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Emmy Predictions 2020: Best Documentary or Nonfiction Special

HBO and Netflix look to fend off a flurry of fresh competitors in a race that may come down to where voters' allegiance lies.

Nadia Hallgren and Michelle Obama

“Becoming”

Courtesy of Netflix

Throughout Emmy season, IndieWire will be evaluating the top contenders for TV’s most prestigious prize, and it all starts here. At the bottom of this page are IndieWire TV Critic and Deputy Editor Ben Travers’ predictions for Best Documentary or Nonfiction Special (or, as it’s more formally known, Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special). This article will be updated throughout the coming months, along with all our predictions, to reflect an up-to-the-minute state of the race. Make sure to keep checking IndieWire for the latest coverage on the 2020 Emmys, including breaking news, analysis, interviews, podcasts, FYC event coverage, reviews of all the awards contenders, and more. The Creative Arts Emmy Awards will be given out Saturday, September 12 and Sunday, September 13. The 72nd Annual Primetime Emmy Awards will take place at the Microsoft Theater in downtown Los Angeles on Sunday, September 20. (See our recent news story for a more detailed breakdown of important dates.) ABC is broadcasting the ceremony.

Last Year’s Winner: “Leaving Neverland”
Still Eligible: No.
Hot Streak: In the last 10 years, HBO documentary or nonfiction specials have won six times, including 2018 and 2019 (for “The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling” and “Leaving Neverland,” respectively). But Netflix broke in and won back-to-back awards in 2016 and 2017 (for “What Happened, Miss Simone?” and “13th”), while landing a nominee every year since 2014.
Fun Fact: Since its 1998 introduction, only four networks have won this category more than once: Netflix (two wins), History (three), PBS (five) and HBO (10).
Notable Ineligible Series: After years of confusion over docuseries and documentaries double-dipping at the Emmys and the Oscars, the Television Academy tightened things up in 2020. Now, networks have to pick one or the other. On a similar note, docuseries that have been called films (officially or very unofficially) — like “Hillary” (which premiered at Sundance) “The Last Dance” (which did not) — are competing in the Documentary Series category.

The State of the Race

Like many of the Creative Arts races, if not the Emmys in general, HBO and Netflix have taken control of the Best Documentary or Nonfiction Special category. In 2015, HBO had four of the five nominees, with Netflix controlling the sole outlier; the following years saw similar dominance more evenly split between the two awards titans, including four of the five nominees in 2018 and four of the six in 2019.

But 2020 may be the year to shake things up. New, deep-pocketed competitors like Apple TV+ and Disney+ have reputable documentaries in contention. Will voters warm to the new faces at the party and make room at the table, or will they keep HBO and Netflix at the top of their queue, and thus the top of their ballots? Will pertinent issues or prominent names take precedence? What priorities voters place on subject matter could be just as important as what network knows how to get its programs seen.

Netflix is certainly making the latter option a distinct possibility. “Becoming,” the surprise-release Michelle Obama doc, is a frontrunner in the category thanks to solid reviews, decent viewership (it premiered as the No. 2 movie on Netflix in May), and a noteworthy FYC campaign. The streamer also has “Circus of Books,” which carries the added advantage of Emmy-favorite Ryan Murphy as a producer; “A Secret Love,” which is also produced by Murphy, alongside Jason Blum; and “The Black Godfather,” Reginald Hudlin’s biography of legendary music executive and film producer, Clarence Avant.

HBO, meanwhile, has even more options. “Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind” might be the leader in the clubhouse, given its subject’s industry allure and relatively good reviews, but “Who Killed Garrett Phillips?” received more vocal praise and has Liz Garbus (a two-time Emmy winner and six-time nominee) at the helm. Also in consideration: “The Apollo” and “Very Ralph” have a star-studded lineup of talking heads (including archived interviews with James Brown and Aretha Franklin for the former, and new chats with Hillary Clinton and Jessica Chastain for the latter). Then there’s “I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth vs. Michelle Carter,” which not only has the longest title of the lot but one of the best.

OK, OK, but who’s coming to knock off the reigning king(s)? Apple TV+ is going big with “Beastie Boys Story,” a well-reviewed documentary that’s getting a strong push from the tech giant. Most likely Apple’s best bet, the company also has “The Elephant Queen” — which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival — which has proven to be a sizable contender, as well. It’s not to be confused with “Elephant,” the Disney+ entry narrated by Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, which is running alongside another Mouse House nature doc, “Dolphin Reef.”

Also new to the doc race but not new to the Emmys is FX. The cable favorite premiered its first documentary this year, “AKA Jane Roe: The Real Woman Behind Roe v. Wade,” and John Landgraf’s team knows a thing or two about mounting golden awards campaigns. In addition to all the previous contenders, FX’s foray into a new category will also have to top MTV’s “St. Louis Superman,” Epix’s well-received “Laurel Canyon: A Place in Time,” and “Suppressed: The Fight to Vote,” a timely examination of voter suppression that producer Brave New Films is streaming for free on YouTube. With 54 submissions on the ballot, there will be five nominees in 2020 — but where they come from is anyone’s guess.

Predicted Nominees:

1. “Becoming” (Netflix)
2. “Beastie Boys Story” (Apple TV+)
3. “Who Killed Garrett Phillips?” (HBO)
4. “AKA Jane Roe: The Real Woman Behind Roe v. Wade” (FX)
5. “Elephant” (Disney+)

Spoilers: “Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind,” “Laurel Canyon: A Place in Time,” “The Elephant Queen,” “The Apollo,” “I Love You Now Die: The Commonwealth v. Michelle Carter,” “Circus of Books,” “A Secret Love,” “The Black Godfather,” “Very Ralph,” “Dolphin Reef,” “Suppressed: The Fight to Vote”

In a Perfect World: “St. Louis Superman”

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