While acknowledging that every year brings debate about the films selected for the Oscar documentary shortlist, Academy branch governor Rob Epstein told Variety that for the first time he could recall, the process of choosing those films wasn't at the heart of the debate.
The shortlist, released Monday, had some noteworthy omissions, but Epstein said that the feedback he had received was generally positive about new Academy procedures that allow every branch member to weigh in on the shortlist.
At the same time, he did not rule out tweaks after the year was done. Epstein said that among other things, there would be a survey of the 160-member branch and analysis to inform what changes might be made in 2013.
"It’s the first year of a new system," Epstein said, "so everyone is trying to figure out how to navigate that. But the feeling is we have to get through the entire election cycle to get through the whole process and let it play out to fully understand how it’s working and if there’s any need for immediate improvement, or to continue on the path we’re on."
Though were a number of rules changes entering the 2012 Oscar campaign, the chief concern that emerged was the fact that there were too many documentaries for voters to view, as a result of submission parameters that still rankle some (for example, the inclusion of documentaries with television exposure).
To guarantee that each doc received a baseline level of exposure, the 126 submissions were divided among branch members who were asked (though not required) to watch them. In addition, the doc branch has what Epstein called a "pretty active" exclusive internal chatroom in which members could bring up the films they had seen, without lobbying for one over another.
Epstein said his fellow governor, Michael Moore, who two months ago called this year's rules changes "a miserable failure," is "feeling good about the process as well now."
The next stage of voting, narrowing the 15 shortlisted films to the five nominees, will largely operate as it has in years past, with the exception being that voters no longer have to recuse themselves if they worked on a film in contention.
However, a much more significant change will take place post nominations, when the entire Academy gets to vote on the winning documentary, in similar fashion to best picture. That will give the nominated docs greater exposure within the Acad.
"That’s incredibly exciting for us," Epstein said. "Before, you had to have participated in the process – (either as) part of the screening committee, or you had to sign up at a screening. ... A lot more people are going to be seeing documentaries. It’s really on par with other branches in that respect."