How 'Hoop' Got Blackballed

Under the old system, committee members attended a prescoring meeting, at which they could argue for some films and against others. Those who had seen at least 80 percent of the entries that had been allowed to run in their entirety then scored the films on ballots, using a 4-to-10 scale. The five films with the highest average scores received nominations and were later screened for interested Academy members for final Oscar voting.

According to one shocked insider, in the committee's prescoring discussion one voter cautioned that if Hoop Dreams were nominated, it would surely win. He appealed to his fellow members to preserve other films' chances of winning the Oscar by denying Hoop Dreams a nomination altogether.

When balloting time came, at least two other attendees joined the anti-Hoop Dreams speaker. According to the source, those scorers together shot down Hoop Dreams by giving it the lowest possible score, a 4. Others on the committee gave the film top scores, but to no avail. ''The committee tried very hard to nominate that film,'' says Academy executive director Bruce Davis, who would not reveal how many members of the 47-person committee had qualified to score films. However, committee chairman Walter Shenson estimates that there were only about 15 or 18 members at the prescoring meeting.

To vote for the winner, Academy members must see all five films chosen by the committee. The number who did, admits Davis, was ''very modest.'' But one group of Academy members who had seen all five films were Mock's fellow committee members. In fact, the decisive voting bloc to pick the winner might simply have been the nominating committee, rubber-stamping its own preference.

Under the new rules, the pre-vote discussion will be eliminated. ''It's not just that there's an outside perception that lobbying goes on,'' Hiller explained in a letter to the committee. ''It does go on, however much some members would like to deny it.'' The scoring scale will also be changed from 4-to-10 to 6-to-10, in an attempt, says Davis, to ''make it less likely that a particular film would be irretrievably wounded by a few very low scores.'' The creation of a separate but equal arm of the nominating committee in New York will also combat the potential insularity of the Los Angeles committee.

''The Academy deserves to be complimented,'' says Steve James, Hoop Dreams' coproducer-director, ''but the key remains the makeup of the committee.... Documentary filmmaking should be viewed as a craft, and our peers [should] make these judgments.'' For that to happen, he says, the Academy is going to have to open its ranks to many more nonfiction filmmakers.

The present nominating committee includes only about 10 documentarians; the others are volunteers and retirees, such as actress Reva Rose (If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium) and J.J. Cohn, 99, a former MGM studio exec. At present some grand masters of the field — Richard Leacock, D.A. Pennebaker, Les Blank, Chris Marker, and Ed Pinkus, among others — are not even Academy members. Nor has the Academy made offers of membership to such young innovators as Hoop Dreams' James and his partners Peter Gilbert and Frederick Marx, or Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, who made the acclaimed Brother's Keeper. For his part, Hiller ''wouldn't say that documentaries have a major role in the film market.''

''Did he indeed say that?'' asks Norman Corwin, 85, a great from the days of documentary radio who chaired the nominating committee off and on for 26 years. ''Well, there you have it in a nutshell.''

Says Hoop Dreams' Gilbert, ''It's not for the film that this whole thing hurts. The film has gone so far, we can only feel very thankful.... The thing that disappoints me is about the families in the film. They gave us five years of their lives without covering up any of the blemishes. It would have been an unbelievably beautiful thing to have them at the Academy Awards, and for mainstream America to have embraced them in that way.''

Originally posted Jul 28, 1995 Published in issue #285 Jul 28, 1995 Order article reprints