Three of the most celebrated documentaries of 2016 have been disqualified from the Primetime Emmy competition due to eligibility rules, Variety has learned exclusively. They are Oscar-nominated “Life, Animated” (A&E), Academy Award-shortlisted docu “Weiner” (Showtime), and Grammy-nominated “The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and The Silk Road Ensemble” (HBO).
Each film had a DVD release or an internet release that came before their respective television air dates, thus violating the Television Academy’s Emmy eligibility criteria. The specific rule states that “television programs that are offered for sale on home video devices or offered for sale by means of electronic sell-through on the internet prior to their first airing or internet exhibition are not eligible, unless such offering occurs within seven (7) days prior to the program’s original airing or Internet exhibition.”
The Academy confirmed the disqualification with Variety.
“Showtime believes ‘Weiner’ is an Emmy-worthy documentary film of the highest caliber, and we applaud the outstanding work of filmmakers Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg,” said a representative for Showtime. “We are disappointed in the Television Academy’s decision to make ‘Weiner’ ineligible for Emmy consideration, based on what we believe to be a dated rule. That said, we probably should have seen it coming – this isn’t the first time a little unexpected exposure has cut ‘Weiner’s’ election dreams short.”
A&E and HBO did not respond to requests for comment.
“Television programs that are offered for sale on home video devices” does not include SVOD providers like Netflix. That’s because of a 2008 rule change that deems shows and docs on digital programmers eligible for Emmys in the same categories as broadcast and cable contenders.
Confused? Apparently so are film and television distributors gunning for both awards. While the rule has been in place for over a decade, in the ever-shifting docu distribution landscape, distributors have slipped up. In the last decade, both the Television Academy and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have made regular amendments to their respective documentary qualifying rules.
One of the most controversial came in 2012 when AMPAS introduced a new rule requiring a review in the New York Times or Los Angeles Times for a film to be deemed eligible. It was a move intended to both narrow the number of qualifying films as well as validate a doc’s theatrical bona fides. It failed to do either. What the rule change did achieve was the elimination of four-walling – a tactic used by broadcasters to quietly qualify their docs in movie theaters, thereby saving the majority of press for a pic’s future television premiere. Doing away with the covert method would have been reasonable if it weren’t for the fact that without funding from small-screen distributors such as HBO, Showtime and A&E, the majority of docs in the Oscar race would never exist.
Now, instead of a below-the-radar theatrical roll-out, many doc distributors including ESPN Films and Netflix openly rent theaters for at most a week in order to qualify their films for Oscar consideration and garner the New York Times or LA Times review. Anything over seven days in a theater deems the doc ineligible for Primetime Emmy documentary special consideration.
But in the unlikely event that a docu like “Citizenfour” or “Life, Animated” has a theatrical life lasting more than a week, that doc could be eligible for the Exceptional Merit in Documentary Filmmaking category. That’s because in 2015, the TV Academy expanded the categories’ eligibility to include documentaries that have a theatrical run that exceeded the cap of 70 days. (“Citizenfour,” which won the Exceptional Merit kudo in 2015, was in theaters for over five months.)
“With the rise of television documentaries that are exhibited theatrically prior to broadcast, raising the cap ensures that some of television’s strongest documentaries are able to enter the Emmy competition,” the TV Academy said in a 2015 statement.
Now 24 months later, three of last year’s strongest docus are out of competition due to a rule that nonfiction industry insiders argue is arbitrary due to Netflix and Amazon’s docu presence.