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White, Male Documentary Filmmakers Dominate Academy Award Recognition

Several academy awards

Over the past three years, 89 percent of directors of films shortlisted for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature have been white, and 77 percent have been male, trends that reflect a persistent lack of diversity in the genre and the industry, according to a report just released by the Center for Media & Social Impact (CMSI) at the American University School of Communication.

Directed by Caty Borum Chattoo, CMSI co-director, a small team of researchers systematically gathered, archived, categorized and coded data for 45 total films across three years (2014, 2015 and 2016) along the road to the Academy Award to find out. A total of 56 formally-credited directors were examined for this analysis, as several films have more than one credited director.

“It’s an amazing moment to make, watch and celebrate documentary films, which are such an important part of our cultural landscape, reflecting stories crucial to our democracy and entertaining us at the same time,” said Borum Chattoo. “There may be a myth that the diversity challenges facing other Academy Award categories – and the entertainment business in general – are not observed in independent documentary films, but there’s clearly a long way to go.”

This study represents the preliminary findings of a larger study to be released later in 2016.

Among the key findings:

  • At least over the past few years, Oscar shortlist recognition in the Best Documentary Feature category consistently favors white documentary directors.
  • Recognition of female documentary makers remains consistently rare.
  • Documentaries that work at the intersection of investigative journalism and film – addressing pressing social issues and perhaps impacting them – are regularly recognized by the Academy in the shortlist process.
  • Film festivals are crucial to these top filmmakers not only because of the exposure to audiences, critics, media and distributors, but because of their connection to major awards.
  • Film festivals and online streaming platforms dominate Oscar-shortlisted and nominated films’ distribution plans.