How the Oscars Boost TV's Documentary Nominees

Awards_Cyclist_Illo - THR - H 2018
Illustration by: Jamie Coe

A dozen of the nonfiction contenders were also very visible in the Academy Awards race earlier this year, providing a key advantage.

While one major Academy Awards rule change has been grabbing headlines these days, another proposal that has yet to be implemented ?is one banning Oscar-recognized films from also competing for the Emmys.

And while the Film Academy mulls how ?and whether it could implement such a rule, filmmakers are taking advantage.

This season, across both the Primetime Emmys and the News and Documentary Emmys, a whopping 12 productions double-dipped to earn Emmy nominations after ?being either nominated or shortlisted for an Academy Award. Among them are four ?out of the five 2018 Oscar documentary feature nominees, including the winner, Bryan Fogel's Russian doping doc Icarus.

Emmy consideration ads are big business, but not so much in the nonfiction fields. As such, in an increasingly populated documentary landscape, films that spend big courting Oscar voters in the fall are benefiting from a knock-on effect when Emmy campaign season rolls around.

In the exceptional merit in documentary filmmaking category, for example, Yance Ford's Oscar-nominated personal tragedy film Strong Island will compete for the Emmy against Matt Heineman's Oscar-shortlisted Syrian doc City of Ghosts and Brett Morgen's shortlisted Jane Goodall portrait Jane.

Netflix, Amazon and Nat Geo, respectively, spent heavily on these films during Oscar ?season with events, screeners and expensive FYC ads. Any of the three titles could take ?the Emmy prize, but with its lush wildlife footage and compelling biographical story, Jane just might have the edge.

The exceptional merit nomination is one of five that Morgen's doc nabbed this year, while Fogel's Icarus picked up three, including directing for a documentary and documentary or nonfiction special.

Icarus is the frontrunner in the latter contest — an odd hybrid category that mixes one-off documentaries with multipart series. There it competes against fellow Netflix title Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond, an exploration of comedian Jim Carrey's turn as Andy Kaufman in the 1999 classic Man on the Moon, and two HBO productions: Susan Lacy's director profile Spielberg and Judd Apatow's acclaimed two-parter The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling.

Rounding out the category is PBS' Mister Rogers: It's You I Like, a fine documentary on the late children's TV presenter that has ?been overshadowed by the box-office hit Won't You Be My Neighbor? (although it could also benefit from interest in that film).

With both the Emmys and the Oscars, PBS has seen a decline in nominations for documentaries in recent years as it struggles to compete financially with the deep-pocketed Netflix, Amazon, HBO, Showtime and Nat Geo. The public-service broadcaster did earn noms in the directing and writing categories with Ken Burns and Lynn Novick's The Vietnam War, but the 990-minute series ?was not recognized in the nonfiction series category, which overflows with strong candidates this year.

There, the cult-focused, Duplass brothers-produced Wild Wild Country spawned a cult following of its own on Netflix, stunning viewers with its jaw-dropping plot twists. And Liz Garbus' The Fourth Estate, a bold profile of New York Times reporters as they battle to document the first 12 months of President Trump's administration, is as relevant and important a work as you will find this year.

However, if history is any indicator in this category, either PBS' biographical anthology series American Masters or BBC America's natural history feat Blue Planet II should take the trophy. American Masters is the most dominant nominee in this space, having earned mentions every year since 2006 and winning five times out of 12 (most recently in 2014).

However, in spite of its overall dominance in the category, American Masters has never bested a big-budget BBC wildlife event series since ?the turn of the millennium. Planet Earth II beat Masters in this category in 2017, Frozen Planet did the same in 2012, and the first Planet Earth was victorious in 2007.

Ultimately, when a years-in-the-making, technologically groundbreaking, wildlife-focused BBC production is nominated, it almost always wins, making Blue Planet II the favorite to take this year's crown.

On a bittersweet note, it is worth mentioning that voters have an opportunity to bestow a posthumous Emmy to the late, great Anthony Bourdain, who died in June. He is nominated in the writing for a nonfiction program category for CNN's Parts Unknown, which received six noms overall.

It is difficult to imagine that they won't.

This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.