At this point, the “Roma” distribution debate is exhaustive (if not exhausting), but it’s one that Steven Spielberg inadvertently began in March 2018, while promoting “Ready Player One.” Speaking to the U.K.’s ITV News, he said: “Once you commit to a television format, you’re a TV movie. You certainly — if it’s a good show, deserve an Emmy. But not an Oscar.”
Netflix didn’t even announce its acquisition of the film until April 2018, so it’s unlikely that Spielberg specifically referred to Cuarón’s passion project. However inadvertently, Spielberg’s statement also introduced a compelling question: Should creative intention inform awards qualification?
If you’re an Emmy, the answer is no.
To be clear: The TV Academy draws a line when it comes to theatrical exhibition and Emmys qualification. If you put something on 250-plus screens across four months, as we estimate Netflix did with “Roma,” you’ve left Emmys far behind. However, a film that spends a week in theaters for Oscar qualification is still good to go. (Of note: An entirely different set of TV Academy rules applies to documentaries, which can have a full theatrical life and still go on to a robust Emmys campaign. Expect to see that in play with Hulu’s recent acquisition of Nat Geo’s 2019 Best Documentary Oscar winner “Free Solo.”)
However, the Emmys are unperturbed about a film’s intentions when it comes to Emmys candidacy: There’s no such thing as a film’s intended format. As an example, film festivals have no impact on eligibility; many “TV movies” entered the world as “film movies” (or at least, “film festival movies”), and wound up as Emmy contenders.
The most recent example was HBO’s Emmy-nominated “The Tale,” a harrowing examination of the lasting effects of abuse from Jennifer Fox. It premiered at Sundance in 2018 before HBO Films acquired the distribution rights and premiered the film on the premium cable provider in May. Similarly, Rashid Johnson’s “Native Son” will get a HBO release in April, after making its 2019 Sundance debut.
What kills Emmys eligibility is the mass release, as when Fathom Events offers nationwide screenings of the opera super early on Saturday mornings in hundreds of theaters. (Sorry, Wagner’s “Die Walküre.” No Emmy for you.)
It comes down to theater counts. The TV Academy has a magic number of 70 theatrical play dates — that is, the number of days that a film is in theaters, multiplied by the number of theaters. Technically, a film could be in a single theater for 10 weeks, longer than many theatrical releases, and still qualify for Emmys — as long as it never played in any other venue.
However, there is a TV Academy rule about movies that should give Spielberg pause, since he’s planning to reboot his 1980s anthology series “Amazing Stories” on Apple. After a “Black Mirror” episode won the Emmy for Outstanding Television Movie for the last two years, the TV Academy instituted a new rule declaring that TV movies must be at least 75 minutes long.
There are occasions when TV make its way to theaters; In December 2017, “Game of Thrones” held a one-night-only screening of Season 7, after its Emmys season was over. However, then-programming president Casey Bloys didn’t mince words when asked about the possibility of Season 8 in theaters. “I would [rule it out],” he said. “This is for subscribers.”