March 2, 2007

An open letter. 2.

To: The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences
From: John Sinno, Academy Award Nominee, Iraq In Fragments, and Co-Founder, Northwest Documentary Association

Oscar I had the great fortune of attending the 79th Academy Awards following my nomination as producer for a film in the Best Documentary Feature category. At the Awards ceremony, most categories featured an introduction that glorified the filmmakers' craft and the role it plays for the film audience and industry. But when comedian Jerry Seinfeld introduced the award for Best Documentary Feature, he began by referring to a documentary that features himself as a subject, then proceeded to poke fun at it by saying it won no awards and made no money. He then revealed his love of documentaries, as they have a very "real" quality, while making a comically sour face. This less-than-flattering beginning was followed by a lengthy digression that had nothing whatsoever to do with documentary films. The clincher, however, came when he wrapped up his introduction by calling all five nominated films "incredibly depressing!"

Updated through 3/5.

While I appreciate the role of humor in our lives, Jerry Seinfeld's remarks were made at the expense of thousands of documentary filmmakers and the entire documentary genre. Obviously we make films not for awards or money, although we are glad if we are fortunate enough to receive them. The important thing is to tell stories, whether of people who have been damaged by war, of humankind's reckless attitude toward nature and the environment, or even of the lives and habits of penguins. With his lengthy, dismissive and digressive introduction, Jerry Seinfeld had no time left for any individual description of the five nominated films. And by labeling the documentaries "incredibly depressing," he indirectly told millions of viewers not to bother seeing them because they're nothing but downers. He wasted a wonderful opportunity to excite viewers about the nominated films and about the documentary genre in general.

To have a presenter introduce a category with such disrespect for the nominees and their work is counter to the principles the Academy was founded upon. To be nominated for an Academy Award is one of the highest honors our peers can give us, and to have the films dismissed in such an offhand fashion was deeply insulting. The Academy owes all documentary filmmakers an apology.

Seinfeld's introduction arrived on the heels of an announcement by the Academy that the number of cities where documentary films must screen to qualify for an Academy Award is being increased by 75%. This will make it much more difficult for independent filmmakers' work to qualify for the Best Documentary Feature Award, while giving an advantage to films distributed by large studios. Fewer controversial films will qualify for Academy consideration, and my film Iraq in Fragments would have been disqualified this year. This announcement came as a great disappointment to me and to other documentary filmmakers. I hope the Academy will reconsider its decision.

On a final note, I would like to point out that there was no mention of the Iraq War during the Oscar telecast, though it was on the minds of many in the theatre and of millions of viewers. It is wonderful to see the Academy support the protection of the environment. Unfortunately there is more than just one inconvenient truth in this world. Having mention of the Iraq War avoided altogether was a painful reminder for many of us that our country is living in a state of denial. As filmmakers, it is the greatest professional crime we can commit not to speak out with the truth. We owe it to the public.

I hope what I have said is taken to heart. It comes from my concern for the cinematic art and its crucial role in the times we're living in.

Update, 3/3: On a somewhat related note, Jesus Camp directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady kept an Oscar Diary for the Tribeca Film Festival. Fun reading via Aaron Dobbs.

Updates, 3/5: Bilge Ebiri explains at ScreenGrab why this new 75 percent rule really is a crock.

And the Reeler comments on the whole affair.

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Posted by dwhudson at March 2, 2007 3:22 PM


Dear Mr Sinno,

That was the best part of the programme.

Yours truly,


P.S. Why are you so offended that a sparkly Hollywood glitz-fest is distancing itself from your serious, serious work? Why does it make you so angry that it is more difficult for you to have something shiny to put on your mantle? "Obviously we make films not for awards or money" -- indeed.

P.P.S. Is being a humourless blowhard really the best way to win back the "millions of viewers" that Jerry Seinfeld so callously tore away from you? Really?

Posted by: at March 2, 2007 5:04 PM

Had John won the award would he have written this letter?

Posted by: Flickhead at March 2, 2007 5:33 PM

Your "everyone" clearly isn't my everyone.

This is obviously not about winning a prize, or being recognized by a glitz-fest. This is about someone insulting and reducing a whole group of people and their work, with one statement. People make films like Iraq in Fragments because they want it to be seen. Period. Not make money, be seen. Despite the fact that documentaries are entering a golden era, they'll never get an audience if the preconception remains that they are just depressing.

I suppose you think we'd all be better off without them. I suppose we should throw away investigative journalism while we're at it. After all, those pictures from the Abu Ghraib prison are pretty depressing.

Posted by: Hannah E at March 2, 2007 5:51 PM

That was a incredibly depressing open letter...

Posted by: Jerry Lentz at March 2, 2007 6:01 PM

P.S. Considering what's going on in the world don't you think this might have been a good year to talk about how important documentaries are? Couldn't we have had the laughs elsewhere?

Posted by: Hannah E at March 2, 2007 6:19 PM

Isn't it a little ironic that the genre accused of being stuffy and depressing is having a hard time laughing at itself?

I did think that Iraq in Fragments was more deserving of the Oscar, but I don't think Seinfeld was out of line. I think the average Hollywood film fan who is watching the telecast would have rolled their eyes at another speech about how important documentary is. Artistry, complexity, and compelling stories sell movie tickets, not Oscar grandstanding.

Posted by: Erik Moe at March 2, 2007 8:06 PM

Yeah, I'm less concerned about Jerry Seinfeld than I am about the Academy's 75% increase requirement for documentaries, which could really be the death knell for so many documentary films that don't have the rare blessing of large studio distribution - which is most of them. These films really benefit from Oscar consideration, and a nomination, never mind winning an Oscar. That to me, long term, is the greatest concern here.


Posted by: Craig P at March 2, 2007 9:04 PM

I was offended by Sienfeld's lame attempt at humor not only at the expense of serious filmmakers but his diatribe against going to the movies. As the owner of an independent theater, the Balboa in San Francisco, where we recently screened all the nominated documentary features and shorts to full houses, I felt he hurt the very intent of the Oscars, to honor films being shown in cinemas.

The increased difficulty for non-fiction films made by independents will be a truly sad new twist. Already too many films can't qualify...why else only four short docs nominated when hundreds are created each year?

Posted by: Gary Meyer at March 2, 2007 10:12 PM

Yeah, kinda have to agree that the Seinfeld bit was the best part of the program.

Seriously though, it's the Academy Awards! The only industry that is even affected by that "dog & pony show" of an event is the fashion industry!

In the entire world of cinema, to think that your film was somehow "marginalized" is myopic at best. Animation? Foreign Cinema? "True" American Independent Film? The Academy Awards represent only a small (and I would say most insignificant) portion of world cinema.

Perhaps you should focus more on improving your craft (like the rest of the film world) instead of whining over what the popular kids are saying.

(The only person who has good reason to write a letter of indignation to the Academy is Andrew Lau. Seriously.)

Posted by: John Henry Pitts, III at March 2, 2007 11:52 PM

I haven't seen "Comedian", the documentary that Jerry Seinfel seemed to be refering to when he reminded the Academy that his film was not nominted, or niminated and didn't win.... Really? A film about himself produced by him, should be nominated or should win, or -at least- should be talked about after 4 years of making it?
The ego is so big that Mr. Seinfeld used his time to talk about himself, what does he like and what doesn't he like and that he would not pick up his trash in the theatre to place it in the can. What a big deal. His ego is so big that he didn't care to read off the monitor and he turned the occasion of presenting the documentary nominees to a personal show off. "look at me. I'm here. I'm important. Nothing else matters".
The "depressing documentaries" he was requested to present, are serious business. The fact that he accepted to be a presenter should have meant to him to be respectful to this genre and to those who are working in it. At least, he should have told the Academy that he doesn't want to present this category, or he doesn't want to be a presenter at all- instead he decided to accept the presentation and to enjoy whatever comes along with it (money, glory, whatever) and then use it to settle some scores. Documentaries are speaking volumes on environment, on the war in Iraq and other important issues, and he is complaining about the trash he wants to leave in the theatre (how many times he visits the theatre? twice a month?).
Perhaps it's me and few others, but I certainly feel with Mr. Sinno and think that enough the ego number. Just be a smart presenter when you go up there- not a bad looser.

Posted by: Mike at March 2, 2007 11:57 PM

What does one expect from the Oscars? Their selection and awards for the 'best' films are risible. If only more filmmakers and critics were able to boycott them. I, for one, as a film writer, will ignore them completely in future as they are completely irrelevant in film criticism terms.

Posted by: ronald bergan at March 3, 2007 12:03 AM

"I was offended by Sienfeld's lame attempt at humor..." writes someone above.

Why watch the Oscars at all? It's ALL lame humor. Always has been, always will be.

Freedom of speech works many ways. And anyone who could actually be "offended" by some dumb Hollywood actors or comedians doing schtick should get professional help.

Posted by: at March 3, 2007 3:32 AM

does anyone know where i can find this change documented? I couldn't find an official AMPAS press release about this new rule --the only reports i can find (i must not be looking in the right place) are about this letter to the Academy


Posted by: nathaniel r at March 3, 2007 5:56 AM

To argue that the Oscars don't matter is to willfully ignore the numbers. The so-called "Oscar boost" - a bump in box office intake attributable to nominations and/or wins - may not have as much oomph as it used to, but there still is such a thing, and what's more, as is pointed out in a recent CNN piece, its affect is long-term in that "Academy Award Nominee" or "Oscar-winning" on the cover will unquestionably help DVD sales. This matters most, naturally, to the type of films that would benefit most, documentaries among them.

As for Seinfeld, a couple of things. First, of course, humor is subjective. Ellen DeGeneres, for example, was, for me, hit-n-miss. Opening monologue: Mildly humorous and innocuous, but appropriate, in a sort of warm-up and break-the-ice sort of way. Vacuum cleaner: not funny. Oscar in a baby sling: funny.

I'll admit to laughing at Seinfeld's "incredibly depressing" throwaway, though John Sinno does have me thinking that it could have an effect in the long run on whether or not audiences will decide to give these nominees a chance, either at a theater or at home.

But I have to agree with Gary Meyer. Not only was Seinfeld's "diatribe against going to the movies" a complete non-sequitor (some have suggested he was actually auditioning for the hosting gig) and a resort to the old, tired "Have you ever noticed..." sort of humor he used to ridicule on his old sitcom, it was also a more serious affront, rather disgusting (My fellow Americans: Litter! You deserve the luxury!) and, especially given the context, downright offensive to the very branch of the industry hurting the most.

Bilge Ebiri has passed along a message to Nikki Finke from a theater owner whose family has been in the business since 1933. After breaking down the numbers, he writes, "I am sure Mr Seinfeld will get his first dollar percentage cuts on anything he creates. His comments, while funny to him, indicate NO UNDERSTANDING at all of what it takes to keep theaters open."

Posted by: David Hudson at March 3, 2007 5:56 AM

I found something about it from NPR:

See if that works. It is indeed hard to find anything about it on Academy's web site, amidst all the press releases about which celeb is presenting what award...


Posted by: Craig P at March 3, 2007 9:54 AM

Seinfeld -- particularly in his touchstone sitcom -- has always been about culturally ignorant narcissism. So, no surprise.

Posted by: Bill W at March 3, 2007 10:12 AM

After reading all these comments--which range from, if not A to Z, at least C to X--it seems to me that the thoughtless Mr. Clever (posing as "Everyone") who posted the first response probably wouldn't bother himself by watching any of these documentaries in the first place. They might depress him! And Flickhead's suggestion that Mr. Sinno would not have written his letter had he'd won the Oscar is silly. The letter would have been just as appropriate under that circumstance. I admit to laughing at Seinfeld, particularly his last line about docs being depressing, because he hit on a truth, whatever his reason for doing it might have been. Beginning his speech with all that talk about his own doc didn't surprise, either. He's rumored to be one of the world's great egotists, so what should we have expected? The Academy should indeed consider how a presenter's speech affects the very category about which it is given. And Seinfeld's did not help the already difficult state of the documentary. Nor will, if true, the new rule which ups by 75% the number of venues that must show a documentary for it to qualify for a nomination. But, hey, the awards have always been primarily about money. That attitude will just grow, as the few years left alloted to our world pass by. Still, I do hope the Academy members will at least read Mr. Sinno's missive.

Posted by: James van Maanen at March 3, 2007 10:33 AM

Waaaah! I can't take a joke. Did you think that Seinfeld's joke actually deprived you or the other nominees of an audience because they were termed "depressing"? Those people never would have seen your film to begin with. And I saw all of the documentaries featured this year & guess what - good as they may have been, they were depressing.

Seriously though, the 75% thing does suck.

Posted by: John B. at March 3, 2007 11:19 AM

One key detail overlooked in this discussion is the role that documentaries play in the current media climate, where network news divisions--which used to do investigative journalism and international reporting--now only do feel-good stories and celebrity gossip. TV news is smiley-face junk, so by default documentary makers are the ones informing the public about depressing social issues and war tragedies. Not to turn this into an attack on the media--although everyone has their own opinion of the degree to which the media was complicit or indifferent in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq--but to mock doc makers is to attack individuals who truly exhibit the responsibility of citizens in a democracy.

Posted by: Michael Fox at March 3, 2007 1:05 PM

My single sentence apparently sailed over Mr. van Maanen's head.

Posted by: Flickhead at March 3, 2007 1:32 PM

Me again! (Snarky commenter #1.)

Just thought I'd poke my head in and see what's going on in this thread I ruined. Pretty great debate!

Point 1: To say that the so-called "Oscar boost," or the ability to be nominated -- or the presence of laurels on packaging -- is crucial to a documentary's success is to concede that only a handful of documentaries each year are worth seeing. Sorry, I don't quite agree. At all. It's sort of a slap in the face to independent documentarians **LIKE ME** who don't particularly stand a chance -- or wish to water things down to the point where we would stand a chance -- of being "honoured" with a golden phallus and ten seconds of open-mic air time.

Point 2: Re: "Seinfeld's massive ego..." He's a comedian. These are what comedians call "jokes." He was only presenting that award because that's what they asked him to do. I also somehow doubt he even wrote the bit; it's a big show, they have writers. I *have* seen the Comedian documentary (and, yes, Mr Van Maanan, all the Oscar nominated docs -- and about four or five dozen others this year), and if you had seen it, you all might get the joke, which is this: It was shot on DV and probably cost $30 to make, wasn't all that great, was produced and distributed independently, and was seen by about three people, despite Jerry Seinfeld's name on the box in giant capitals. The whole thing is faux-pomposity as a form of self-deprecation. You know, irony? Sarcasm? Have you guys even seen "Seinfeld"? Or are you too "serious" for such trivialities as American pop culture? If that's the case, why the fuck do you care about the fucking Oscars??? Ugh...

Posted by: jenny at March 3, 2007 3:06 PM

Reading the different opinions on this matter just made think of one or two things to add. After all debate is a very healthy and democratic way of existence, and please Jenny, you stay on the light side as long as you want and enjoy it as long as you want. Just refer yourself from using words that a civilized person should not use. They don't help making a point.

Firstly, documentaries, falks, are serious business you like it or not. Why? because they deal with real issues. Most of the time. Issues that are not for everyone. Those who want to laugh, they can watch "Seinfeld" on TV, or go to an Adam Sandler or Tim Allen movie. There are plenty of "let's have a stupid fun movies and sitcom" to last us endlessly.

Secondly, Seinfeld to comment or to present documentaries? why? who is he in this game? Why not Barbara Kopple for instance? or George Clooney who is more in the comfortable mood for it, or -for this matter a film critic for a change? Do we really....(and I mean REALLY) need to be entertained every minute of the show? Is it too hard to spend 3 minutes without a joke?

What's worse- Jerry wasn't funny and his jokes didn't work. But worked or didn't, lets stick to the issue here: was he a necessity in this category?

And another question: does fun suits every situation? If you don't have fun you're losing teeth or an elbow or missing on life? We all have fun, and should have fun, but we also need to address serious issues seriously, otherwise we will not be able to solve anything. Not a single thing. Having fun on the account of what's needed to be addressed seriously is not helping. It never did. You laugh, and guess what... the problem is still there and growing in front of you.

Posted by: Mike at March 3, 2007 4:43 PM

I found Seinfeld's remarks (which obviously weren't scripted) to be snide and dismissive in exactly the ways Mr. Sinno describes. Just because something is intended as a joke doesn't mean it works as a joke, and all Seinfeld succeeded in doing, besides indulging himself in the longest "presenter's moment" of the night before getting on with the business at hand, was to deride the medium and miss the occasion to stump for the movies. Compare Ari Sandel, who used his speech upon winning for Live Action Short to explain to America what a short film was and why they should be supported, or Meryl Streep's very funny and "entertaining" onstage suggestion at the Globes that people across the country should needle their local cinemas into bringing more diverse, challenging, and independent fare, to Seinfeld's lame and unfocused routine. And yes, on the rare Oscars when the other non-acting awards were treated with some actual dignity (instead of awarding "minor" Oscars in the audience, etc.), the short shrift to these documentarians was all the more conspicuous. And yes, the cynical jokes about littering and leaving your junk for someone else to pick up and obliviousness to film-industry economics were in many ways even more galling (and, at least in my view, just not funny).

And Jenny, I don't see how trying to exploit the Oscar race to draw some attention and some ticket sales to the nominated documentaries in any way comes at the expense of other documentaries. If you're cultivating an audience for doc's as a form, it helps to have anyone paying to see any documentary and growing into the habit. Breakout successes pave the way for more work, more investor confidence, and more movies seen by more people.

Posted by: Nick at March 4, 2007 11:04 AM

I find a great deal of this exchange to be far more depressing than any documentary I saw last year.

First, Mr. Sinno is right about the Oscar telecast's effect on a viewer's inclination to see a particular film, or category of films. Humorous or not, Mr. Seinfeld's dismissive tone, applied to a category he was supposed to be honoring, transmits a perception to viewers that documentaries are "work." No other category was treated in this way.

Second, since presenters were clearly prohibited from joking about Iraq, Scooter Libby or any one of the numerous scandals dogging our political life, only the movies themselves seemed to be fair game for humor. This sanitization of the broadcast, and the participants' freedom of expression, will ultimately repel most viewers. When Nikki Finke said it was a "Reagan-era" broadcast, she was exactly right.

Mr. Sinno has every right to be aggrieved, the pandering to Al Gore notwithstanding. Last year was an extraordinary year for documentary film, and for the Academy to ignore the opportunity to celebrate that is appalling.


Posted by: Jeannette Catsoulis at March 4, 2007 11:31 AM

I enjoyed Jerry's routine muchly, thought his framing of the relationship of mutual contempt between shoddy cinemas and "i could care less" audiences was spot on.

Quite clearly, this has zip to do with the Balboa, or screens like it all over the world. Cinemas that treat audiences with respect can hopefully survive and thrive.

His throwaway on "depressing" was as funny as it was potentially damaging. If he discourages even a handful of potential viewers, then I feel the pain of the practitioners. One point though: docs this year, every year, cover a much wider subject range than the noms. An easy way to circumvent Jerry's line would be to present a little more variety and colour in the noms.

"Shut Up and Sing", "Manufactured Landscapes" weren't there, and is it true that "Blindsight" didn't even get a nom? That's crazy stuff right there. Without banging the point, perhaps Jerry has hit a nerve about perception of documentary as a form?

Posted by: via collins at March 4, 2007 3:33 PM

This 'open letter' reminds me of the Annie Prolux bag of sour owl poop she wrote last year over the loss suffered (sniff) by Brokeback Mountain. So what if they had Jerry Seinfeld presenting for documentary, do you really think they’d get someone like Robert Fisk to do it? I too wonder if this letter would have been written at all had their film won the coveted golden idol, but I guess we'll never know, will we. I'm anxiously awaiting my free DVD copy of Iraq in Fragments in the mail any day now, because "obviously we make films not for awards or money" ...

Posted by: at March 4, 2007 10:23 PM

Chiming in here late just to say that his stand-up routine was lame. Leaving your garbage in a theater so that those minimum wage kids have to pick it up is a great way to show your contempt for those minimum wage kids, and a great way to display your sense of entitlement. Just the kind of behavior those Hollywood types need more encouragement to do.

Posted by: Josh at March 4, 2007 11:26 PM