Producers at Sheffield Doc/Fest talk about Oscars race for documentaries.

Producer Simon Chinn paid tribute to Malik Bendjelloul, the 36-year-old director of Oscar winning documentary Searching For Sugar Man who died in May, at a panel which took place during Sheffield’s Doc/Fest (June 9).

Sitting on the panel entitled “The Race For the Documentary Oscar,” Chinn described the moment the young Swedish director walked into his office with the idea for Searching for Sugar Man.

“He completely won me over, he was a wonderful, infectious enthusiast and he had this story that he thought could go all the way. I remember in our first meeting he uttered the word Oscar,” said Chinn, who added that he would “like to dedicate my contribution today to Malik’s memory.” [He is pictured with Bendjelloul on the night of their Oscar win.]

Also on the Doc/Fest panel were Israeli distributor Cinephil’s Philippa Kowarsky, which was behind this year’s divisive Oscar nominated documentary The Act of Killing and 2012 shortlisted doc The Gatekeepers, and editor of BBC Storyville Nick Fraser who backed the 2009 Oscar winner Man on Wire, also produced by Chinn.

Speaking about the new Oscar voting system for documentaries introduced in 2012 - which allows Academy members to watch DVD screeners at home and vote online, as opposed to having to watch films in the cinema - Chinn said that “it’s certainly a more democratic system than the previous one, but inevitably it ends up favouring popularity and resources. Sugar Man was far and away the most commercially successful film of the films that year.”

“It means filmmakers are being nudged towards films that require a certain amount of commercial success, which in some ways is no bad thing” added Chinn, who recently launched a new company, Lightbox, focusing on creating non fiction content for a variety of different platforms.

“Both Searching for Sugar Man and [2014 winner] 20 Feet From Stardom are the kind of films you can sit and watch at home with your family, you have a wonderful evening and then you vote for them,” added Kowarsky, who pointed to the importance of securing the right distributor in waging a successful Oscar campaign. Referring to Sony Pictures Classics which backed both Gatekeepers and Sugar Man in the same year, she added: “They really do know how to do it, we were like their sous chefs.”

While admitting that winning Oscars has been “good for business,” Chinn warned that for filmmakers, an Oscar could be a “double-edged sword.”

“Winning an Oscar can put a crushing pressure on young filmmakers who sometimes haven’t gone on to work for a long time afterwards.”

Whilst criticising the dominance of the Oscars in the US, Fraser, meanwhile, called for the introduction in the UK of the equivalent of the Peabody Awards, which don’t have categories, but which, he said, have “a record of consistently giving awards to the best documentaries.”