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As more and more media conglomerates shift their business models to subscription streaming platforms, the borderlines between “film” and “television” continue to dissolve. Methods of distribution are no longer concretely disparate as studio-made feature-length films now often debut exclusively on streaming sites and many TV creators describe their shows as “10-hour-long movies.” These newly permeable boundaries are rendering the taxonomies of awards season just plain weirder than ever.
Case in point: the utter grab bag that is the Emmy category for this year’s outstanding television movie, which has washed-up cartoon chipmunks competing against Auschwitz survivors. I suppose Emmy voters took the term “television” seriously, as most of the nominations center around cult-favorite TV wrap-ups and reboots. The lineup, quite frankly, is a bit bonkers.
First, there’s Disney+’s Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers, an omnisatirical family comedy mystery based on a semi-forgotten 1990s children’s cartoon series based on a semi-forgotten 1940s Donald Duck short’s side characters. This is in addition to Paramount+’s Reno 911! The Hunt for QAnon, another installment in the near-20-year-old Reno 911! law enforcement mockumentary franchise, and Roku’s Zoey’s Extraordinary Christmas, a feature-length holiday special/series finale tied to the critically acclaimed but short-lived NBC sitcom Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist.
Then there’s Ray Donovan: The Movie, another epilogue to a suddenly canceled series — this time, the long-running drama starring Liev Schreiber. Fans demanded a neater conclusion to the story after Showtime abruptly canceled the show in 2020 before the planned eighth and final season was filmed.
Given the high-touch emotions around this cancellation and the joy many Ray Donovan fans experienced finally getting some closure, the gravitas of this TV film compared to the three comedies it’s competing against might have clinched the race. But it’s also up against The Survivor, a Holocaust drama and the only contender initially developed for a theatrical release. Directed by Barry Levinson, The Survivor premiered in 2021 at Toronto, and star Ben Foster was even briefly in the Oscar conversation.
The Survivor‘s inclusion here highlights the arbitrariness of restrictions surrounding awards eligibilities. The film was purchased by HBO and has aired on the cable network as well as the HBO Max streaming service, thus it is “Emmy-qualified.” Yet the only functional difference between this film and, say, Netflix’s The Power of the Dog, another drama directed by a respected auteur that most viewers streamed, is the latter’s brief, Oscar-qualifying theatrical run. Netflix has racked up numerous Oscar nominations in the past few years, but when it comes to brand and influence, HBO is still arguably pickier and more “prestigious” than the populist streamer. HBO still falls prey to antiquated rules and attitudes, while memorable HBO procurements like The Survivor or even 2018’s The Tale and 2019’s Bad Education lose the opportunity for more widespread publicity via the film awards machine.
The dissonance between this year’s goofy-sweet options and the more grounded, prestige fare is not the first cause for questions about lack of consistency between media classifications, either. Just last year, Uncle Frank and Sylvie’s Love, which both premiered at Sundance and ended up on Prime Video, scored TV movie Emmy nominations alongside more traditional TV movie stock like the Lifetime biopic Robin Roberts Presents: Mahalia and Netflix’s exuberant Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square. In the meantime, 2016’s Oscar-winning documentary O.J.: Made in America was produced for ESPN’s 30 for 30 series and was released as a five-part miniseries on ABC and ESPN. Guidelines put in place in 2017 make multipart productions and limited series like that no longer eligible for Oscar consideration, which only goes to show that rules and the loopholes and technicalities they abide are just as fluid as industry trends themselves.
Just seven years ago, I remember feeling outraged that Cary Joji Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation, a Netflix acquisition after a premiere at Venice, was in the Oscar conversation. That was just beyond the pale, in my opinion — films were meant for the big screen, and if they ended up directly on my TV, laptop or tablet, then it was a TV movie. Despite attempting a qualifying theatrical run to keep the doctrinaires like myself at bay, Netflix couldn’t convince the top theater chains to cooperate. When the major exhibition chains boycotted the film, Beasts of No Nation slowly disappeared from Oscar chatter (but succeeded in scoring BAFTA, Golden Globe and Spirit Award noms).
I sometimes feel guilty about my obstinacy on this, as logistical convenience combined with the pandemic and a growing mistrust of artistic gatekeeping has turned me into a fan of democratized entertainment. I still think shortform versus longform (feature-length versus multipart series) is my personal dividing line between what constitutes “film” and “television,” but I suspect it will take more finessing and controversy for Emmy voters to figure out what “TV movie” even means in the 2020s.
This story first appeared in the Aug. 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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