Emmy Predictions 2020: Best Documentary or Nonfiction Special

HBO and Netflix look to fend off fresh competitors in a race that may come down to where voters' allegiance lies. [Updated September 11]
Nadia Hallgren and Michelle Obama
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 the week of September 14. The 72nd Annual Primetime Emmy Awards will take place virtually on Sunday, September 20. (See our awards calendar 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 saw a somewhat anticipated shake-up. New, deep-pocketed streamers helped flood the category with contenders, and voters warmed to the new faces at the party, making room at the table for Apple TV+ and EPIX alongside two Netflix docs and one HBO entry. Now the question becomes: Who will win? Documentary specials from Netflix or HBO have taken home the last five trophies — will it happen again in 2020?

The short answer? Probably. Not only are the most basic odds in their favor (three of the five nominees means three chances to win out of five!), but Netflix and HBO both have typically strong (and well-seen) nominees. “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. Obama’s recent appearance at the DNC only reminded voters how much they love her (and her story), while the general demand for change this election year should benefit “Becoming” as well. (Even TV awards voters want to throw a little love toward our former First Lady.)

Then there’s “The Great Hack,” which carries its own pertinent political ties. Directed by Oscar-nominated filmmakers Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer, the 2019 Sundance doc breaks down how, in early 2018, Cambridge Analytica harvested Facebook users’ data — in the company’s largest data breach on record — to create targeted political advertising. With high marks from critics and carrying an eye-opening warning, voters could rally behind the movie, so long as it remains top of mind. (“The Great Hack” premiered over a year ago, in July 2019.)

Meanwhile, HBO’s solo contender comes from another Oscar-nominated filmmaker. “The Apollo,” directed by two-time Academy Award nominee and one-time winner Roger Ross Williams, captures the telling history of Harlem’s landmark theater. With archival footage of everyone from James Brown to Shirley Chisholm and new interviews with Ta-Nehisi Coates and Smokey Robinson, the film takes on an impossible task — chronicling over 100 years of performances in under 100 minutes — and does right by its immense subject.

OK, OK, but who’s coming to knock off the reigning kings? Apple TV+ is going big with “Beastie Boys Story,” a well-reviewed documentary that’s getting a strong push from the tech giant. Directed by Spike Jonze, the film earned great reviews which helped it land five total Emmy nominations — the most of any nominee. “Becoming” is right behind it with four, while perhaps the category’s biggest surprise is in third with a very respectable three total nods: “Laurel Canyon: A Place in Time,” directed by Allison Ellwood, tracks the L.A. neighborhood’s ’60s music scene across two episodes and features interviews with Linda Ronstadt, Bonnie Raitt, and more. Could those subjects carry the EPIX entry to a surprise win? Will Apple TV+ pull off an upset? Or will Netflix or HBO maintain their grip on one more category? We’ll find out soon enough.

Predicted Nominees:

1. “Becoming” (Netflix)
2. “Beastie Boys Story” (Apple TV+)
3. “The Apollo” (HBO)
4. “The Great Hack” (Netflix)
5. “Laurel Canyon: A Place in Time” (EPIX)

Predicted Winner: “Becoming”
Actual Winner:
“The Apollo”

  • September 20
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