The line between film and television has been blurred for years. Some of us thought it would be one film that would force the call, but coincidentally, it seems to be five films that encapsulate Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe” (or one really long movie, depending on where you stand) that have forced the question of what constitutes an Oscars vs. Emmys contender.

Amazon Studios’ anthology series, a collection of five films with different casts and stories, made history on Sunday night when it won the Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA) award for best picture. Since LAFCA was established in 1975, no piece of art like McQueen’s has ever been awarded the top prize. Every winner of LAFCA has gone onto be nominated for at least one major Oscar — in categories such as picture, director, acting and writing.

“Small Axe” is a collection of five films with varying runtimes: “Mangrove” (128 minutes), “Lovers Rock” (71 minutes), “Red, White and Blue” (81 minutes), “Alex Wheatle” (67 minutes) and “Education” (64 minutes).

In April, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences “temporarily” amended their rules for films to qualify for the Oscars due to the COVID-19 pandemic and theaters being shut down across the globe. This has allowed what people see as an opening for a piece like “Small Axe” to enter the Oscars conversation. This may have been a more productive discussion if LAFCA had not named composer Mica Levi the runner up for music for “Lovers Rock” solely.

The dispute on social media has been everyone’s interpretation of “Small Axe.” Is it one single film? Is it five individual pieces of cinema? No matter where you fall, LAFCA illustrated a “both sides” argument when they awarded “Small Axe” collectively in places like directing, cinematography and picture, but “Lovers Rock,” the second film of the series, separately in score. LAFCA’s awards eligibility requirements, or lack thereof, muddied the conversation even greater. Under current guidelines, if a LAFCA member wanted to vote for Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” from 1958 in this weekend’s proceedings, they would be allowed to do so. This allowed the group to effectively say “Small Axe” is “both one movie and it’s five.”

Let’s dissect three major questions at hand for Amazon Studios, which until this weekend when it won the big prize, had decided to campaign “Small Axe” as a TV limited series for next year’s Emmys. It should be noted that there are no announced plans or discussions to switch the awards campaign strategy.

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Amazon Studio

Can Amazon make the pivot from Emmys to the Oscars? 

This is uncharted territory, from the casual homebody upwards to the Academy’s Board of Governors. Based on the rules that are in place, in particular, the Academy’s FAQs for the 93rd Academy Awards, there are two methods for a film to qualify:

  • “releasing theatrically in one of six U.S. metro areas for the seven days/three screenings a day minimum or in a legit drive-in in one of the same metro areas for a seven day/one screening a day minimum.”
  • “streaming on a commercial platform and uploading the film to our secure, members-only Academy Screening Room (ASR), for a fee.”

Based on what’s in place, Amazon can put the film on the Academy streaming platform and seemingly qualify for the Oscars. But it’s not that simple. The intention of the filmmaker will likely be considered.

In a recent interview with Rolling Stone magazine, when asked if these are films and not television, McQueen answered, “There’s nothing to talk about, really. These films [emphasis added] were made for television. They can be projected in cinema, but ‘Small Axe’ was all about the generosity and accessibility to these films. From the beginning, I wanted these films to be accessible to my mother. I wanted them on the BBC. It was always going to be on TV, the five films. But at the same time, they premiered in the cinema. There’s no absolutes anymore. There shouldn’t be. Because it’s about how people want to see things. That’s about it.”

Pretending that Amazon can get the film past McQueen’s interview, how is this packaged for voters? Under the current guidelines, it looks as though Amazon would have to submit each of the five films individually. A feature film only has to be at minimum 40 minutes, but that would mean McQueen would be competing against himself for five separate films. It’s hard enough to get AMPAS voters to choose between two films or performances released in the year by the same artist, and Amazon would have to build a consensus around one.

“Mangrove,” starring Letitia Wright, has felt like the easiest one to coalesce around, with the most awards friendly translation. But if I were a betting man, it would probably be next to impossible to get McQueen to pick his “favorite child.”

What was “Small Axe” intended for, and doesn’t that matter most?

We’ve seen variations of this subject before with ESPN’s “O.J.: Made in America,” which won best documentary feature, and Netflix’s “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” which was nominated for best adapted screenplay and costume design. The case of the latter brings about a similar type of “switch-a-roo.”

In January 2017, Variety reported that directors Joel Coen and Ethan Coen worked on their first-ever TV series with Annapurna Television. In August 2017, it was announced that “Scruggs” would debut on Netflix, and still, it was labeled as a “TV series.” It wasn’t until July 2018, ahead of its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival, that it was announced as a film and headed for the awards season. The film had six separate stories, with no narrative thread, with the film being named after the first segment. So is this just a marketing issue?

The Academy’s rules state, “in certain cases, proof demonstrating intent for a theatrical release, such as a theater letter/contract or an executed deal with a theatrical distributor, will be requested. Films that are unable to provide this documentation may appeal to the Awards Rules Committee for consideration.”

Do you forgo what is very likely to be an outstanding showing at the Emmys for a possible shot at the Oscars? “Small Axe” could go the way of HBO’s “Watchmen,” landing double-digit nominations, and allowing all the actors and tech teams to be properly cited and rewarded. If Amazon convinces the AMPAS to allow the film to be eligible, in whatever form they allow, you still have to convince and explain to the membership what “Small Axe” is. In an extraordinary year, can the film really muscle its way into picture, director and cinematography?

The deadline for Globes and SAG awards have also already passed, and “Small Axe” was submitted in the limited series categories. Assuming changing the submission is not on the table, they would be pivoting to the Oscars without the help of any of the two most pivotal televised award shows.

Can you submit “Small Axe” as a single movie?

Under the current rules, it doesn’t seem possible. The Academy has stated publicly they would be looking at submissions on a “case by case” basis. What do you do about the technical races when different artisans work on another part of the film? From an acting submission standpoint, are all the actors now considered an ensemble and should be considered in supporting when some are the leads in their respective stories?

The Academy did the right thing when they allowed a film to debut on streaming, for what they said was a “temporary” solution. Once the pandemic has concluded and theaters are open again, can you really put the genie back in the bottle? Art is subjective, and film evolves across the spectrum of time. It’s no longer clear that the Academy’s current rules reflect the way content is being created and consumed today.

“Small Axe” is not the first debate on this subject, and it surely won’t be the last.

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