“Boys State,” “Dick Johnson Is Dead,” The Social Dilemma,” and “76 Days” all won Emmys last weekend during the Creative Arts ceremonies, but they share another distinction: They are the last documentaries able to win a statuette from the Television Academy for the same nonfiction film that successfully qualified for Academy Award consideration.
The Television Academy shut down the controversial practice of awards double-dipping earlier this year, decreeing that, beginning in 2022, any documentary placed on the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences viewing platform for Oscar shortlist consideration, “will be deemed a theatrical motion picture and thus ineligible for the Emmy competition.”
The straightforward rule is expected to have major awards-season ramifications for documentaries, and filmmakers surveyed by Variety about the subject have mixed feelings about it. For decades, documentary filmmakers and the companies that back their work have campaigned for Emmy statuettes after a fight for a little gold man, and since 2015 four Academy Award winning documentaries – “American Factory,” “Free Solo,” “O.J.: Made in America” and “Citizenfour” have taken home 10 Emmys post-Oscars, prompting calls for a rule change.
On Sunday, Kirsten Johnson collected the Emmy for best outstanding nonfiction directing for “Dick Johnson Is Dead” – a category that doesn’t exist at the Academy Awards. Her film, like “Boys State,” “The Social Dilemma” and “76 Days,” made the AMPAS documentary shortlist but did not ultimately score a nomination for the category won by “The Octopus Teacher.”
Her victory last weekend was especially gratifying after both awards campaigns.
“It’s really deeply meaningful to me to be recognized as a best director and it’s only the Emmys that are offering that category for documentary,” Johnson tells Variety. “We all have hope that within Oscar categories there’ll be more recognition of documentaries as films and that documentaries won’t only stay in their silo in relation to all the craft departments.”
By putting a halt to the double-dipping, the TV Academy reminded documentary filmmakers and the companies backing them of their television roots. After all, there is no denying that docs are a product of television or digital platforms and, for the most part, not film studios. Without funding from small-screen distributors such as HBO, PBS, A&E and streaming services including Netflix, Amazon, and Apple, the Oscar feature documentary category wouldn’t exist.
“The Emmy has always been junior to the Oscar,” says documentary powerhouse Sheila Nevins, an HBO veteran who now heads MTV documentary films, which won an Emmy for “76 Days” last weekend. “When you can get both, on the one hand, you could say, ‘Well, that elevates the Emmy, but on the other hand, you could say it diminishes the importance of the medium in which it’s performing.”
For distributors like HBO and Netflix, who release numerous docus every year, the rule change could be a financial relief given the fact that oftentimes more money is spent on each film’s awards campaigns than on their production budgets. The new rule should also, theoretically, help solve an ongoing problem – the number of filmmakers and companies qualifying docs for Oscar consideration. This year 238 films qualified for Oscar consideration.
“I do think it will reduce the Oscar qualifying numbers,” says two-time Academy Award nominee Liz Garbus, who won an Emmy for “What Happened, Miss Simone” following her Oscar nomination for it and now on the fall festival circuit with “Becoming Cousteau.” “As an AMPAS documentary branch member, we see so many films which have not had a proper theatrical release that people are qualifying just on a lark. So I think this new rule will change that equation.”
But veteran doc directors Sam Pollard and John Hoffman aren’t so sure. They argue that non-fiction filmmakers, like narrative filmmakers, want the same thing: for their film to be seen in a movie theater with an audience.
“For those of us in the business, all of us want an Oscar,” says Pollard, an Academy Award nominee and winner of three Emmys, including two for “When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts,” who most recently directed “Citizen Ashe” for CNN Films and HBO Max. “We’d all love to get an Emmy, but we all want that Oscar – that’s the brass ring. The Emmy is icing on the cake.”
“Any filmmaker who has aspirations to get that theatrical release, they’re not going to make the decision to have or not have a theatrical opportunity because of Emmy rules,” adds Hoffman, who has won four Emmys and co-directed and produced “Fauci.”
Nevins says that if she had been forced to choose between submitting COVID documentary “76 Days” for Oscar or Emmy consideration, she would have only submitted the film to AMPAS — but not because she thinks “76 Days” is a necessary theatrical experience.
“I would have never gone for the Emmys because I would have thought that this doc had a better shot with AMPAS voters because it was of international interests rather than domestic interests,” Nevins explains in the wake of the Emmy victory for “76 Days” in the exceptional merit in documentary category. “I would think that it would be better in an international category like the Oscars, than in something more specific like the TV Academy’s Emmys.”
Going forward, Nevins points out that the new rule is good news for The News & Documentary Emmy Awards, which will accept AMPAS qualified docus.
Lisa Nishimura, Netflix’s VP of independent film and documentary features, says that the new rule won’t change the way the streaming service works with documentarians for award seasons.
“This new rule creates another thing for us to be talking about (with filmmakers) and to really understand what the hopes and ambitions are for that specific filmmaker and their story,” says Nishimura. “We will have those conversations as we always do, which is openly and transparently, and then build our campaigns accordingly to support that vision.”
Television distributors and streamers like Netflix typically rent a theater for a week or two — a tactic known as “four-walling” — to theatrically qualify their docs for Oscar consideration. Outlets often “vanity four-wall” to please a director, but the TV Academy’s new rule might put a stop to that due to the loss of Emmy consideration and the high cost of four-walling multiple films.
That said, four-walling will continue to exist because documentaries have always had a hard time securing theatrical space and without four-walling there would arguably only be a handful of docus that meet AMPAS’s eligibility requirements.
“Four-walling does keep films that would not make it into theaters in theaters,” says Johnson. “You’d be hard pressed if you weren’t four-walling to get some of these films into a theater and that experience can be extraordinary. But I do feel like it’s moving more and more towards festivals as the place where we have meaningful audiences in a movie theater to watch our films that are off the mainstream.”
Meanwhile, the digital audience for docus has steadily been on the rise, making AMPAS’ desire to only nominate those docs with a legitimate theatrical release dicier.
“There is this Rube Goldberg series of rules, which are meant to pretend that a film is a theatrical film,” says Alex Gibney, who won the Oscar for “Taxi to the Dark Side” in 2008. “What difference does it make whether (a documentary) is in a theater or on television so long as it’s good cinema?”
Nevins argues that the TV Academy should forget about the new rule. “Let people struggle in their own way to get their films wherever they want. You want to put the effort into getting both, go after both an Oscar and an Emmy. You want to get one, go get one. You want to get none. Don’t get any. This rule will probably change next year anyway.”
For now, Vinnie Malhotra, Showtime’s executive vice president of nonfiction programming, thinks the TV Academy’s new rule will ultimately change the docu landscape.
“I think that it’s going to start to define what each Academy is really looking for,” says Malhotra. “There are certain types of documentaries that naturally gravitate more to say the Television Academy voters than AMPAS doc branch voters. So, I think we will start to see that. But I don’t want it to start to feel like this is a TV doc and this is a theatrical doc. Unfortunately, that’s what might be a by-product of this process.”