In the past decade, half of all documentaries nominated for an Academy Award went on to receive a Primetime, News and Doc or Intl. Emmy nomination.
Unlike “Moonlight,” “Spotlight” and “12 Years a Slave,” nonfiction feature Oscar winners including “CitizenFour,” “Taxi to the Dark Side” and “Born Into Brothels” can also tout an Emmy win.
Why? Because documentaries are by and large a product of television or digital platforms and not film studios. Without funding from small-screen distributors such as HBO, PBS, A&E and streaming services including Netflix and Amazon, the Oscar feature documentary category wouldn’t exist.
But docu filmmakers, similar to narrative filmmakers, want the same thing: for their film to be seen in a movie theater with an audience. So outlets, including HBO and PBS, have selectively facilitated that desire for primarily two reasons: to please directors and perhaps more importantly, to qualify for an Academy Award, which is coveted by even the most steadfast television producer or global streaming platform executive.
But those same producers and execs also want the television industry’s most esteemed accolade, an Emmy, as they are technically in small-screen business. The Emmy might be an afterthought to documentary filmmakers, but it’s a requirement for television outlets.
Among this year’s Oscar-nominated docs, “13th,” “I Am Not Your Negro,” “Life Animated” and “O.J.: Made in America” received their primary funding from small screen platforms including Netflix, PBS, A&E and ESPN. Combined, “13th,” and this year’s Oscar winning doc, “O.J.: Made in America,” are up for 14 Primetime Emmys. “Life Animated” was disqualified from the Primetime race, while “I Am Not Your Negro” will compete in the 2018 race.
“I Am Not Your Negro” is an Independent Lens production. Since 2001, the PBS docuseries has garnered eight Oscar nods and 13 Emmy Awards. Under executive director Lois Vossen, films funded or presented on Independent Lens include Academy Award-shortlisted docs “Tower” and “Best of Enemies,” as well as Oscar-nominated films “The Invisible War,” “Hell and Back Again” and “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.”
“If the DNA of a documentary is with a television funder like Independent Lens or ITVS it’s important that the films also be eligible for Emmy consideration,” Vossen says. “Documentaries are an art form that transcend platforms, so until distribution models evolve there will be a desire to recognize excellence on multiple platforms.”
One platform documentaries have a hard time transcending is the theatrical space.
Between 2002 and 2007, due in large part to Michael Moore and “March of the Penguins,” box office figures for Oscar nominated docs ranged between $24 million and $83 million. But since 2008, Academy Award-nominated docs have not garnered more $10 million at the box office year to year.
Shrinking theatrical audiences and digital domination have it difficult for documentaries to meet the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ desire for a “legitimate theatrical release.”
To date “I Am Not Your Negro” grossed just over $7.1 million. “Fire at Sea” and “Life, Animated” grossed under $377,000 collectively, while the box office for “13th” and “O.J.: Made in America” was so negligible that Box Office Mojo did not release final figures for either film.
In recent years, in an effort to distinguish a documentary Oscar from a documentary Emmy, AMPAS has altered rules.
In 2012 the org announced that a review in the New York Times or Los Angeles Times was necessary for a documentary to register as Oscar eligible. It was intended to both narrow the number of qualifying pics as well as validate a doc’s theatrical bonafides. It failed to accomplish either. To this day, television and digital platforms are still by and large four-walling docs for Academy consideration by renting a theater for a week in New York and L.A, garnering a review in one the required newspapers and then quickly pulling the film in hopes of saving the majority of press for pic’s future television premiere.
“A number of this year’s Sundance titles did not get a commitment to play in theaters, but are instead being four-walled,” says Thom Powers, TIFF documentary programmer and artistic director of DOC NYC. “Their main life is going to be on digital platforms. If AMPAS continues to put a priority on the theatrical experience, then I think that’s something that they ought to look at.”
One of those films is Netflix’s “Icarus.” The doc, about the Russian doping scandal, sold to the streaming leviathan for $5 million — one of the biggest deals ever for a non-fiction film. On Aug. 3, the New York Times posted its review of the film. On Aug. 4, the docu was available on Netflix. An expensive Oscar campaign, complete with billboards, special events and plenty of ads, is expected. And if history is an indication, Netflix will also go all out for an Emmy.
So far, the streaming sensation has won Emmys for its Oscar-nominated docs “What Happened, Ms. Simone?” “Virunga” and “The Square.” In addition to spending big bucks on screener mailings, the company recently hosted a month-long for-your-consideration immersive exhibition — FYSee — at a multilevel, 24,000-sq.-ft. space in Beverly Hills. Emmy voters got a chance to experience installations and listen to panel discussions featuring Netflix’s 2017 Emmy contenders including “13th,” directed by Ava DuVernay and which is nominated in the documentary-nonfiction special category.
“We believe our filmmakers should get recognition for their work and support any awards for which they’re eligible,” Netflix said in a statement.
While the gap between a theatrical and small-screen doc has become increasingly smaller, what has remained consistent throughout time is that it’s hard to get most documentaries seen by large audiences. Especially in movie theaters. An Oscar nomination is one way to get on people’s radar and the Emmys are another, so why not spread the wealth and let the 140 films that qualified for an Oscar last year and didn’t get a nod, experience Emmy love and leave AMPAS’ final five out of the competition?
“I don’t know if that would be right or wrong,” says Ryan Harrington Hot Docs’ acting industry programs director and former executive director of acquisitions at Discovery. “Yes. It’s slightly elitist in the fact that the same films are benefitting over and over again, but then again, television and theatrical docs are so intertwined. Unless you are an anomaly like ‘I’m Not Your Negro’ or Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock, it’s a very difficult time to exist in the theatrical space.”
Ironically in 2015, the TV Academy loosened its Primetime Emmy Exceptional Merit category requirements to ensure that those anomaly docs (“CitizenFour), which remained in movie theaters for more than 70 days, made it into the Emmy competition.
“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 Academy said in a 2015 statement.
So, for now, when it comes to film and television’s biggest kudos, docus can have their cake and eat it too, which according to Powers isn’t that big of deal.
“I’ve never understood the craving for an Emmy,” he says. “Of course everyone wants a little attention and is happy to have recognition for their hard work, but when it comes to documentaries, the Emmys are less special than the Cinema Eye Honors when you consider how many Emmys are distributed each year.”