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Winter TV Awards: ‘Small Axe’ Is a Golden Ticket For Amazon, but Can They Cash In?

Steve McQueen's "Small Axe" is a universal hit, but can a film anthology thrive in the TV awards circuit?

Small Axe

“Lovers Rock”

Amazon Studios


Back when cross-country travel was safe and conceivable, I had a terrible habit of picking up a few dollars’ worth of scratch-off lottery tickets in whatever state I was in, throwing them in my purse, and forgetting about them until hours, sometimes days later. There was no logic behind it and it was rarely fruitful, except for any given state’s public education fund, I suppose.

There was one incident that made me think, though. It must have been after some trip back to the Midwest for the holidays, I came across a misbegotten scratcher from Nebraska — Eppley Airfield, what up — and realized that if it ended up being a big winner, it would be a colossal pain to try and collect on. Of course, this wasn’t an actual concern, what with the terrible odds of lotteries in general, but a girl could dream. A winning lottery ticket with no place to cash it, such a sad state of affairs.

I was reminded of this pointless anecdote in recent days as film critics associations started announcing their winners for the best films and best performances of the year. A lot of Oscar frontrunners took home significant awards, with Chloé Zhao winning best director honors from both the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the New York Film Critics Circle for her film “Nomadland” and Kelly Reichardt’s “First Cow” winning best film at NYFCC, with strong showings for both Emerald Fennell’s “Promising Young Woman” and Eliza Hittman’s “Never Rarely Sometimes Always.”

But beyond those accolades, perhaps the most significant wins with critics groups so far came for Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe” anthology, as distributed on Amazon Prime Video. McQueen was runner-up for director for “Small Axe” as a collective and Mica Levi was runner-up for score for “Lovers Rock,” just one of the films of the anthology, at LAFCA, with “Small Axe” also winning best picture and Shabier Kirchner winning best cinematography for the series. The anthology also won cinematography at NYFCC.

McQueen and “Small Axe” are nothing if not deserving of all the praise and more, as “Small Axe” is truly a transformative work of art. That’s not — and never has been — in question.

That being said, the awards outlets roundly embracing “Small Axe” at this juncture are groups of film critics. But you won’t see “Small Axe” or any of the individual works contained therein compete with similar films at the Academy Awards; it will compete at the Emmy Awards in the newly coined Outstanding Limited Series or Anthology Series category.

This categorization makes sense, as it’s the only place in either the Emmys or the Oscars that “Small Axe” can be judged as it was intended: as a collective, as opposed to individual films. But it still feels a bit strange that a work so roundly embraced by the film world to then make its major awards push amongst other actual TV shows.

After months of agonizing, the most accurate description I have for “Small Axe” is still this: It’s a collection of five films, of varying lengths — between 63 and 128 minutes long — meant to be considered as a whole. All five of the films premiered at film festivals, but none of them had theatrical runs. None of the films are TV movies and none of them are TV episodes. It will be competing as a TV anthology series at the Emmys.

And so, I have to ask, is “Small Axe” the winning lottery ticket that Amazon Prime Video has nowhere to cash?

Probably not.

But there’s always a small chance that some Emmy voters are turned off by the idea of a project that so clearly exists as a film anthology competing as a TV anthology. There’s also the fact that McQueen hates television. If the work is exceptional, does it matter that the creator despises the medium? If the work is exceptional, does it matter that it is reluctant to categorize itself as TV?

If “Small Axe” is as roundly embraced by TV groups as it has been by film groups, look for it to have a big impact throughout the Winter TV Awards season, as guilds especially will reveal how TV industry insiders feel about the project.

While “Small Axe” is far and away Amazon’s most obvious awards player at this juncture, it’s by no means the only project from the streamer that has garnered chatter throughout 2020. Nathaniel Halpern’s “Tales From the Loop” uses sci-fi to explore tender moments of personal intimacy and display exquisite visual tapestries — and might be a bit too subtle to break through for its below-the-line accomplishments. It wouldn’t be an unwelcome surprise to see it pop up at nominations.

Then there’s the exact opposite of “Tales From the Loop”: “The Boys.” Now with two seasons under its belt, the Amazon Prime Video breakout hit is ready to make its mark with awards bodies. With an Emmy nomination for sound editing, as well as a nomination from the Art Directors Guild, maybe “The Boys” could be the below-the-line competition “The Mandalorian” never saw coming.

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