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Confessions of an Emmys Virgin: The Education of an Oscars Pundit

Confessions of an Emmys Virgin: The Education of an Oscars Pundit

I’ve been an Oscar watcher for decades, predicting nominations and wins since my days at Film Comment, Entertainment Weekly, and the late lamented Premiere. Picking Oscars has a lot to do with discerning the tastes and predilections of Academy members—6,000 strong—a mix of crafts people, producers, executives, and talent. I know many of them by name. And as the entertainment industry shifted away from two-hour features to more quality episodic television (it’s all video content, producer Sean Daniel once reminded me) like everyone else I’ve been watching movies less and television more.

I am hardly a full-time TV critic who inhales every series, reviews every premiere and wraps things up at season’s end. Like most culture vultures, I sample, surf, or take on a show through several seasons until my interest flags. There’s only so much you can track and absorb. But as WME agent Graham Taylor admitted to me last night at the Season 6 premiere of HBO’s “Game of Thrones” at Hollywood’s Chinese Theatre, followed by a lavish fete at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, when he goes to Cannes next month he’ll be packaging several television series along with a spate of indie films.

More and more, the blowout premieres are thrown by cable channels like HBO and AMC, which threw a bash for limited series “The Night Manager,” starring Tom Hiddleston, at the Chateau Marmont last week, another expensive series shot on multiple locations. These events are as Hollywood as any movie studio’s, complete with rabid fans screaming at the stars on the red carpet. HBO flew in “GoT” stars Emilia Clarke, Lena Headey, Sophie Turner, Peter Dinklage, and Maisie Williams, who are all featured in the first screening of the episode set to air April 24, and mounted another premiere across the pond in London.

At the party, “GoT” co-showrunner David Benioff told me this season is more expensive, which is unsurprising. It was shot in five countries with television’s largest cast, 900 crew members in Belfast, 400 in Spain, over 680 hours of unedited footage (or 3.7 million feet of film), 140 script revisions and more than 2,000 VFX shots over its 10-part shoot. He has two more years to go, but when I queried him about making movies later on (his “City of Thieves” would be a good candidate) he indicated TV was far more compelling with the ability to spread out characters over a longer haul.

Clearly, the larger global entertainment community, from London, Paris, Rome, Beijing, and Australia to New York and L.A. and beyond, has moved to television.

Movies are getting made, sure—I’m heading to exhibitor convention CinemaCon in Las Vegas this week to check out the studio summer showcases and jetted-in stars—but it’s harder to find players in the entertainment industry who aren’t balancing both media, from cinephiles like Harvey Weinstein (who just signed Antoine Fuqua to a first-look TV deal) and Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa (“The Leftovers”) to Oscar-nominee Amy Adams, who will star in a television series based on Gillian Flynn’s “Sharp Objects,” with Jean-Marc Vallée (“Dallas Buyer’s Club,” “Wild”) directing; Adams’ other new project is an Amazon movie with “Transparent” creator and one-time indie filmmaker Jill Soloway. The list of film people working in television is endless, from Steven Soderbergh who gave up movies several years back to Amy Seimetz and Lodge Kerrigan, who are shooting his Starz adaptation of “The Girlfriend Experience.”

Craftspeople in LA working in both industries is the new norm; which is one reason the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences (AMPAS) has backed off of its too-rigid (if well-intentioned) diversity reforms. They’re looking to prune people who were only briefly active in films. The truth is, many of their members now work in television, and shouldn’t be punished for doing so.

Which brings us to the 68-year-old Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, a much larger Academy. Its 19,000 members are divided into 29 peer groups who vote for nominations for the Emmy Awards, which are given out every September. While actors are a big contingent, unlike the Academy, 70% of Emmy voters are below-the-line technicians and craftspeople.

For me, trying to figure out what makes these people tick is going to take some time. I have long been befuddled by their choices. They are conservative to a fault, returning to the same, often mainstream, network shows year after year, although sometimes persuaded by the more adventurous Golden Globes or Critics Choice Awards to take certain shows more seriously (will they pay attention to “Outlander” this year?). When favorite shows go off the air, there’s room for new ones to breathe, but the content glut is inspiring the Academy to add even more categories.

But who are these people? This year, I’m jumping into the Emmy Awards fray as an unabashed newbie, trying to figure out what makes this organization tick. So far I’ve attended an event deep in the San Fernando Valley (home to ATAS headquarters and many of its voters), for a FYC panel for TV series “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” a musical show created by YouTube star Rachel Bloom and her showrunner Aline Brosh McKenna (“The Devil Wears Prada,” another film refugee), and fellow cast members. Bloom bounded out in bra and Spanx to perform an opening number and then returned dressed for the panel. The audience was packed with fans, who whooped and hollered as everyone on stage enjoyed playing to the room.

I got the same vibe a week later at the Writers Guild Theatre around the corner from the Motion Picture Academy in Beverly Hills, when I moderated an event for Writers Bloc on Starz’ hit historical romance “Outlander.” Again, the room was jammed with 500 fans, mainly women, a mix of Writers Bloc members and the public. And the stars, Caitriona Balfe, Tobias Menzies, and Sam Heughan, knew how to play the room as the writers and showrunner Ronald Moore more soberly explained their process.

“Outlander” is an example of an outlying show with strong production values that somehow, perhaps due to its genre elements, doesn’t get the respect it deserves—acting, writing, directing and production values are all superb. Do Academy voters take HBO and Showtime more seriously than other cable networks? What do they watch? What do they like? Do they explore risk-taking and innovation?

These are some of the questions I’ll be asking in this space as I learn more about the TV side of the industry.

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