The Academy of Motion Pictures Art and Sciences officially released a new ruling on a small yet potent modification to their Oscar nomination process. Short films, documentaries, and foreign language films will no longer need an in-theater viewing for academy members to be eligible to cast a ballot on their category. Henceforth, busy film luminaries like Jerry Lewis or Michael Bay (yes, Michael Bay is in the Academy) can expect to be mailed DVDs of recent cinema’s more obscure masterpieces, to be watched however and whenever they please. Before, members had to deal with the inconvenience of either tracking the docs, shorts, and foreign films down at film festivals or Art-house theaters, or going to Academy screenings.
This acquiescence is not exactly in lock-step with the dogma of the academy. The higher-ups at the MPAA are old-fashioned, sentimental folks, who believe in the inspirational power of the theater. For evidence that supports claim, please refer to any Best Picture winner for the past twenty years. I too, tentatively agree with the notion that any movie fan, no matter how committed, must cough up the increasingly steep price to be properly enveloped in a film, as its makers intend. David Lynch is right to be angry, your iPhone could rob you of your movie experience.
However, I ultimately champion this decision to let the Academy members watch as they please. Documentaries, shorts, and foreign films are generally less visually and sonically demanding as their bigger brothers, and would do quite well on a nice plasma display, or even, dare I say, an iPad retina screen with quality headphones. There are quite a few examples that prove this generalization wrong, I concede. However, the best of the best in movies never benefit solely from strong images and sound alone. They have a stronger ethos, and they are truly different, and that distinction is clear regardless of how one watches.
Ultimately the trade off will work in the favor of the potential nominees in the relevant categories. Documentaries and shorts are rare jewels of cinema now rendered more easily excavated by our nation’s tastemakers, and lauded for the general public. Foreign films, though easier to find, will also benefit from this same casual attitude towards their consideration, by garnering more eligible views. More views means more votes, more votes means a better-informed result. Now, if only we cinephiles could convince our friends and family to add a few shorts, foreigns, and docs to their Netflix queues...