This sounds like a bitter filmmaker lashing out at the branch that snubbed his film, but there may just be some truth to the rumor. James Toback, the director of the Sundance hit Tyson, is claiming in a recent New York Times piece that he was pressed with something that he would “fully put in the category of extortion” and “he did not go along with it. Toback is claiming that he was contacted by somebody connected to the American Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Documentary branch before the 15 shortlisted nominees were announced.
Rob Epstein, a filmmaker and chair of the executive committee of the Documentary branch expresses surprise at Toback’s claim and responds by saying “I have no idea. It certainly hasn’t come before me.” Other filmmakers who saw their films snubbed this year are also suspicious of the voting process. Rebecca Yeldham, producer of the rock-documentary Anvil! The Story of Anvil says that they have received many letters of shock that their film missed out on the short list. Chris McGurk, the chief executive of Overture Films who produced Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story, says that the Best Picture race is more democratic than Best Documentary and hopes for their film to have a shot there.
Every year there are new stories of corruption or favoritism within certain branches of the Oscars. Typically it is the Foreign Film and Music branches that receive the most backlash, but the documentary short list announcement has already sparked some heavy debate on the Oscar blogs. It is undeniable that with a smaller voting bloc that some of the voting decisions are based on politics.
However, these “extortion” rumors are suspicious primarily because of their source. The only individuals interviewed in the Times article are documentary filmmakers who saw their films snubbed by the Academy. It is unsurprising that those individuals may feel some animosity towards the Documentary branch. For James Toback to straight out suggest an extortion plot is remarkable. There were 89 eligible documentaries this year so it is unsurprising that a few good films missed out when the field was narrowed to 15. I hate to break it to Mr. Toback, but his film is probably not the most glaring omission from the shortlist.
It will be interesting to see if he presents any evidence of his claims, or if he is just ignored as the season goes forward.