previously, films needed 14 exhibitions spread across at least 10 US states in addition to a seven-day run in either Los Angeles or New York.

The idea, explains Ampas executive director Bruce Davis, has always been to focus on "the subset of documentaries that have a theatrical existence. We go through a lot of pain trying to figure out how you define that theatrical existence."

Under the new rule, documentary features will have to play for at least seven days in both Los Angeles and New York but will not be required to go into other cities.

The new rule is "much cleaner, much simpler", says Apted. "But it also, in some ways, may be more difficult, because it's harder to get exhibition in LA or New York than it might be in Idaho or wherever."

So, he adds: "I don't know that the exploration (of the theatrical exhibition requirement) is finished even now. We'll see what happens."

The change has already produced what Apted describes as "a slight complaint" from the Toronto International Film Festival because the requirement for New York as well as Los Angeles exhibition could detract from the impact of festival screenings taking place just after the end of the documentary qualifying period.

The television compromise

Television holdback is another subject over which Academy rule-makers have often come under fire.

Several years ago, the holdback required between a documentary's qualifying theatrical run and its first TV screening was increased from six to nine months.

More recently, however, Ampas cut the holdback - which applies to TV screenings anywhere in the world and now also to internet transmission - to only 60 days after the first day of a film's qualifying theatrical run.

The length of the original holdback "was largely because one of our main interests is to preserve the theatrical purity of the Academy", says Apted. Though it is, he reports, "still being debated," the change to a 60-day holdback was "in a sense an attempt to make life easier for financiers of documentaries. We have to acknowledge that a lot of documentaries are financed by television companies."

The holdback can still cause problems for international sales companies trying to decide whether to license a film to territories where the only documentary buyers are TV companies. But then, says Apted: "If you want to be part of the Academy, you have to make that decision."

The recent rule changes have done a lot to transform an Oscar category once described by Apted himself as a "train wreck".

In the past, when non-documentarians could vote in a process that allowed them to stop screenings in mid-flow, such acclaimed films as Hoop Dreams, The Thin Blue Line and Roger & Me were overlooked in the category. Now, with around 80% of the documentary branch's 142 members volunteering to share viewing duties and a two-stage voting system that selects 15 shortlisted titles and then five nominees from 50-90 qualifying films, glaring omissions are rare.

Recent winners have included The Fog Of War, from Thin Blue Line director Errol Morris, and critical and commercial successes March Of The Penguins and An Inconvenient Truth.

The category's rules and voting procedures will never be perfect, say Davis and Apted, and will need to evolve to reflect what the latter points out is now "a very varied and very complicated" documentary world.

But the category now does a better job, the two men suggest, of reflecting the increased standing of documentaries and the continuing importance of a nomination or award to recipients.

"I think we'll keep changing the rules," Apted affirms. "Hopefully not as much as we have been, but we'll still have to try and get it as fair and as even as we can. But I think the train-wreck days are long gone."

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