Of all the surprise Emmy nominations and snubs this past week, one nomination in particular stood out. The docuseries O.J.: Made in America was nominated for six Emmys, including exceptional merit in documentary filmmaking. But how is it up for tv’s greatest honors, when less than five months ago, it won the Oscar for best documentary feature?
This isn’t a question about whether Made in America deserved an Oscar or an Emmy. It’s whether it deserves both. While the six part, seven-and-a-half hour long series mostly viewed on ESPN as part of their 30 for 30 series film, the film was still eligible for the Oscars.
So how do we decide whether something is a film or a television show? Is it the time length? Whether it's serial and segmented? What platform most audiences will view it on? According to the Academy Awards rules, for any film to be eligible for the documentary category it must screened in at least two cities, for at least 4 times a day for two weeks. So the film did exactly that: screened in New York and Los Angeles for two weeks. But because of the docuseries’ extended length, the Academy allowed ESPN to screen it only twice a day. Similar tactics were used by Netflix a year earlier, which briefly screening Beast of No Nation in theaters, in its attempt to qualify for the Oscars.
This docuseries raises the question: does the production itself get to determine what kind of category it wants to be in, or should it still be determined by where its audience would primary view it? Even this is thrown into question by the rise of Netflix, which has developed award-winning films and television shows for its platforms. Yet as a response to Made in America’s win, the Academy has since changed its rules for documentaries, deeming “multi-part or limited series” in eligible for the award. The change seems to be a direct response to Made in America’s win this past award season.
This is also not the only show this year to blur those lines this season. Netflix’s Black Mirror episode “San Junipero” was nominated for best television movie. The episode is, at 90 minutes, at theatrical film length, and Black Mirror is structured as an anthology of individual stories, not a serial. However, while its story is unconnected to a larger storyline, its nomination suggests that it can be separated from its television show and considered a stand alone movie.
Additionally, Made in America’s inclusion in the Oscars raised many questions about whether the series had an advantage over other nominated films because it had such a long air time, and was able to have a more in depth look at this complex subject. To some, it is representative of ingenious marketing tactics, but its inclusion at both award shows gives it an unequal advantage over other its competitors.
Both a docuseries and a feature film, Made in America simply selected the category it wanted based on which was more convenient for it to win, an advantage not afford to traditional films and series. And by competing in two of the most important award ceremonies, during two separate award cycles, it minimizes the exposure that might have been paid to its competitors who fit in traditional model for the category. While no doubt a worthy film, Made in America must cause us to reconsider how we classify the differences between film and television shows, in an age where experimentation and non-traditional projects are proliferating.