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Posted at 10:30 PM ET, 01/30/2011

Why "Waiting for Superman" missed out on an Oscar nomination -- politics, or just a tough crowd?

By The Reliable Source

Francisco, right, one of the young public-school students who was featured in Davis Guggenheim's documentary, "Waiting for Superman," with his mother. (Courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

The movie that made Michelle Rhee a big-screen star was the talk of two coasts and one of the most-seen documentaries of 2010. For months, "Waiting for 'Superman' " collected awards and built buzz -- stories in Time, segments on "Oprah." The only question was whether the wrenching exploration of the American public school system would win D.C.-bred director Davis Guggenheim his second Oscar.

"Waiting for Superman": Oscar denied! (Reuters)

Well, forget that: When the Academy Award nominations were announced last week, "Superman" didn't even make the list.

Was it the politics? The buzziest documentaries stir controversy, but "Superman" had more than its share. After opening to widespread praise in September, a slow backlash set in. In November, Guggenheim acknowledged to the New York Times that one emotional scene -- where a mother expresses her hopes of getting her son into an elite school -- was staged after she had learned that he was shut out. Some ed-policy folks complained the narrative was rigged in favor of union antagonists like Rhee and against union leaders like American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, and that its message, advocating for privatization and charter schools, was unquestioning and naive.

Did that hurt the film with Hollywood types? "It isn't the advocacy that appears to bother them," said analyst Sasha Stone. "It is that they probably didn't agree with the film's politics in the end."

Anthony, right, another of the student stars of "Waiting for Superman." (Paramount Pictures)
Still, many Oscar geeks think "Superman's" fate with the academy "just came down to them liking other movies more," Stone said.

According to a veteran of many awards publicity campaigns (who asked not to be named; publicists like to stay in the shadows), docs on similar topics often end up competing with one another, a dynamic behind other Oscar disses this year: Voters could see their way to picking only one doc about war and one about Wall Street, so "Restrepo" edged out "The Tillman Story" and "Client 9" lost out to "Inside Job." "Superman" was probably in unofficial competition with "The Lottery," an acclaimed but lesser-known doc about public education that wasn't nominated either -- perhaps they canceled each other out.

Weingarten, Guggenheim and Rhee at a D.C. premiere of "Superman" last year (Evy Mages for The Washington Post)

Plus, it's a tough crowd: The academy's '90s overhaul of its voting system for documentaries -- the field is now winnowed by panels that view every single eligible film -- means the power is concentrated within an elite cadre of the documentary world, folks unmoved by popular tastes or big box-office hauls. It's a group that has been loath to hand out repeat Oscars. (Guggenheim won four years ago for "An Inconvenient Truth.") And maybe some resent that, while they struggle to finance their films, "Superman" got $2 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to promote its message.

Of course, the point of winning an Oscar, for many, is to sell more tickets. "Superman" has already earned $6 million -- only crowd-pleasing travelogues "Oceans" and "Babies" did better among 2010 docs. "It would be hard to imagine a film that had a bigger impact on public policy this year," said Mike Feldman, whose Glover Park Group worked on the "Superman" marketing campaign. "By that standard it was a huge success."

2011 Academy Awards full coverage

By The Reliable Source  | January 30, 2011; 10:30 PM ET
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I am sure there were a number of reasons why "Waiting for Superman" missed out on an oscar nomination. I am not qualified to judge how well the movie was made, but I can tell you it only told half the story.

It was a grand hype of Michelle Rhee and some others who have had some good ideas but in the case of Michelle Rhee her desire for publicity such as she got in Waiting for Superman may have led her to not accomplish much of what she was trying to do. When a documentary is so one sided and leaves out all the failures it is hard to see how it can win an award.

I hope one day there will be a true story about Michelle Rhee's time in DC. She accomplished some excellent things but also failed in a big way on many others.

Posted by: peterdc | January 31, 2011 10:20 AM | Report abuse

Clearly, a documentary is to present the facts. However, Rhee told numerous lies and manufactured a Reduction of Force on October 2, 2009. "I got rid of teachers who had hit children, who had had sex with children, who had missed 78 days of school. Why wouldn't we take those things into consideration?" Fast Company National Magazine, February 2010.

Posted by: sheilahgill | January 31, 2011 12:00 PM | Report abuse

I was surprised “The Tillman Story” was passed over in favor of "Restrepo" as the Academy's "war" documentary.

I watched both films at the theater. As a veteran, who spent 8 years with an Airborne Ranger LRRP unit, I wanted to like “Restrepo.” But the film failed to resonate with me nor did it tell a story as compelling as “The Tillman Story.”

Note: Before seeing “Restrepo”, I’d suggest reading Sebatian Junger’s accompanying book, “War”, that provides much needed background.

“The Tillman Story” does contribute to the restoration of Pat Tillman’s legacy by honoring the man, not the myth. The iconoclast, not the icon. As his mother said, “Pat would have wanted to be remembered as an individual, not as a stock figure or political prop. Pat was a real hero, not what they used him as.”

However, after its August release, “The Tillman Story” was largely ignored by the media partly because it didn’t reveal much “news” (at least to those who have closely followed the story over the years). For example, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who apparently supervised the writing of Tillman's Silver Star recommendation with a "misleading citation" and "inaccurate information" (e.g. two altered witness statements), was barely a footnote in the film.

Partly because of its lack of controversial “news”, the film peaked showing at only 28 theaters across the country (and grossed only $800,000). I believe “The Tillman Story” deserves a wider audience. It's a shame it didn't receive the attention an Oscar nod would have brought to it.

Note: the DVD will be released tomorrow on 2/1. To fill in the details of “The Tillman Story”, I’d suggest Mary Tillman’s “Boots on the Ground by Dusk” (paperback at blurb website with preview), Jon Krakauer’s updated paperback “Where Men Win Glory” (although a flawed work) and “The [Untold] Tillman Story” at the feralfirefighter blog.

Posted by: GuyMontag1 | January 31, 2011 12:55 PM | Report abuse

It seems to me the root problem is that the judges miscategorized the film, thus depriving Rhee of her well-deserved shot at Best Supporting Actress With Broom.

In other breaking news: Sharron Angle is NOT a witch.

Posted by: laboo | February 1, 2011 5:02 AM | Report abuse

Ms. Rhee was great at PR for herself and what she did....but it is the community working together that gets things done. She did do some good things for DC schools but she disregarded her teachers and showed little repect for those who disagreed with her ways. Just think how much more successful the school reforms could have been if she had worked with everyone. I am glad this film did not get a nomination, it was indeed a one sided was Ms. Rhee's take.

Posted by: DCWatcher3 | February 1, 2011 8:07 AM | Report abuse

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