In case you missed today's major news, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences says it will start requiring a review from The New York Times or The Los Angeles Times for a film to qualify for its documentary feature category. The new rule will be officially announced later this week and will take effect for the 2013 awards.
This is a major blow to documentary fans hoping to see the Oscars move in a more populist direction. Count this site as one of those bemoaning this change as it also will only serve to allow the rich to get richer. Most documentaries don't get a review unless there's a big name or big budget behind it- or if it gains just the right type of buzz to lure a critic into a screening.
Admittedly, the rule change was probably necessary for the Academy's small (in comparison to other Oscar groups) documentary award staff. With cheaper equipment, a growing cult fan base and groups willing to help push films through the current rule process, the number of submissions for the category have been rising quickly. A staff already stretched thin had to find a way to curtail their ever growing work load.
The rule will also eliminate the complex and stifling rating system used to select the Oscar documentary nominees. The main change is allowing the committee to see screeners of films instead of forcing them to see films only in theaters - a major bonus for small budget films that can only afford to play in theaters for a week or two. Still, these small budget films need to get reviewed before this change even matters.
Ultimately, the rule changes will hurt many filmmakers looking for validation from the Oscars. The documentary industry is not a lucrative place to work unless you manage to make a name for yourself and even a nomination to the Oscars is a big deal (see Morgan Spurlock). So, for the time being, it seems small, independent filmmakers won't have much of a shot at cracking the tighter rules unless these two papers designate a critic specifically to documentaries - which is highly unlikely as they are struggling to keep pace with the changing climate of media news.