American University
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The journey to the Academy Awards

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posted on 2023-08-04, 12:19 authored by Cathryn Borum

What does it take for a documentary film and its director and producer to make it to the top—the Oscars shortlist, the nomination and the win? Which film directors are recognized—in terms of race and gender? Are the shortlisted films’ stories focused on pressing social issues, or slice-of-life entertainment stories? Where can audiences see the documentaries—on PBS, HBO, iTunes, Netflix or somewhere else? How are the top documentary films distributed—by major studio distributors or smaller independent companies? What other kinds of awards can predict —or are associated with—Oscar recognition, if any? This study aimed to answer these questions through a systematic examination of the last three years (2014, 2015 and 2016) of Academy Award-shortlisted, -nominated and -winning documentary films—a total of 45 films and 56 credited directors. From this close investigation of Oscar-shortlisted documentary films, consistent patterns emerge to paint a portrait of documentary films and directors at this highest level of achievement.



Center for Media and Social Impact, American University


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