Documentaries may not be your first choice when going to the movies. They have a reputation of being dull and academic. Many people probably think back to some dreary educational film they were shown in school, but many documentaries are nothing like that.
Documentaries aren't likely to ever top the box office, but they can be incredibly innovative films nonetheless. If the Academy Awards exist to recognize excellence in film, why are so few documentaries nominated? It's great that the Oscars have categories for best feature-length and short documentaries, but documentaries are rarely even nominated in other categories.
Of course, there are some categories that documentaries simply cannot win. Although some feature reenactments, documentaries aren't exactly eligible for acting or costuming awards. But what about technical categories, like cinematography and editing? After all, turning a collection of stock footage, interviews, and still images into a compelling film is quite the accomplishment.
According to the current Academy rules, a film must be advertised and exhibited in a commercial movie theater in Los Angeles County at least three times a day for at least a week in order to qualify for a nomination. At least one of these showings must begin between 6 and 10pm. A film must also meet certain video and audio quality standards, and it cannot be released in any form (TV, streaming, home video) prior to its theatrical run. With the exception of the short film categories, it must also be at least 40 minutes long.
It could be argued that these incredibly precise requirements are overly exclusionary, or that they give the Oscars an identity and focus it might lack if any film could be accepted for consideration. Perhaps its simply a practical necessity, to limit submissions to a manageable number. Oddly enough, the requirements for Best Documentary submissions are even more specific, requiring a qualifying run in New York City as well, a review by a film critic in the New York Times or Los Angeles Times, and an four daily screenings rather than three.
Few documentaries can satisfy all these requirements, but even the few that do are almost never recognized. Due to these standards, any film that can qualify for Best Documentary is also eligible for most of the other awards. One of the biggest obstacles for a documentary is the lack of expensive "for your consideration" campaigns. Popular films financed by large studios can afford to promote themselves in hopes of increasing their awards odds, but few documentaries will get the same treatment.
It seems the creators of documentaries shouldn't get their hopes up for Oscar recognition any time soon. The real triumph would be changing the public image of documentaries. They may be very different from conventional dramatic films, but they have the same potential to tell compelling stories and use many of the same techniques to do so.
So if you've had some documentary lounging in the dark corners of your Netflix queue for months, maybe it's time to give it a shot. It might surprise you.