In 2005, when the public’s love affair with theatrical feature documentaries was at an all-time high, the Television Academy decided to create a juried Emmy award for nonfiction projects. The new kudo, called exceptional merit in documentary filmmaking, would not be part of the overall Primetime Emmy ballot. Instead the category’s nominated films, up to five, would be selected by a nominating and voting jury of “experienced filmmakers” selected from the TV Academy’s Nonfiction Peer Group.
That same group recommended the new award, which, according to the Academy “honors and encourages exceptional achievement in one or more of the traditional components of documentary filmmaking, including profound social impact, significant innovation of form and remarkable mastery of filmmaking technique.”
While the nonfiction community cheered the new award, others were puzzled: What distinguished it from the award already established, the documentary or nonfiction special?
According to the Academy, the juried nonfiction category is not meant to duplicate the recognition given to docs/nonfiction programming in the documentary or nonfiction special category.
Technically, both categories honor excellence in nonfiction filmmaking, as well as projects with TV DNA that advance the documentary form.
In 2015, right around the time when the gap between theatrical documentaries and television documentaries had become virtually nonexistent, the Academy distinguished the exceptional merit category by loosening requirements to ensure that anomaly docs, a.k.a. documentaries that actually played in theaters for more than a qualifying week, made it into the Primetime Emmy competition. The Television Academy wanted the opportunity to give Emmys to true theatrical documentaries.
Indeed, many of the the 2015 nominees in both doc and exceptional merit categories played the film festival circuit, then hit the small screen.
Before 2015, docs that played in theaters for 70 days or more were not eligible for Academy consideration. Now docus that exceed 70 days of theatrical release and have a television company creatively involved with the film and an initial intent/commitment to air the program on television may only enter the merit category. They are not eligible in the documentary and nonfiction special category.
Case in point is Laura Poitras’ “Citizenfour,” which grossed just over $3 million worldwide and won the exceptional merit prize in 2015 after receiving the documentary Oscar. The film played in theaters for close to 200 days.
This year, Brett Morgen’s “Jane” (National Geographic) and Matthew Heineman’s “City of Ghosts” (A&E) are the two films among the four in the exceptional merit category that exceeded the 70-day rule. “Jane,” about primatologist and anthropologist Jane Goodall, had a theatrical release of 150 days and grossed just over $1.7 million. “City of Ghosts,” which follows anonymous activists on the ground in ISIS-controlled city of Raqqa, Syria, had a theatrical release of 77 days and grossed just over $200,000.
“Jane” made the Academy Award shortlist but was ultimately left off the Oscar ballot. Morgen says that ending the awards season with seven Emmy noms — for exceptional merit, directing, editing, cinematography, sound mixing and editing and writing — is fitting.
“The recognition for the craft work on this film means the world to me as a director,” says Morgen. “I was never bitter about the Oscar thing. We had an amazing awards run and as directors and producers we get a lot of the attention. I think it’s appropriate that we end this journey celebrating craft at the Emmys.”
In addition to “Jane” and “City of Ghosts” one of 2017’s most celebrated docs, Yance Ford’s “Strong Island” (Netflix), about a personal examination of miscarried justice, is also up for an exceptional merit honor. The film, which won a special jury prize at Sundance, secured an Oscar nom after a qualifying theatrical run in New York and Los Angeles. The fourth nominee in special merit — Paige Goldberg Tolmach’s “What Haunts Us” (Starz) — had a similar Oscar-qualifying run in May.
The film, which investigates molestation at a private school, is the least “popular” of the nominees, which is one reason why Tolmach wanted to submit in the exceptional merit category.
(In 2016, Academy representatives told doc funder ITVS that the exceptional merit award was created to “honor documentaries that may not be considered ‘popular,’ but still meet the exceptional merit criteria”; criteria meaning social impact, innovation and/or mastery of the craft.)
“I knew that if I submitted the film to a category that people actually have to watch the movie, that would be a plus,” she says.
The Television Academy would not disclose how many docus were submitted for exceptional merit consideration this year. Execs also would not reveal the number of jurors selecting exceptional merit nominees.
What is clear about the category is that films that do not make the exceptional merit cut can submit for that other docu Emmy category: documentary or nonfiction special. That is, if they played for 69 days or less in theaters.
Documentary distributors were also tight-lipped about the decision-making process behind submitting a film for exceptional merit versus outstanding documentary.
Netflix’s “Icarus” was also nominated for an Oscar and won. While “Strong Island” is up for an exceptional merit award, “Icarus,” a social-impact film, is nominated in the documentary special category.
“It’s a very long, thoughtful process with a lot of people involved internally,” says Lisa Nishimura, Netflix’s vice president of original documentary and comedy programming.
“We really look at each film and try to determine where it will be fully seen and understood.”
Insiders hypothesize, not surprisingly, that the streamer didn’t want two of its filmmakers competing, yet again, for the same award.
So far Netflix has been successful at the Primetime Emmys. Two of its Oscar-nominated docs, Ava DuVernay’s social justice exploration “13th” (2016) and Liz Garbus’ Nina Simone biopic “What Happened, Miss Simone?” (2015), which both met the exceptional merit criteria, each won the Primetime Emmy for documentary or nonfiction special in their respective years.
“Icarus,” which is the only Oscar-nominated film in the doc category, will go up against Netflix’s “Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond,” PBS’ “Mister Rogers: It’s You I Like” and two HBO docs, “Spielberg” and “The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling.”
The redundancies between the exceptional merit and outstanding doc awards — and even the Oscar for documentary — are clear, but the Academy doesn’t appear to mind. Its goal, it seems, is to honor the best in documentary filmmaking of the year.