Oscars: Amid a Breakout Year for Docs, Is a Best Picture Nomination in the Cards?

A Breakout Year for Documentaries Illustration by Josie Portillo
Illustration by Josie Portillo

Doc features are experiencing an awards boom, spilling out beyond their nonfiction boxes into categories such as original score, song and VFX. Could top prizes like director and picture be next?

Come awards season, documentarians usually find themselves outside the rope line, on the periphery of the red carpet and tucked away in a neat little box marked "below the line." This is, after all, a moment for designer dresses and million-dollar smiles, with only a token acknowledgment for foreign-language and nonfiction features.

Not this year. Beyond the Oscar shortlist and the BAFTA longlist for best documentary, where one would expect to find them, nonfiction films have broken out into a variety of additional categories.

With the Academy Awards, this year's best original song shortlist — which occasionally features the closing theme from the odd documentary — boasts songs from four nonfiction features: John Legend's "Never Break" from Giving Voice, Mary J. Blige's "See What You've Done" from Belly of the Beast, Robert Glasper's "Show Me Your Soul" from Mr. Soul! and Janelle Monáe's "Turntables" from All In: The Fight for Democracy.

Meanwhile, the best international film category, which last year honored Macedonian doc Honeyland with a nomination, this year features two strong contenders, courtesy of Alexander Nanau's Romanian docu-thriller Collective (a frontrunner for a nomination) and Maite Alberdi's charming spy docudrama The Mole Agent.

And, for the first time, a documentary has broken into the best visual effects category, courtesy of David France's Welcome to Chechnya. The film ingeniously employs a form of deep-fake technology to mask the identities of persecuted LGBTQ Chechens, who are attempting to flee government-sanctioned violence in the Russian state.

On the other side of the pond, the BAFTA longlists demonstrate an even greater embrace of nonfiction film. Four documentaries made the cut for the British organization's best film not in the English language category: Collective, The Mole Agent, Benjamin Ree's The Painter and the Thief, and Gregory Kershaw and Michael Dweck's The Truffle Hunters. Jerry Rothwell's The Reason I Jump was recognized in the outstanding debut category, and Laurence Topham's My Brother's Keeper became the only doc on the drama-filled best short film longlist.

Meanwhile, Netflix's David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet, focusing on the life and times of the famed nonagenarian broadcaster, broke out beyond the documentary category to earn spots on both the outstanding British film and outstanding score longlists.

And perhaps most remarkably, Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed's My Octopus Teacher landed a spot on BAFTA's best director longlist. The touching and immersive nature doc, which might not have even had a theatrical release pre-COVID, became a sleeper hit after hitting Netflix in September. The accolade sees first-time South African director Ehrlich rubbing shoulders with the likes of David Fincher, Regina King, Christopher Nolan and Chloé Zhao.

A number of factors led to this explosion in nonfiction recognition. First, the closing of theaters throughout the year, which negatively impacted dramas but boosted docs. With James Bond flick No Time to Die postponed until fall 2021, a slot opened up on the shortlist where Billie Eilish's theme song may have landed. The cancellation of Dune's December release created a space in the VFX category. This, coupled with the lukewarm reaction to the few tentpoles that did make it to cinemas (Tenet, Wonder Woman 1984), allowed space for alternative fare.

At the same time, a relaxing of rules to allow VOD releases to qualify for awards consideration proved a massive boon for documentaries. A costly theatrical run is undoubtedly the biggest barrier to Oscar qualification for most docs. With that requirement gone, the floodgates opened: A record 238 feature docs qualified for Oscar consideration, smashing the previous record of 170 submissions. Clearly, a year of staying home and watching TV on the couch worked in docs' favor. But beyond the impact of COVID-19, one must look to the tremendous increase in FYC spend that streamers have allocated to nonfiction campaigning.

The biggest spender by far has been Netflix, which has ploughed money into pushing more than a dozen documentaries across the board. Its spread-betting approach has clearly paid off: In addition to wide recognition for frontrunners Crip Camp, Dick Johnson Is Dead and the aforementioned Attenborough and My Octopus Teacher, a slew of mid-length titles, — including What Would Sophia Loren Do?, The Speed Cubers and A Love Song for Latasha — made the shortlist for best documentary short subject.

Of course, a documentary has yet to crack cinema's grandest prize: an Oscar nomination for best picture. It's a topic that's oft ruminated on, but it will take a breakout on the scale of An Inconvenient Truth or Fahrenheit 9/11 for it to happen.

For now, the key question is whether documentaries' breakout moment can last. With an end to COVID in sight — and with it a return to the theatrical experience — will this just prove to be the byproduct of an off year? We'll see. But the momentum is clearly with the doc makers.

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