Dispatch from LA: Michael Moore Talks Docs As Oscar Night Approaches

As Oscar night approaches here in Los Angeles, media and moviegoers are handicapping the race, eyeing The Artist as the likely best picture winner. Not to be overlooked, though, more than a thousand true believers gathered last night to announce: documentaries matter.

Michael Moore, the form's most recognizable filmmaker, lead the congregation and reflected on the impact of non-fiction film at the annual pre-Oscar celebration for documentary nominees here in Los Angeles. Pondering the potential for documentaries, Moore warned that seeing non fiction films in movie theaters must remain a primary priority for fans and filmmakers alike.

Dismissing the idea of watching movies on televisions, iPads—or on a little screen built into a pair of sunglasses for that matter—Moore reiterated the value of shared cinematic experiences as he reflected on the recent impact of documentary films. Wearing a Sundance Film Festival baseball cap, he delivered what he called a sermon as folks gathered in LA for a high profile week of pre-Oscar activities.

"We like to tell stories—but we like to tell true stories," Moore proclaimed. Feisty, funny and always outspoken, Moore has become an even more visible leader within the documentary film community. In recent months, however, that role has been met with some friction. Now a Documentary Branch governor at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Moore worked to develop new qualification and voting rules for the doc branch that stirred a debate among filmmakers and industry. Last night, though, he was warmly received at the AMPAS event.

He praised films such as nominee Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory for leading to the freedom of three wrongly accused kids in Arkansas and last year's Gasland for making fracking a national issue. Moore also touted a non-fiction radio report for instigating change within Apple's factories in China.

"The public wants the truth and they've been lied to more in recent years, the last decade or so specifically," Michael Moore explained in front of a packed house at the Academy's headquarters theater in Beverly Hills. His remarks frequently drew applause and cheers. 

Driven by the proliferation of portable digital video cameras and changes in the the media landscape, the past 15 years has been a heyday for non-fiction filmmaking. After making a name for himself in 1989 with Roger & Me at the 27th New York Film Festival, Michael Moore became a lightning rod figure in non fiction film. Over the past decade he's flourished as a filmmaker, becoming the first documentarian to win the Palme d'Or in Cannes—for Fahrenheit 9/11 in 2004—and a best doc Oscar for Sicko three years later.

The success of documentaries is not without some key challenges. Prior to introducing this year's feature and short film nominees and sharing clips from their films, Moore warned of a few of the hurdles facing filmmakers and fans of non-fiction movies. 

There's a digital challenge, Moore warned. Noting the 50th anniversary of the New York Film Festival this fall, he mentioned that the Film Society will show Roger & Me in April, with Moore in person for a post-screening Q&A, as part of our year-by-year survey of the festival's history. But sourcing a print has been tough. In this case, Warner Bros is going back to the original negative to create fresh prints of the film, but Moore cautioned filmmakers to make sure that those who are shooting digitally today are doing all they can to preserve their original material and films for future generations. He pointed to an AMPAS report called "The Digital Dilemma" that explores the issue. 

In his remarks, Michael Moore reignited a topic he raised at the same event a few years back. He's interested in forming a documentary co-op to create a distribution system for getting non-fiction films into theaters not just in big cities like New York and Los Angeles, but to towns in the Midwest or Flint, Michigan. 

"Why do we turn the power over to someone else to exhibit our art?" Moore asked the crowd. He said he wants to meet with anyone who will help preserve the theatrical experience for non-fiction films. Documentaries should be seen in theaters, he said multiple times. And he believes that American audiences will support these efforts.

This is the motivation behind the recent Academy rule changes for docs, Moore said. Because the major domestic newspapers write reviews of new films opening in local theaters, a new rule requires that films be reviewed in the New York Times or Los Angeles to be eligible for an Oscar nomination. 

"That's the real discussion we should be having," Moore emphasized. "People want to see these films, they love nonfiction, they just don't have the ability to see it."

He didn't go too much deeper into the issue, but many in the documentary community certainly believe that digital devices will not kill shared cinematic experiences. In fact, many would likely agree that exposure in theaters can drive documentaries to wider awareness via other platforms like iTunes, cable VOD, online platforms like SnagFilms or on services like Hulu and Netflix. The platforms can also create additional revenue streams to support their efforts. But, as Moore strongly believes, it all begins at the cinemas.

"The movie theater is never going away," Moore said near the end of his remarks, smiling, "If that was a case why are there still restaurants? People still have kitchens in their home!"

Wrapping up his remarks, he summed up, "We all need to be huge supporters of the theatrical documentary. Help us with this."

Eugene Hernandez is the Director of Digital Strategy for the Film Society of Lincoln Center and a co-founder of Indiewire. Follow on Twitter: @eug.

Pictured above: Michael Moore at the Academy last night with Kira Carstensen and Lucy Walker (The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom). Photo by Greg Harbaugh / A.M.P.A.S.

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