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Documentaries & the Journey to the Academy Awards

For a documentary filmmaker, being recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences for an Oscar nomination in the Best Documentary Feature category is often the pinnacle moment in a career. 

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? 

At the Center for Media & Social Impact, we wanted to find out. Some answers to these questions are provided through the preliminary key findings of our new study, "The Journey to the Academy Awards: An Investigation of Oscar-Shortlisted and Nominated Documentary Films (2014-2016)," which is 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. 

These are preliminary highlights from a larger study -- examining a full decade of Oscar-shortlisted documentaries -- that will be published later this year. 

Read or download the preliminary key findings document here