If you have a critically acclaimed documentary released both theatrically and for television, with stellar reviews pouring in mere weeks before Primetime Emmy ballots are set to go out, do you submit to the TV Academy for consideration, or do you hold your cards for an Oscar blitz later in the year?
That was the conundrum ABC and Lincoln Square Productions faced ahead of the May 1 Emmy submissions deadline recently with “Let It Fall: 1982-1992,” John Ridley’s excellent examination of the 1992 Los Angeles riots. On the advice of Oscar consultants — who felt an Emmy profile could tarnish the doc’s luster with the motion picture Academy in eight months’ time — the film’s stewards have opted out of the Primetime Emmy race. They may, however, submit for the lower-profile News & Documentary Emmy Awards next year.
A key reason is that there are two versions of “Let It Fall”: the 140-minute theatrical cut and the version cut for network broadcast that’s roughly an hour shorter. The former is Ridley’s full vision and the one he and his team would like to lead with.
There would have been two possible avenues for the film to pursue in the Emmy race: outstanding documentary/nonfiction special or exceptional merit in documentary filmmaking. The latter is reserved for films that meet a criteria including “profound social impact,” and it would also appear to be a race to lose to “O.J.: Made in America” this year. That’s where ESPN ultimately submitted Ezra Edelman’s Oscar-winning film. But there is stiff competition in the documentary special category, too, including HBO’s “Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds” and Ava DuVernay’s Oscar-nominated “13th.”
Edelman’s dominance last year, and the accompanying complaints from many who felt his multi-part tome was a television series posing as a motion picture for maximum impact, forced the film Academy to change its rules for documentary features last month. Going forward, multi-part series will not be eligible for the Oscar. That immediately ruled out contenders like Netflix’s “Five Came Back,” which could conceivably have traveled the “O.J.” path.
But while “Let It Fall” stands in no violation of that stricture, it could still carry the poseur whiff that “O.J.” left in its wake — whether it would have succeeded at the Emmys or not. So the question is, did they overthink it? Was it a mistake not to strike while the iron is hot?
Ridley’s film was the clear towering achievement among a slew of documentaries that landed on or around the 25th anniversary of the L.A. riots. National Geographic’s “LA 92” (also submitting in the “exceptional merit” category) told the story brilliantly with painstaking editing of archival footage. Showtime’s “Burn Motherf*cker, Burn!” bit off a lot to chew with the socio-historic context, going back to the Watts riots and adding other details. Meanwhile, A&E’s “L.A. Burning: The Riots 25 Years Later,” from executive producer John Singleton, and Smithsonian’s “The Lost Tapes: L.A. Riots,” took more standard approaches.
But Ridley uniquely drilled into the personal, coming away with a comprehensive portrait of a very complex, very volatile moment in the nation’s history. And yet it could conceivably walk away from two separate awards seasons with little to show for itself. Because let’s be honest, the Oscar race is a long ways off. And the film Academy’s documentary branch can be mercurial. That’s no easy get.
So this is very much a trial balloon from ABC/Lincoln Square. Gunning for an Oscar with anything perceived as television material is a risk amid ESPN’s lingering baggage. But there are plans to bring “Let It Fall” back to screens at the end of the summer, which should help emboss its theatrical footprint after the initial April 21 qualifying release.
(HBO Documentary Films will also be forgoing Emmy consideration with “Cries From Syria,” priming it for an Academy Awards push in the fall. Typically HBO airs its qualifying docs after the Oscar season.)
Come what may, “Let It Fall” certainly deserves attention form the film Academy. It’s better than some of the higher profile docs in the Oscar race, like “An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power” and Laura Poitras’ “Risk.” But crowd-pleasers such as Amanda Lipitz’s “Step,” or urgent studies like “Last Men in Aleppo,” could prove formidable down the stretch as well.
Other documentaries in the Emmy hunt this year include HBO’s “Abortion: Stories Women Tell,” Netflix’s “Audrie & Daisy” and “The Ivory Game,” NetGeo’s “Before the Flood,” and Spike’s “I Am Heath Ledger.”
On the series side, top contenders include the aforementioned “Five Came Back,” Amazon’s “American Playboy: The Hugh Hefner Story,” and BBC America’s “Planet Earth II.”
Emmy nominations will be announced Thursday July 13. Oscar nominations will be unveiled Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2018.