How Episodic TV Docs Are Muscling in on Oscar

Brief theatrical runs of marathon screenings (eight straight hours of 'O.J.: Made in America') are allowing epic-length nonfiction efforts to qualify, stirring discontent among purists of the form.
Courtesy of ESPN Films

One of the most buzzed-about documentaries of the year is O.J.: Made in America, Ezra Edelman's seven-hour, 47-minute study of the O.J. Simpson murder trial and the social issues around it. Greenlighted by ESPN Films, under the banner of the cable network's acclaimed 30 for 30 series, O.J. had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January. The doc screened, in its entirety, in one movie theater in both New York and Los Angeles for a week in May. One of its five "chapters" then aired on ABC, and then all five ran on ESPN in June, before the doc was released on DVD in July. It also has streamed on WatchESPN, Amazon, Hulu and iTunes.

So is O.J. a film documentary or a TV documentary? According to the current rules of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, it is indeed a film, eligible for the documentary feature Oscar simply because it had those New York and L.A. screenings before being shown on TV or online. (Academy rules call for four showings a day per movie theater for one week in each city. But because of O.J.'s length, the organization OK'd showing it just twice a day but on two screens per theater.)

In the eyes of some in the documentary community, calling O.J. a film is a stretch. It was financed by a TV network, made by a person who has worked exclusively in TV (Edelman has made other 30 for 30 docs and has won Emmy and Peabody awards), was tailored for TV (five 90-minute installments) and overwhelmingly has been seen on the small screen.

What's to stop other networks and streaming services from taking docs that were designed for multipart viewing on TV — such as 2015's The Jinx or Making a Murderer — and screening them in a theater before their broadcast date, making them Oscar-eligible under the same technicality? That would make even more daunting the massive screening process for documentary branch members, who already are tasked with considering huge quantities of films every year — 145 this year alone.

"This is one story, told from beginning to end, thematically consistent throughout," Edelman told me of his doc at the Savannah Film Festival on Oct. 23. "If there are doc series that happen to be eight to 10 hours long, OK. I just know what my intention was, so I chafe at the notion of it being called a doc series because the whole idea from the get-go was to make a really long film."

O.J. is at the center of this debate — the Los Angeles Times ran a story by Pulitzer Prize winner Mary McNamara titled "Why O.J.: Made in America Might Be the First Television Show to Win an Oscar" — but it is far from the only film caught up in it. There's also Ava DuVernay's 13th, a critique of America's high rate of incarceration, which on Sept. 30 became the first doc to open the 54-year-old New York Film Festival. It debuted theatrically in only two locations on Oct. 7 (the same day it became available on Netflix), never expanding beyond that.

Many purists would prefer to see awards recognition given only to docs that have received a healthy theatrical release. Top examples this year include Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg's Weiner, which has grossed $1.6 million at the box office (playing at 20 or more locations for 10 weeks spanning May through July), and Ron Howard's The Beatles: Eight Days a Week, which has taken in $2.6 million (and has played in more than 80 locations every week since its mid-September release).

But, in this content era dominated by Netflix and Amazon, docs released theatrically outside of New York and L.A. are few and far between. That's partly because the deep-pocketed streaming titans require a constant flow of new content to satisfy current subscribers and attract new ones, and they can afford to buy up much of the market's top product to fill that need.

The complicated part for Netflix is that, while nearly all filmmakers want their work to be seen on the big screen, no major movie theater chain will show a Netflix production because the company insists on a day-and-date release (simultaneous release on its own platform), which the chains regard as a threat. In 2015, Cary Fukunaga expressed displeasure that his Netflix film Beasts of No Nation was not more widely available in movie theaters, a factor that might have contributed to its Oscar shutout. And at January's Sundance Film Festival, Netflix outbid Fox Searchlight for the rights to Nate Parker's The Birth of a Nation (then a hot property) but lost in part because it couldn't promise a competitive big-screen rollout.

However, Netflix just struck a deal with boutique movie theater chain iPic Theaters to show the company's next 10 films at its 15 locations, some of which are located in neighborhoods where clusters of Academy members live, including Westwood. This will enable the company to circumvent the big theater chains and avoid having to partner with other distributors under negotiated terms, as Amazon had to do with Open Road this year on Clay Tweel's Gleason, another major doc contender that hit theaters July 29 and became available on that streaming service 90 days later.

Anyone tempted to blame the streaming services for the scarcity of docs that get more than a token theatrical release is off base, says veteran filmmaker Mitchell Block, who served on the Academy's doc committee before it became a branch of its own. "There is no such thing as a purely theatrical movie except for Imax movies. Let's face it, nearly every picture is made by and for television," says Block.

From the debut of the best documentary feature Oscar — first presented in 1943 — until the turn of the century, nearly all nominees were made-for-TV docs. Many were funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities or PBS and were given token theatrical qualifying runs before airing on the small screen. The 1987 civil rights doc Eyes on the Prize, which got a nom, was one episode of a six-part docuseries that later aired on PBS; that's probably the closest parallel to O.J.

Then HBO arrived on the scene and in the early '90s became the dominant force in the nonfiction world. "[HBO Documentary Films president] Sheila Nevins saved the theatrical feature because she was the only one commercially funding docs," asserts Block. "But there was Academy antagonism toward HBO for years, which led to them coming up with these strict 'theatrical' requirements. What the branch is really trying to do is reduce the number of films they have to consider by arbitrarily dictating about the form, even though they should just be looking for the best work, wherever it comes from."

One thing is certain: On the basis of massive public interest in and discussion about The Jinx, Making a Murderer and now O.J.: Made in America, longform docs aren't going away anytime soon. That means it's incumbent upon the Academy to re-evaluate its current rules. Any such deliberations won't impact this year's Oscar eligibility requirements (that ship already has sailed) and won't curb the number of longform docs that are coming down the pike (several doc filmmakers tell me they currently are being inundated with pitches for them). But a rule change could impact future years' eligibility requirements, which would, if history is any lesson, impact the sorts of docs that get made thereafter.

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HOW OSCAR VIEWED 6 INFLUENTIAL LONG DOCS

Woodstock (1970)

The music fest is the focus of Michael Wadleigh's masterful 184-minute film, which became 1970's sixth-highest grosser and won the doc Oscar.

The Sorrow and the Pity (1971)

Marcel Ophuls' four-hour study of Vichy France was made for French TV, but broadcasters refused to show it. A theatrical run led to a doc nom.

Shoah (1985)

Holocaust docs usually fare well with Oscar, but Claude Lanzmann's incomparable film wasn't nominated, allegedly due to its length (556 minutes).

The Civil War (1990)

Ken Burns' nine-episode masterpiece (680 minutes in all), still PBS' most watched program, qualified for the Oscar but was passed over.

Hoop Dreams (1994)

Steve James' 170-minute sensation about black high schoolers' NBA hopes was snubbed by the doc committee but scored a best editing nom.

When the Levees Broke (2006)

Sheila Nevins called Spike Lee's four-hour, Oscar-snubbed portrait of post-Katrina New Orleans "one of the most important films HBO has ever made."

This story first appeared in a November standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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