Thanks to such deep-pocketed streamers as Netflix, Amazon and now Hulu, the campaign to win an Oscar for documentary has evolved into a pricey, cutthroat endeavor. But the fight for a little gold man doesn’t end after the Academy Awards — it starts right back up again for the Primetime Emmy race.
While an Oscar and Emmy recognize excellence in film and television, respectively, docs are in a unique position. They can be eligible for both awards because without funding from small-screen distributors such as HBO, Netflix and PBS, the majority of docs in the Oscar race would never exist.
Mounting an Emmy campaign after an Oscar nomination or even win hasn’t always been the standard. Oscar winners including “Born Into Brothels” (2005) and “Taxi to the Dark Side” (2008) were submitted for and won the lower-profile, non-televised News & Documentary Emmy award. But in recent years, Academy Award-winning films including “Citizenfour” and this year’s Oscar winner, “O.J.: Made in America,” as well as Academy Award contenders “Cartel Land,” “The Square,” “Cutie and the Boxer” and “What Happened, Miss Simone?” have opted to compete for the higher-profile Primetime Emmy.
“It’s a larger, flashier platform,” says helmer Liz Garbus, who nabbed the 2016 doc Emmy for “What Happened, Miss Simone?” — which was commissioned by Netflix.
Garbus, who has been nominated for five Emmys and two Academy Awards, says the road to TV’s greatest achievement is less arduous than an Oscar campaign. “I did one [Emmy-related] panel last year,” she says. “But Netflix might have been making a push that I’m unaware of.”
While Netflix declined to comment on the Emmy race, it’s clear that the streamer takes the kudofest just as seriously as the Oscars. 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-square-foot space in Beverly Hills. There, Emmy voters got a chance to experience installations and listen to panel discussions featuring Netflix’s 2017 Emmy contenders.
Netflix’s Oscar-nominated “13th,” directed by Ava DuVernay, is competing for a documentary special category nomination alongside Discovery’s “Rats,” directed by Academy Award nominee Morgan Spurlock; and National Geographic’s “Before the Flood,” directed by Fisher Stevens, who produced Oscar-winner “The Cove.”
“Flood,” about climate change, did not receive an Academy Award, but Stevens is hoping to channel Emmy votes via topical developments. Those include: “Flood’s” status as NatGeo’s most-watched film of all time with more than 60 million views worldwide; U.S President Trump’s decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate accord; and the doc’s status as a recipient of the annual Television Academy Honor, which recognizes six programs that have advanced social change.
“When the movie came out, in terms of awards and publicity, it sadly just didn’t feel like anyone cared about climate change,” Stevens says. “But now the movie has a whole different color to it. It’s more powerful.”
PBS’ long-running documentary film program, Independent Lens, is behind the 2016 Oscar-nominated doc about James Baldwin, “I Am Not Your Negro.” In 13 seasons, Independent Lens has garnered 16 doc Emmy kudos.
“We are a small and mighty organization,” says Independent Lens executive director Lois Vossen. “But [we] just don’t have the bandwidth to build impactful campaigns leading up to the Primetime Emmy honors.”
In 2015, president of HBO documentary films Sheila Nevins told Variety that as a television network, “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.”
Not “playing the game” may not bode well for Stevens’ “Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds,” which he co-directed with Alexis Bloom for HBO. The doc is vying for an Emmy spot in the exceptional merit in documentary filmmaking category along with NatGeo’s “LA 92” from Academy Award winning duo TJ Martin and Dan Lindsey as well as “O.J.: Made in America.”
As luck would have it, Raoul Peck’s “I Am Not Your Negro” will not pose as a threat. That’s because unlike “O.J.” and “13th” “I Am Not Your Negro” is still enjoying a theatrical life long after Oscar. The doc has yet to air on Independent Lens. To date it’s the biggest documentary hit of last year’s Academy Award doc season, grossing more than $7 million domestically. It’s genre feat that while overlooked by the film Academy, Emmy voters might appreciate.