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As we begin to emerge from the pandemic, the line distinguishing film and TV is blurrier than ever.
Things have been moving in this direction for years. Movie stars like Glenn Close and Kevin Spacey increasingly began doing TV series. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences started massively expanding in order to become more demographically diverse and opened its doors to people who primarily have distinguished themselves on the small screen, such as Betty White, Donald Glover and Eva Longoria. And the Sundance, Cannes, Telluride, Toronto and New York film festivals all began screening content bound for TV, like ESPN’s seven-hour and 47-minute, five-chapter documentary — or docuseries — O.J.: Made in America, which was awarded an Oscar.
But things shot to a whole different level during the pandemic. With most movie theaters closed, AMPAS allowed projects to qualify for the Oscars even if they received no theatrical release before debuting on TV. WarnerMedia chief Jason Kilar, who rose to prominence as TV streamer Hulu’s first CEO, declared war on the “exclusive theatrical window,” which had sustained theaters since the advent of television, vowing that every 2021 Warner Bros. film would be released concurrently in theaters and on HBO Max. Ted Sarandos, co-CEO and chief content officer of Netflix — one of the biggest players in the world of TV, which still gives Oscar hopefuls only token theatrical releases — was elected chairman of the board of trustees of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. The Spirit Awards — presented by Film Independent — joined the Gotham Awards in adding TV categories to its ceremony. The Oscars telecast was produced by Steven Soderbergh, who promoted it by saying it would be just like a movie. And then Discovery, the TV behemoth, merged with Warner Bros.’ aforementioned parent company, just days before Amazon bought MGM, sparking speculation that James Bond spinoffs might soon be coming to Amazon Prime.
Emmy season has further confused matters. Back in May, the TV Academy announced that it no longer would consider content that had been nominated for an Oscar — in other words, that we no longer will see projects like the documentary feature Free Solo winning an Oscar and then an Emmy. It makes sense that the TV Academy wouldn’t want the Oscars’ leftovers — but oddly, films that unsuccessfully pursued Oscar nominations are still Emmy eligible. Go figure!
Content that was created specifically for television also is increasingly cinematic. The leading contenders for the TV movie Emmy, Sylvie’s Love and Uncle Frank, were created for the big screen and premiered at Sundance; 2020’s winner in the category, Bad Education, premiered at Toronto. (So much for the made-for-television “movie of the week” having a shot in that category.) And then there’s the new limited or anthology series category, which this year includes vehicles for movie stars Kate Winslet, Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant (Grant has said of The Undoing, “I regard it as a film”); multipart projects directed in their entirety by Oscar winners (Steve McQueen and Barry Jenkins) and directors (Susanne Bier) of Oscar-winning films; a series from comic turned movie behemoth Marvel (which also is behind top drama series contenders The Mandalorian and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, the latter of which Marvel chief Kevin Feige called “a Marvel Studios movie played out over six episodes”); and, yes, a show inspired by and named after the 1996 film Fargo.
McQueen’s Small Axe is the most interesting case. A masterful five-part opus about London’s West Indian community, with installments ranging from 64 to 128 minutes, two of its parts were invited to premiere at the Cannes Film Festival (but didn’t because the fest was canceled), and three of its parts premiered at the New York Film Festival before all of them hit BBC One in the U.K. and Amazon in the U.S. It has been treated as a single film (named best of the year by the L.A. Film Critics), five separate films (some included on critics’ year-end top 10 lists, like David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return in 2017) and a limited series (with a Critics Choice nom, plus a win for John Boyega). McQueen’s own description of Small Axe hasn’t really clarified matters. “These films were made for television,” he told Rolling Stone, which sounds like an argument for them to be considered separately in the best TV movie category. He went on, “They can be projected in cinema, but … from the beginning, I wanted these films to be accessible to my mother, I wanted them on the BBC. It was always going to be on TV, the five films. But at the same time, they premiered in the cinema. There’s no absolutes anymore.”
With TV networks trying to lure COVID-cautious Emmy voters out of their homes by screening content at drive-in movie theaters, and with the Film Academy, as of April, forbidding hard-copy screeners in order to steer Oscar voters to the members-only streaming app on their TV, the future is looking, well, confusing. Stay tuned.
This story first appeared in a June standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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