Should the Emmys Disqualify Oscar-Nominated Documentaries?


Films aren’t typically in the running for an EGOT — that acronym for someone who manages to win the big four entertainment awards: Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony. But documentaries are on their way toward such an achievement. Nonfiction films have their own Oscar category, they also have a number of Emmy categories, via the Primetime categories as well as the separate Documentary & News division. They can also win Grammys, as proven this year with the award for Best Compilation Soundtrack for Visual Media going to Dave Grohl’s Sound City (fellow recording studio doc Muscle Shoals was another nominee this year). Perhaps if Sam Green’s live documentary concept influences other filmmakers, features adapted to the stage could also potentially be eligible for a Tony.

But a film winning all these awards, meant for distinctly different art forms, would be pretty silly. Actors who win EGOTs can’t do so for the same performance copied over through the four mediums. So why do we allow for documentaries to be recognized as both theatrical and television movies?

Complaints are heavy every year regarding the rules for Oscar qualification for the documentary categories. But nobody ever makes a fuss about the Emmys. Maybe that’s because the Emmys are never so discriminative. What filmmaker would complain about being more capable of receiving awards? But there must be some who regularly make docs for TV who don’t want to have to compete with films that have also contended for the Academy Award. This year the double-dippers include The Square, The Invisible War, How to Survive a Plague and Chasing Ice, which was nominated for a Best Original Song Oscar. Others qualified for and even shortlisted for the award include The Crash Reel, Blackfish and Life According to Sam.

The interesting thing is that it’s kind of rare for one of the Oscar-nominated documentary features up for an Emmy to actually win the latter award. For instance, in 2011 Freedom Riders beat Oscar nominee Gasland for Exceptional Merit in Nonfiction Filmmaking (Gasland did win the directing award). But it’s not unheard of, so it’s not as if voters are necessarily picking the seemed underdogs. Last year’s contenders for Best Documentary in the Documentary & News division were nearly all at least represented on the Oscar shortlists. Ironically, one of the most theatrically appropriate of them, Nostalgia for the Light, was not. The winner of that award and many others was Saving Face, which had also previously picked up the Academy Award for Best Documentary, Short Subjects.

What makes the crossover between Oscars and Emmys odd is that no fiction films are able to do the same thing as documentaries. No HBO showing of a Best Picture Oscar nominee is going to lead to that movie being nominated for an Emmy. This year’s double-dippers consists primarily of films that played in theaters and then aired as episodes of PBS’s Independent Lens series, which does sometimes alter the docs for time, and that can maybe appear to make them separate works. But then there’s the Primetime nomination for The Square, which is particularly complicated because it didn’t actually air on television. It was acquired by Netflix, which is challenging the definition of TV through its series programs, but does that mean their films should count for Emmy consideration, too?

According to Pete Hammond at Deadline, The Square’s nomination has been met with protest and may in fact be the first real controversy for the leniency in Emmy rules. It would be an issue even had the doc not been an Oscar nominee due to its theatrical release, but the TV Academy is allowing it on the basis that the theatrical release was nothing more than a limited, Oscar-qualifying run rather than a true play for cinemas. It’s also not the first time Netflix has been involved in a crossover. Through its Red Envelope banner, the company co-distributed Born Into Brothels, which won both the Academy Award and the Emmy for Best Documentary. Of course, that was before Netflix began its streaming service, which turned them into a TV channel; the Emmy was for its HBO airing.

One of the latest complaints about the Oscar rules is that the motion picture Academy is actually set on curbing eligibility for documentaries trying for a nomination just by barely qualifying. The Square being up for an Emmy is more of a problem for the status of the Oscars than it is for the status of the Emmys as a recycler. If the TV Academy thinks The Square was hardly given a theatrical release, the motion picture Academy should feel the same way. But docs can’t be retroactively disqualified for Oscars after they prove to be Emmy contenders, as much as it further confuses the line between what’s considered a cinematic doc and what’s considered a doc made for TV. The motion picture Academy wants its award to be for the former, so it should prefer docs that don’t even have PBS and HBO deals.

That’s not to say that PBS’s Independent Lens and POV brands or HBO, National Geographic, A&E or any other cable outlet doesn’t help make and fund and eventually show quality, cinematic documentaries also worthy of the big screen. But they all also have a lot of less-cinematic titles each year that could be greater contenders for the Emmy if not for the Oscar-qualified films taking up slots. Wouldn’t they be okay with more of their films being recognized, which helps sell them to wider audiences? Yes, The Invisible War and How to Survive a Plague deserve piles and piles of honors each, but is an Emmy nomination going to get them that many more viewers? There are a lot of docs that aired last year that weren’t Oscar contenders and could use the push more.

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.