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Emmys: Nonfiction Fare a Hot Commodity on Smallscreen

With Netflix aggressively establishing itself in the documentary arena, nonfiction fare has become a hot commodity for Emmys. But despite the shifting landscape and its evolving format, HBO Documentary Films continues to dominate the primetime Emmy race — this year, it has a total of 28 nonfiction primetime Emmy nominations.

Lisa Nishimura, VP of original documentaries for Netflix, admits that awards and nominations are incredibly important at this point in the streaming service’s life.

“Certainly awards do a lot to raise the profile of film,” Nishimura says. “They can help continue or expand a conversation about a film, which is exciting for (Netflix) and the filmmakers.”

In its second year of eligibility Netflix garnered three noms including one for Academy Award-nominated film, “Virunga” (above) in the docu or nonfiction special category.

President of HBO documentary films Sheila Nevins says while the introduction of programmers and distributors such as Netflix means more competition, it also represents a positive shift.

“You have to define more clearly who you are in a more competitive market,” Nevins says. “You are less careless and more careful, which is not to say that you aren’t competitive — certainly you are — but I think that we have more antennae. There are more things around us. (So we ask ourselves) is this (film) right for us? Will this make noise for someone else? If so — do we care? Because it always goes back to the bottom line: Does it feel like HBO?”

While Netflix has added depth to the nonfiction field, PBS and its long-running documentary film series, “American Masters,” “American Experience,” “POV” and “Independent Lens” continue to be HBO’s biggest primetime Emmy competitor. Oscar-nominated doc “Last Days in Vietnam” along with “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History,” “Cancer: The Emperor of all Maladies” and “The Great Invisible” are among this year’s PBS-aired nominated docs.
“Independent Lens” introduces 22 films each nine-month season. For its deputy executive producer Lois Vossen, Emmy recognition means more eyes on its offerings, which means more support.

“(An Emmy nomination or win) allows us to keep funding films and presenting them in a marketplace that is getting somewhat more marginalized in the sense of you have to have a lot of money to penetrate and reach audiences,” Vossen says. “So the Emmys are a way to get that recognition and keep audiences coming.”

In the past 12 years, “Independent Lens” has won a handful of primetime Emmys and several news and documentary Emmy kudos. This year, “The Great Invisible” is repping it in the primetime Emmy race. Vossen says financial considerations keep “Independent Lens” from mounting aggressive campaigns to guarantee more victories.

“We fund a lot of films and try to put our resources towards the quality of the films and the filmmakers,” Vossen says. “So to also have money to do (Emmy) advertising is a hardship and I don’t know that it always results in the best works being identified.”

Vossen instead submits a large portion of the series’ lineup for news & documentary Emmy consideration, which boasts 12 categories.
While primetime Emmy campaigning is not a path Vossen and her team choose to go down, Nevins says, there is “very little singing and dancing” going on at HBO. “We sing and dance for the subscriber. That’s our job. I don’t think you can coax (an Emmy) voter with an ad or a song or a dance. We don’t play that game.”

Nishimura is just happy to be in the primetime Emmy race.

“To even be able to be part of the (Emmy) conversation is a thrill,” the Netflix exec says. “We have always loved the (docu) format and knew that if we make great stories and democratize the distribution people will engage with them.”

The real winners? The audiences viewing this new golden era of documentaries.


A rule change this year has opened up the Emmy nonfiction category, allowing theatrical hits such as “Citizenfour” to compete for Emmys.

Previously, a documentary that exceeded a theatrical run of 70 days could not qualify for consideration, but ATAS has expanded the eligibility this year.

However, those documentaries are only eligible to compete in the exceptional merit in documentary filmmaking category if they meet three specific provisions:

The film had to be financed by a television network; a television company had to be creatively involved with the film; and there was initial intent/commitment to air the program on television following the Television Academy’s rules for national distribution.

According to the TV Academy, the juried nonfiction category is not meant to duplicate the recognition given to doc/nonfiction programming in the regular categories and areas of the competition.

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