Oscars: How TV and Streaming Emmy Contenders Are Changing the Documentary Race

As the worlds of film and television collide, so do their respective awards givers—nowhere more prominently than in the realm of documentaries.
Documentary Oscars: TV & Streaming Emmy Contenders Changing the Race
OJ: Made In America
O.J. Simpson archival photo in 30 for 30 film: O.J.: Made in America.

By the time Ezra Edelman’s “O.J.: Made In America” aired on ESPN in June, receiving near-universal acclaim from critics, ESPN Films—which produced the documentary as part of the network’s popular “30 for 30” series—was already angling for attention from an Academy that, on the face of it, has nothing to do with TV. With one-week qualifying engagements at New York’s Cinema Village and Los Angeles’ Laemmle Monica Film Center, the exhaustive five-part portrait of O.J. Simpson’s life and times entered the campaign for Oscar.

It’s not alone. Of the eight other films Indiewire identifies as frontrunners in the race for Best Documentary Feature besides “O.J.: Made in America,” several have prominent connections to TV networks or streaming services: “Command and Control” (PBS); “Gleason” (Amazon); “Into the Inferno” (Netflix); “The Music of Strangers” (HBO); “Weiner” (Showtime); and “Zero Days” (Showtime). More than ever before, the resources (and marketing muscle) that accompany what’s often called “Peak TV” is shaping the competition for a coveted spot in AMPAS’s final five, further narrowing the gap between the worlds of film and television—and their respective awards givers.

This phenomenon isn’t new, of course. As Indiewire wrote in 2013 of the changing distribution model for documentaries, “HBO may now be this country’s foremost force in documentary filmmaking, while Showtime, A&E, CNN, ESPN, Sundance Channel, IFC, and Epix are joining the fray. Netflix, iTunes, and Amazon Video, among other VOD platforms, now offer more nonfiction options than all but the best art houses.”

Thom Powers, TIFF documentary programmer and artistic director of DOC NYC, notes that another much-discussed docuseries, PBS’ “Eyes on the Prize,” nabbed an Oscar nomination in 1988. For him, the emergence of players such as Netflix and Amazon in the documentary space is the latest evolution in a long relationship between nonfiction filmmaking and TV.

“There’s no question that digital platforms, whether it’s SVOD platforms like Netflix and Amazon or transactional VOD like iTunes, have completely transformed the way viewers get to access documentary films,” Powers says. “But documentaries have always relied heavily on broadcast dollars to get made, whether it’s been HBO or public television or other cable networks.”

“Gleason”Suzanne Alford/Open Road films

Each network or platform pursues strategies tailored to its needs: HBO, with deeper TV roots, remains largely focused on the Emmys, qualifying a few key titles for Oscars each year; Amazon partners with theatrical distributors, such as Open Road (“Gleason”), working closely with them on their marketing and awards campaigns; Netflix handles theatrical in-house, and effectively pours resources into making sure that the likes of Oscar nominees “What Happened, Miss Simone?” and “Winter Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom” are seen by Oscar and Emmy voters alike. (Their deep pockets are the envy of the industry.) Still, as it applies to Emmys and Oscars, the overlap between film and television has witnessed a marked increase in recent years.

Between 2000 and 2010, for instance, two films nominated in the TV Academy’s Documentary or Nonfiction Special or Exceptional Merit in Documentary Filmmaking categories also received Oscar nominations for Best Documentary Feature: “Scottsboro: An American Tragedy” and “The Betrayal (Nerakhoon)”

Since 2010, nine films have nabbed both Oscar and Emmy nominations: “The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers,” “Gasland,” “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory,” “The Square,” “Citizenfour,” “Virunga,” “What Happened, Miss Simone?,” “Cartel Land,” and “Winter on Fire.” Winning Emmys this year are “Cartel Land” (Exceptional Merit), tied with 2016 Sundance hit “Jim: The James Foley Story,” which will contend for the Oscar this year, and “Miss Simone” (Documentary/Nonfiction Special). (Asif Kapadia’s festival and theatrical hit “Amy,” released by A24, won the 2016 documentary feature Oscar.)

"Cartel Land"
“Cartel Land”

In part, this is a function of rules changes by both the TV Academy and AMPAS, which likes to define documentary Oscar contenders as “films” that play in theaters. But the reality is that most contenders play on multiple platforms and simply qualify for Oscar consideration with short New York/Los Angeles theatrical runs with attendant reviews in the New York and Los Angeles Times. Documentaries with nontheatrical distribution, including day-and-date releases, are now eligible for the Oscars as long as their TV, VOD, or SVOD presentation does not occur before the first day of their qualifying theatrical release.

Films that receive Oscar-qualifying runs are also eligible for Emmys, and in 2015 the TV Academy further loosened requirements in the Exceptional Merit category to allow films that exceed 70 days in theatrical release to compete for the award under certain circumstances. As a result, both ceremonies’ nominees increasingly reflect broader shifts in viewing patterns that have blurred the line between film and TV.

“There’s so much crossover, because there [are] more platforms, and I think you have broadcasters and streaming services that are making and acquiring strong documentaries, and everyone wants them to be eligible for awards, whether it’s Emmys, Oscars, the PGA [Producers Guild of America] or the DGA [Directors Guild of America],” says Amy Grey, president of Dish Communications, which is handling awards publicity for “Command and Control” and “The Ivory Game.” There is also crossover, Grey notes, among members of AMPAS and the TV Academy, particularly with regard to documentaries.

Grey and Dish Communications vice president Ashley Mariner both contend that the traditional “awards season” calendar no longer applies, with strategy and the first stages of campaigning beginning long before the fall festivals. Emmy season blurs into Oscar season, and vice versa.

“These sort of timelines are changing very rapidly, even as we speak,” Mariner says.

"Amanda Knox"
“Amanda Knox”

The point here is not that the Emmys exert a direct influence on the Oscars. In fact, because the TV Academy’s calendar runs from June 1-May 31, and AMPAS rules prohibit nontheatrical distribution from preceding qualifying theatrical runs, the effect is reversed: All 11 of the aforementioned films received their Oscar nominations before being nominated for an Emmy. Rather, as Powers suggests, the platforms that have made an ever-growing mark on the Emmys—that we tend, in other words, to define as “TV”—have now begun to turn their attention to the Oscars as well, in particular through their nonfiction offerings.

“There are a number of rising media brands that want to collect some awards, and documentary is a highly economical way to go after that,” Powers says, noting the high costs of producing fictional films and TV series. “For a documentary, you can create a very high-end product for $1-2 million dollars and sometimes less, so from the standpoint of a media brand that places importance on awards, that’s where they’re going to direct a lot of energy.”

It’s in “the sickening amount of resources” now required to mount effective awards campaigns, and not in the kinds of films being produced, that Powers sees the greatest influence of streaming services. He points out, for example, that the documentaries Netflix brought to TIFF, including “Into the Inferno,” “The Ivory Game,” and “Amanda Knox,” are films that might have aired, in past years, on HBO or The Discovery Channel. But the promotional might of deep-pocketed outlets such as Netflix and Amazon has raised the bar for what it takes to cut through the clutter and reach voters inundated by screeners and special events.

“I wish I knew how to change that dynamic,” Powers says. “I don’t know how to change that dynamic. The growth of the Oscar industry in the last ten years has been kind of astonishing, particularly in the documentary space.”

weiner documentary
Anthony Weiner and Huma Abedin in “Weiner”Sundance Selects

If Oscar and Emmy campaigns are encouraging streaming services and TV networks to expand their nonfiction footprint, Grey and Mariner argue, this can only help bring more worthwhile stories to audiences—whether in an Oscar-qualifying theatrical run or via their laptops and smart TVs.

“The streaming services are providing a place to see more films,” Mariner says, noting that Netflix has also carved out a presence in the Best Documentary Short category, including its first Oscar winner, 2014’s “The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life.” “They’re not as limited as a traditional broadcaster in terms of the space they have for documentary film.”

But while TV networks and streaming services have created new opportunities for nonfiction projects to be funded and seen, one possible drawback of the growing Emmy/Oscar overlap is the winnowing number of films that garner awards attention in any given year. Are audiences being exposed to fewer, not more, worthwhile documentaries?

“Let’s call it like it is. The process draws all the oxygen in the room to five films: The five Oscar nominees, and no others,” Powers says, adding that the other ten films that make the documentary branch’s annual shortlist are prohibited from marketing themselves as such. “Is that a bad thing? Sure, it’s a bad thing, if you’re not one of those five films. For those five films, it’s a positive marketing tool that gets people talking about things they wouldn’t otherwise talk about.”

For now, it appears that changing the dynamic, to use Powers’ term, is still in the future. “O.J.: Made in America” is already streaming on Hulu, and several other strong contenders in this year’s race, after summer theatrical releases, are likely to land on demand long before February’s ceremony. The Oscar nominees for Best Documentary Feature: Coming soon to a TV near you.

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