Documentaries, especially good documentaries, are messy things. They cover complex issues and either illuminates a view to something we were unfamiliar with entirely or examine a familiar thing from a unique angle. In that sense, documentaries are meant to on the one hand be informative while on the other hand muddling our preconceived notions. For that reason, the Academy’s attempt to clean up the foggy process of selecting Oscar nominees in the best documentary category is destined to either backfire complete or simply create further confusion.

The Academy’s new requirement, which goes into effect for 2013, is that documentaries can only be considered for nomination if they have been reviewed by the NY Times or LA Times. So the Academy is effectively outsourcing the duties of deciding which docs qualify.

Even if you forget for a moment that newspapers are hemorrhaging money and cutting back wherever they can, particularly focusing their monetary slashes on the arts sections, the move is essentially redundant. The Academy already has a rule that a documentary must have at least a one week run in theaters and the LA and NY Times have an understood policy that they review anything that has at least a one week run in the theaters. So what’s the point of the outsourcing?

It seems that what the Academy wants is to create a choke point for documentaries that qualify for their precious Oscar. The narrower the choke point, the fewer things get through and they believe that will make the selection process more clear and concise.

The fact of the matter is that the new rule dilutes the pool of contenders. Nowadays the majority of documentaries are made for TV audiences. ESPN and HBO have been responsible for some of the best documentaries in recent years due in large part to the fact that documentarians rarely make money if they go the theatrical route so they happily flock toward a patron television network that guarantees money and runs the documentary to subscribers in the comfort of their own home. No more trying to lure people out to a theater to see non-fiction, just flip on the TV or, better yet, go to OnDemand and watch it on your own schedule.

Television has popularized the documentary in a way that theatrical runs never could. As a result increasingly low budget handycam documentaries have popped up with greater regularity and with the rise of TV docs there are more outlets for such non-mainstream creations. Rather than accept this modernization of the age old documentary, the Academy is seeking to reaffirm an antiquated rule. Documentarians now need publicists to ensure that they get a (good) review from the LA or NY Times (something an unscrupulous Arts & Entertainment editor could take advantage of) and they have to come up with even more of the ever hard to come by funding to run their film in only two cities. It’s pointless when you really think about it and it excludes low budget docs or ones that debut on television (who’s going to pay for a movie you can see on TV?).

Ultimately, I see this redundant and archaic rule change hindering the Academy. Why would a documentarian go to all the trouble of getting his/her doc on the screens in just two cities and hiring a publicists when they could simply focus on the substance of their creation, let a television network handle the advertising of it, and then have it shown to people sitting comfortably in their living rooms and with the ability to watch it any time they want with OnDemand?

It’s easy to go from behind the times to behind the eight ball and the Academy’s unwillingness to adjust to the changing dynamic of documentary film making has it squarely on this doomed path.