I hate to be a hater but the 69th Primetime Emmy Awards is coming up and I’m not feeling it. Maybe I care a bit if Robin Wright or Elisabeth Moss will win a gold statue. When it comes to the documentary categories, I just get plain ornery. I wrote a piece for The Hollywood Reporter bemoaning the puffery that is the Emmys, as well as the sheer silliness of documentary series being up for contention at both the Oscars as well as the Emmys.
The spotlight this year is on O.J.: Made in America, which I feel is one of the best nonfiction productions in the past ten years, but is still, at its very core, a TV series. The fact that it won an Oscar is inane. Now it’s on the eve of winning an Emmy. Shouldn’t all documentaries, especially ones that are viewed in episodes, be in either the feature film or television category and therefore be up for either an Oscar or an Emmy? A simple solution has been suggested to me: a documentary’s producers should be forced to decide to either submit your film to one or the other. Problem solved. I kind of liked the cleanliness of the proposal, so I turned to some folks in the doc filmmaking community.
I got some agreement — including the suggestion that ESPN ought to have withdrawn O.J. from the Emmy submission after it won its Oscar — but mostly a resounding, “No way!”
The latter response was best articulated by Tim Horsburgh, the director of communications and distribution at Chicago doc powerhouse Kartemquin:
This is a complicated one because often with docs there are multiple funding sources of which perhaps the most key might be the broadcaster, without whose investment the film might never have been completed (who therefore has every right to want to submit for an Emmy), especially in the public media model.
On the other hand, if that film is well made and launches at a big festival and secures a theatrical distributor, part of their interest in taking on the film at all will be that they can recoup their investment by committing to a successful Oscar campaign (where with docs even being among the 15 shortlisted allows much greater prominence, let alone being a nominee).
If that possibility is removed, I believe you’d see fewer docs get theatrical releases and, in the current climate, more celebrity-focused, high-concept, culturally-mainstream docs pushed into the Oscar race by the big streaming platforms, and less theatrical acquisitions of the social-issue, cinéma vérité docs about underrepresented subjects from diverse filmmakers.
So, I’m against choosing. It’s great that docs get to have it both ways. In nearly all other respects we’re positioned as inferior to feature films. Let docs keep this opportunity to have a couple of different chances to be in the spotlight.
Tim has convinced me that it’s better for the doc world — especially the one that POV PBS inhabits — if there is flexibility, so it shouldn’t be an either/or scenario. It’s also relevant for Amazon’s Long Strange Trip, Amir Bar-Lev’s film about the Grateful Dead, which is also great, but is on the fine line, asking, “Is it a feature or television doc?” I saw it in a theater in one sitting, so I can see why it’s worthy of an Oscar. It’s also clearly well positioned for the Emmy race next year.
Sure, I wish things could be more defined. But if a little messiness is the price of exposure for some great, valiant films, so be it.