It was a superb Hollywood face-lift. By announcing a major overhaul in its controversial documentary nominating process, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences tried late last month to look good despite one of the most embarrassing and widely criticized episodes in its history — the snubbing of Hoop Dreams, last year’s highly praised film about two teenage basketball hopefuls struggling to make it out of inner-city Chicago and into the pros.
”I don’t know that any of these changes would have made any difference at all in the outcome of nominations,” Academy president Arthur Hiller said in June. And indeed, many of the changes he announced seemed benign. From now on, branches in New York and Los Angeles will split the initial viewing of contenders for nominations, and a strange seven-point scoring system will be changed to…a strange five-point scoring system.
But the alterations are, in fact, intended to make certain that what happened to Hoop Dreams never happens to another film — and although nobody at the Academy is using the word, Hiller’s own internal investigation appears to have revealed that Hoop Dreams‘ omission was, indeed, something of a conspiracy.
The outrage began on Valentine’s Day, when it became clear that the perennially controversial documentary nominating committee had failed to put Dreams on the ballot. Some on the committee insisted the outcry was being drummed up to sell tickets by the film’s distributor, Fine Line Features. (Even without a nomination, the film earned $7.8 million $ a strong showing for a nonfiction film.)
The Academy’s documentary committee had been losing public trust for well over a decade by disdaining most of the ”breakout” nonfiction films critics adored; the roster of documentaries that were never nominated includes Shoah, 28 Up, The Thin Blue Line, Roger & Me, Paris Is Burning, Brother’s Keeper, and Truth or Dare. Each year, committee members defended their choices by insisting they’d discovered five better films. But this year, the critics went wild when Hoop Dreams and Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb were denied nominations, while among the final five was Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision, whose director, Freida Lee Mock, had chaired the committee for the previous two years. Mock’s film went on to take the award.
”I call it cronyism, and this committee doesn’t even understand what the word means,” said Los Angeles Times critic Kenneth Turan last March. ”All of the committee members know and like Freida. It’s human nature for them to have a tendency to vote for her. They’re a cosa nostra.”
Before the reforms, the committee’s elaborate yet primitive voting process had been to winnow down the entrants by shutting off the projector when more than half the viewing members deemed a film unworthy by shining flashlights. This year, a galaxy of penlights in the dark of the Academy’s stuffy third-floor screening room nixed Crumb after 55 minutes. Though the film went on to win the Sundance documentary competition and some of the year’s best reviews, one committee member who declined to be identified said, ”I’d been shining my light for a good while before that. What’s good for Sundance is not necessarily fit for us.”