The Oscars May Finally Weigh in on the “What Is A Movie?” Conversation

A potential new rule would stop films from being eligible for both the Oscars and the Emmys.
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By  · Published on March 2nd, 2018

A potential new rule would stop films from being eligible for both the Oscars and the Emmys.

If it feels like the argument surrounding what defines a film as a film has been raging for decades, that’s probably because it has. The advent of digital photography started the conversation in the late 1990s, and the introduction of film producers like Netflix has only extended it. Is something like Adam Sandler’s The Ridiculous Six a movie if it never played in theaters? Is it TV if it never aired on television? Is it something else entirely?

Last year, Ezra Edelman’s tremendous ESPN documentary (don’t let him hear you call it a series) O.J.: Made in America brought the debate to a larger stage: Namely, that of the Dolby Theatre. When the 467-minute long “film” — the longest winner in Academy history —won Best Documentary Feature at the 89th Academy Awards, the debate over its medium seemed settled for good. It must be a movie, plain and simple.

But then, later that same year, Made in America won two Primetime Emmy Awards, for Directing and Editing of a Nonfiction Program. One of its competitors at the Oscars, Ava DuVernay’s 13thlost the Academy Award and then went on to win the Emmy for Outstanding Documentary Special. All of a sudden, the conversation was less than clear-cut again. If a film could go up for an Oscar and then go on to the Emmys as well, what did that mean for the quickly changing media landscape?

It appears the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been considering the same question. A new piece in The Hollywood Reporter suggests that a new rule being considered by the Academy would shut down any potential Oscar/Emmys crossover. Under this possible regulation, “awards submitters would be forced to ‘pick their pathway’ between the Oscars and the Emmys,” with any nomination at the Oscars rendering a submission at the Emmys ineligible, and vice versa.

On the one hand, a rule like this would clear up some gray areas that have existed for the Oscars for years. There are lots of odd loopholes in eligibility rules. A film needs to play for at least one week in Los Angeles in the year prior to its potential nomination, and it cannot be broadcast in a non-theatrical format before that week. But after that one week, there is no rule against something like Made in America from streaming or playing in another medium. This new regulation wouldn’t change that, but it would cut down on the number of documentary submissions, many of which take advantage of the one-week rule.

The Academy has already changed its rules once in the wake of Made in America‘s success, to ban multi-part documentaries from submission to their documentary category. That rule change came after many were frustrated that Edelman had won an Emmy for directing only a segment of what he had previously claimed was meant to be one long narrative. That shift in motive struck many as opportunistic, but who can blame Edelman for seeking further recognition when the Academy doesn’t have a dedicated documentary wingMade in America itself didn’t win an Emmy last year; the people employed in its production did. Maybe if the Academy had a Best Director of a Documentary Feature award, this issue would have been avoided.

In the end, it’s possible that the rule doesn’t even end up passing, given that higher-ups at the Academy haven’t even consulted with their counterparts at the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. If it does pass, expect the Academy’s disdain for films from producers like Netflix to cement itself even further. THR notes that one of the other primary motives for this rule would be avoiding the possibility of a Best Picture contender like Mudbound going on to be nominated at the Emmys, which heads believe would “dilute the Oscar brand.”

If that’s the biggest concern of the Academy, they need to get their priorities in order. There’s nothing to be gained from the continuing elitism that the film industry projects towards other mediums. A rising tide lifts all ships, and looking down on great works of art like Mudbound won’t be lifting the Academy any higher than it already is.

Writer and student based in New York. Ask me about my Blu-Ray copy of The Book of Henry.